The shrill wails of sirens resounded throughout Ukraine’s eastern rust belt on May 20, a rallying call for miners and steelworkers to unite against separatists seeking to take over their region.
Industrial workers have remained largely on the sidelines of the smoldering conflict in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militants have been occupying key government buildings in a dozen cities.
But with separatists increasingly disrupting business, industrial bosses and trade unions are urging workers to rise against the insurgency. Coal and steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, who has an estimated 300,000 employees on his payroll, this week called on his employees to stage peaceful protests at their workplaces.
“The rally will start tomorrow at noon with a siren ringing at all industrial businesses of the Donbass in support of peace and against bloodshed,” he said in a televised address late on May 19, adding that sirens would ring daily at noon “until peace is established.”
In his sharpest condemnation of the separatists so far, Akhmetov said people were “tired of living in fear and terror” and warned that the violent tactics used by separatists would spell disaster for the economy and lead to “genocide” of eastern Ukraine.
“I am calling on everyone to unite in our fight,” he wrote. “For Donbass without weapons! for Donbass without masks!”
Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man with a fortune estimated at more than $11 billion, wields huge clout in the region and his calls are likely to be heeded.
Last week, Akhmetov’s Metinvest company, one of the most powerful in the region, dispatched miners and metalworkers to the city of Mariupol to restore order after bloody clashes between Ukrainian troops and rebels.
The workers helped dislodge pro-Russian insurgents from the city hall and clear away barricades surrounding the building.
They now patrol the city alongside police.
Far from all Donbass miners pledge blind allegiance to Akhmetov. Many say they feel a world apart from Kyiv and its pro-European protests that triggered the political crisis in Ukraine last fall.
There’s lingering distrust for Kyiv authorities old and new, as well as resentment for what many here perceive as ingratitude toward Ukraine’s breadwinning east.
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