Employees of Ilyich Iron & Steel Works of Mariupol OJSC walk past rail freight wagons outside the steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Monday, March 24, 2014.
Can money buy peace in Ukraine?
Thousands of Ukrainian steelworkers have hit the streets in eastern Ukraine, working to bring normalcy back to towns that have been overrun by pro-Russian separatists.
The steelworkers are employees of Metinvest and DTEK, two companies that are run by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, the New York Times reports. There are nearly 20,000 of them — far outnumbering the militants, who haven't been seen in days.
Akhmetov, it seems, has decided it is time to protect his assets in the region. And as a result, the steelworkers are rooting out the militants, taking down barricades and generally keeping the peace — all without firing a shot.
Collectively, the steelworkers amount to a "huge army," according to Yuri Zinchenko, the man who oversees Mariupol's metal plant, which is managed by Metinvest.
"We understand clearly that if any decisions are made outside the law the first consequences would be the closure of all markets we have today for our products," Zinchenko reportedly said. "Not only the leadership and the owner of the company realize this, but I want to stress that today workers realize this as well, and today in the SCM Group which belongs to our shareholder Rinat Akhmetov, there are over 300,000 staff, plus their families, so it's a huge army," he added.
Akhmetov himself laid out his plan in a YouTube video posted on Wednesday. In it, he calls for the kind of federalism trumpeted by the Russian foreign minister — one that gives power to the states versus the central government in Kiev. That would result in a largely decentralized power structure in Ukraine that would open up the eastern regions to Russian meddling. But it could, with Akhmetov's support, lead to an end to the worst post-Cold War crisis between east and west.
They're taking down the barricades in #Mariupol, #Ukraine. Civil war over. For now. pic.twitter.com/0XVX5sELDu
— Richard Engel (@RichardEngel) May 13, 2014
He is hoping, he said in a statement published by his company, to avoid "economic downturn, unemployment and poverty."
"The only right way, in my view, is to amend the Constitution and decentralize government," Akhmetov said. "It is when Kiev gives authority to the regions. It is when regional governments are not appointed but elected. And it is when local authorities are responsible to the people in the present and future."
The New York Times reports the workers, who have fanned out across Mariupol, say they are “outside politics” and just trying to establish order.
“We have to bring order to the city,” Aleksei Gorlov, a steelworker, said of his motivation for joining one of the unpaid and voluntary patrols that were organized at the Ilyich Steel Works. Groups of six or so steel workers accompany two policemen on the patrols. “People organize themselves,” he said. “In times of troubles, that is how it works.”
Residents, so far, seem accepting of the new force, with one woman telling Ukraine News One, "At least it is better than what we had here on May 9th, 10th," referring to the violence that broke out over the weekend. "It is better than looting."
As for Akhmetov, the Ukrainian businessman just wants the region to be "happy."
"We live in distress. And I want Donbass" — a region that includes Donetsk — "and every resident of our region to be happy," he said, adding that he believes a happy Donbass is a Donbass that is a part of a united Ukraine.
"Happiness — is when we are respected. Respect our history, respect our daughter, respect our language, respect our holidays, respect our traditions and respect our ambitions," he said. "Our ambitions for a better life."