The motley crew roaming Donetsk's corridors of power

The motley crew roaming Donetsk's corridors of power

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - The lifts don't work, a smell of rubbish fills the air, propaganda posters line the stairways and a cardboard box of Molotov cocktails is readied at the main entrance ?- this is how the new "corridors of power" look in eastern Ukraine's troubled Donetsk region.

The vast and fortress-like regional administration building was overrun by pro-Russian protesters in early April and is now barricaded with tyres and barbed wire, adorned with home-made banners calling to "Stop Fascism!"

It has become the headquarters of the "Donetsk People's Republic", which claimed independent status after Sunday's hotly disputed referendum on self-rule and has now asked to join the Russian Federation.

Inside the building there are hundreds of volunteers, from masked and sometimes armed security guards, to cleaners, caterers, secretaries and medics.

Kiev described the May 11 ballot in both Donetsk and Lugansk, another separatist bastion in Ukraine's eastern industrial belt, as an illegitimate farce.

But in the rhetorical battle of claim and counter-claim the people in Donetsk say it is the Kiev government that is illegitimate, coming to power on the back of popular protests in the capital's Independence Square that led to the toppling of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.

- 'Not like humans' -

With Ukrainian troops fighting to oust rebels from strongholds around the mainly Russian-speaking eastern region and dozens killed on both sides, locals have become increasingly angered.

They say they are convinced they are fighting fascism.

The Ukrainian forces "are human beings just like we are," said a former car mechanic who volunteers doing building security.

"But they kill unarmed people, women and children, they burn them. It's as if they are not like humans."

Behind the balaclava was a family man in his 30s, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, but said he was fed up with the daily struggle to earn a meagre wage and complained of rising prices for food, gas and electricity.

"I want our standard of living to get better, at least to be equal to Russia, so we can live a normal life."

To enter the administration building, people have to pass through a number of guard posts, where rag-tag groups of men ask to see their papers or make a cursory search of their bags.

A cardboard box near the entrance on the ground floor is loaded with Molotov cocktails, ready in case of attack, although it looked somewhat abandoned with litter strewn nearby.

- 'Civic duty' -

A few metres (yards) away, a 30-year-old woman in a white coat dispensed pills for people with headaches and colds at a rickety desk covered with shoe boxes full of tablets and medicines.

She said she was filled with "pride, joy and happiness" for the referendum, but pulled her surgical mask on to her face to be interviewed, unwilling to be identified.

"We are not paid. We are here because we ought to be here," she said. "This is our civic duty."

More than 650 foreign journalists have been accredited at the "press centre" on the seventh floor, a cluttered office where the phone rings constantly but information is in short supply.

Claudia Kulbatskaya said she used to be an estate agent, selling and renting properties, but has turned her skills to the media.

After putting on her makeup and pinning the flag of the "People's Republic" to the wall, she agreed to be interviewed.

She said her office keeps an eye on what people are writing, and that those who "tell lies" will have their accreditation taken away.

"We have our own security services and they will be sent home," she said.

"One person can see it from one perspective and another can see it from another perspective.

"But I can say that I'm on the side of the truth, I can say that for sure... although each person understands the truth in their own way."

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