A gang of men – one wielding a chainsaw – has attacked a pro-Kyiv rail blockade in eastern Ukraine. More than 35 people were arrested at Kryvyi Torets. They clashed with pro-Kyiv nationalists on the barricades. One man was injured.
The blockade has been set up to prevent trade between government-controlled territories in Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, which are separatist-held areas. It has been in place since January.
Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko told local media on Wednesday that separatists have taken over the management of 40 factories and coal mines, in retaliation for the pro-Kyiv blockade.
What the separatists are saying
In a joint statement, leaders of the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) say the blockade has caused many businesses to suffer in separatist-held areas.
They say it goes against the spirit of the 2015 Minsk agreement.
“We are forced to announce that, if by midnight on Wednesday, the blockade is not taken down, we will introduce a system of external management on all companies registered in Ukraine’s jurisdiction in the DNR and LNR,” said leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky.
They also said they would stop selling coal to Ukraine and send future coal supplies to Russia or elsewhere.
What Kyiv is saying
Ukraine’s deputy minister for issues relating to rebel territories, Heorhiy Tukia, dismissed the separatists’ threat to seize the companies.
“It is an attempt to scare us,” Tukia said in a statement published online. The separatists do not have the ability to manage large industrial companies, he added.
The Ukrainian goverment has criticised the blockade, saying it hurts ordinary Ukrainians in the rest of the country by cutting off coal shipments from separatist regions.
Why have the separatists said this?
For the past month, a group of Ukrainian lawmakers and veterans have blocked some rail traffic in eastern regions.
The action is opposed by the government as it prevents coal produced in separatist territory from reaching Ukrainian power plants and the steel industry.
Their exports are a cornerstone of the economy.
Ukraine’s largest steel producer, Metinvest, is one of the biggest employers in eastern regions on both sides of the front line. The blockade has already forced the company to halt production temporarily at one of its mills and several coal mines.
Metinvest says it would be “unacceptable” for separatist officials to take control of its businesses in rebel-held areas. This would force it to halt the affected operations.
“In those specific businesses alone, almost 20,000 would face redundancy. This would inevitably be followed by the dismissal of people at related businesses and contractors which would lead to social upheaval,” Metinvest said.
In government-controlled areas, the economic impact of the blockade is already being felt. The government has warned that low coal stocks in power plants could lead to rolling blackouts.
The central bank says it could bring in emergency measures if the supply squeeze hits steelmakers’ export revenue. Ukraine stands to lose up to $2 billion in foreign currency revenue if the blockade continues, according to President Petro Poroshenko.