An inline skater whizzes by, while children frolic on a playground just 50 meters from stacks of sandbags and groups of heavily armed men in green fatigues, who guard the entrance to the mayor’s office in Sloviansk, Ukraine. A white 4×4 vehicle is parked right by the playground—its passengers are inside the building, talking to the town’s self-proclaimed “people’s mayor,” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov.
On Monday afternoon, the town that has emerged as an unlikely center of the anti-Kiev separatist movement looked surreal, but hardly dramatic. The scene was similar to those near dozens of government buildings across the region that have been taken over by pro-Russian activists, backed by heavily armed men with no insignia, over the past two weeks. The separatists want to hold a referendum on whether Ukraine’s coal-rich Donbass region should remain a part of the country. But having successfully occupied government buildings, they find themselves in a stalemate, unable to rally significant numbers of locals behind them or to persuade Russia to annex the region, as it did with Crimea in March.
Asked at a press conference on Monday whether Russia had answered his plea to send troops into eastern Ukraine, Ponomaryov answered curtly: “No.” He was wearing his trademark black baseball cap and arrived in the company of two men carrying machine guns and clad in black from head to toe.
That was a departure from the standard style of the members of the Donbass militia, as the armed men with no insignia, who spearheaded the insurrection in eastern Ukraine, prefer to be called. They usually opt for green camouflage, which is why they’ve become known in Ukraine as “the little green men,” as if they hailed from Mars.
How alien they are is in fact a matter of dispute. The Ukrainian authorities claim the green men’s force includes members of elite Russian special forces units. Ponomaryov denied there are any active Russian servicemen among his troops: “I am an ex-serviceman, so I called on other ex-military and they came to our rescue—not only from Russia, but also from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Moldova.”
Little is known about Ponomaryov, who proclaimed himself mayor after leading a group of green men in an assault on the Sloviansk mayor’s office on April 14. He has never been involved in local politics. Sloviansk residents shrug when asked whether they’ve heard of him before. He comes across as a person with little political experience and as an inexperienced public speaker. “People who come to power in an armed overthrow of the government are criminals,” he said, meaning the new government that took over Ukraine after last winter’s Kiev protests, rather than himself. The previous mayor of Sloviansk, Nellie Shtepa, is being held inside the mayor’s office. The Ukrainian authorities regard her as a detainee. Ponomaryov said she is being protected from Ukrainian law enforcement bodies.
He kept referring to the new Ukrainian authorities as “fascists.” “We have people on our side, but there is only a bunch of scoundrels and pederasts on the side of the fascists,” Ponomaryov said. He also made it clear to journalists that he was displeased with the coverage Sloviansk was receiving in the global media: “You are always looking for some crap, but you won’t find it here. We are against Nazis, we are against fascists. If you support them, then you are our enemies.”
Earlier his press secretary, Stella Khorosheva, refused to comment on Ponomaryov’s background. Before the press conference, Khorosheva collected passport details of all the reporters present. In her opening remarks, she said, “I want to warn all journalists that we now have your passport details, so we can trace what you are reporting.”
Sloviansk city council deputy Vera Kubrichenko also appeared on stage to give a stern warning to the journalists: “We have information that many of you are lying to the whole world. You have been listed and if we notice something, you will have no right to visit our town. We don’t need traitors here.”
She then referred to a report by an unspecified Japanese channel, which, she said, gave false information about a shootout at a checkpoint near Sloviansk that took place in the early hours of Sunday. Three members of the separatists’ self-defense force died in the incident, which they blamed on a Ukrainian ultranationalist group, the Right Sector. To prove that, the separatists presented the shells of two completely burnt-out cars and—allegedly retrieved from them—stacks of U.S. dollars and a business card of Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh. Both the banknotes and the card appeared intact, despite the fire.
The red and black business card instantly became one of the day’s trending memes on Twitter, with people joking about Yarosh’s card being found at the sites of all known historical murders and catastrophes. These jokes were taken badly by supporters of the separatists.
The coffins of the three victims of the checkpoint shootout were brought to the main square in Sloviansk on Tuesday for a church service. A crowd of a few hundred gathered, shouting “Glory to Donbass’s Heroes!” But it was not bigger than those at recent rallies against separatism and for a united Ukraine that took place in nearby towns, where pro-Russian militants also hold government buildings.