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Ukraine is 'unstable'

Christiane Kaess (DLF) / ecsApril 24, 2014

Klaus Zillikens, the head of the OSCE mission in eastern Ukraine, explains that though life appears to go on as normal in the Donetsk region, tensions there are running high - particularly in the city of Slovyansk.

A Ukrainian special forces tank takes position at a bend in the road in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk

DW: You have been monitoring the situation in Donetsk for the OSCE mission for 10 days. How tense is the situation on the ground?

Klaus Zillikens: The situation is very unstable. It is very difficult to describe the trends, but we definitely aren't seeing a trend where you could say there is increasing stability and that a de-escalation is taking place.

Is the Kyiv interim government still in control in Donetsk at the moment?

Yes. You have to imagine that groups of activists have taken on various roles; some of them have occupied administrative buildings. My feeling is that in most places there is a dialogue between the government in Kyiv and its representatives here - the legitimate mayors and their apparatus, for example in the town administrations - and the activists, in order to keep the town administrations functional, which is very important. But there is one exception, and that is the city of Sloviansk.

But overall, public life is taking its usual course, you might say?

Well, public life goes on, there is a sense of normality that is working and that is visible. But the ice, so to speak, has gotten very thin and people are very tense.

Klaus Zillikens (DW/ Karina Oganessian)
Klaus Zillikens is currently in eastern Ukrainian Donetsk for the OSCEImage: DW/K. Oganessian

Have you seen any traces of Russian military on the ground?

That's a difficult question for me. We're here in order to widen the fact basis which not only the OSCE itself but also all of its member states base their positions and negotiation strategies on. But in light of the fact that we are collecting facts and describing what we see or don't see, I think you'll understand if I say the following: if we had 100 percent certain proof [of Russian military forces], I would know.

And can you see the influence of the nationalistic right sector forces that the pro-Russian forces have been talking about?

There are two elements here. On the one hand this is about the actions of activists in various cities, who have very openly seized buildings. And that takes different forms, some of them militant, some of them less militant. The buildings are town administrations, police buildings, that sort of thing.

And then there is a special situation in Sloviansk, where the entire city has been occupied. And it's not a small town, it has a population of almost 300,000. It's a whole city, that is basically under the control of the self-proclaimed mayor Ponomaryov - that is the situation. And when I say 'that is the situation' then I'm also saying which factors here are less important. That situation is having an effect on the circumstances in eastern Ukraine, particularly in the Donetsk area.

How open are people with the OSCE?

I think we are managing more and more successfully to create trust, because people understand that we are neutral, that we collect facts and that we always give priority to what the people need. We listen. And I think I can say that at the beginning of the mission it wasn't very easy - and you can still feel that sometimes - because people mistook us for a Western organization, confused us with NATO and so on.

But now we can see that people are willing to listen to us, to talk to us, also among the activists. We feel relatively safe when we are travelling through the region talking to people, which is what we do on a daily basis on many of the field missions.

Were you able to discern a preference among the people you spoke to in eastern Ukraine, as to whether they lean more toward Russia or the West?

I think the majority of Eastern Ukrainians feel Ukrainian. There are nuances, and it's probably not wrong to mention the word 'decentralization.' But whether that's the word that most of the eastern Ukrainians would use - I don't know.

Do you think it makes sense to divide the activists into pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian voices?

The activists come in many shades. There are also a lot of very radical voices, such as in Sloviansk. Ponomaryov [the self-appointed mayor of Sloviansk] is probably one of the more radical ones. And in between there is a large spectrum - that's one thing to take into consideration.

The other thing is how the population is behaving. I think that most of the Ukrainians here in the East, just as elsewhere in Ukraine, urgently want the situation to normalize. They want to continue their life, they want the economic crisis to end, they want to have prospects. And that's the primary concern for most people.

Klaus Zillikens is the head of the OSCE monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine, which has been in the Donetsk region for four weeks. He also worked for the German Foreign Ministry in Ukraine for many years.