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In Ukraine, chaos meets self-declared independence

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FILE – In this Wednesday May 14, 2014 file photo Denis Pushilin, leader of the insurgency that has declared an independent “people’s republik” in the Donetsk region, speaks at a news conference in eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk. The Donetsk People’s Republic is starting to smell. Rotting garbage is piling up in the hallways of the government office building seized by separatists in eastern Ukraine. Telephones ripped from the walls are piled atop broken furniture and mounds of old files. The stench of sweat and stale cigarettes is everywhere. The guards, slouching men with pistols shoved in their pockets or flapping loosely in holsters, look increasingly bored. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)

FILE – In this Wednesday May 14, 2014 file photo Denis Pushilin, leader of the insurgency that has declared an independent “people’s republik” in the Donetsk region, speaks at a news conference in eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk. The Donetsk People’s Republic is starting to smell. Rotting garbage is piling up in the hallways of the government office building seized by separatists in eastern Ukraine. Telephones ripped from the walls are piled atop broken furniture and mounds of old files. The stench of sweat and stale cigarettes is everywhere. The guards, slouching men with pistols shoved in their pockets or flapping loosely in holsters, look increasingly bored. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)

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DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — The Donetsk People’s Republic is starting to smell.

Rotting garbage is piling up in the hallways of the government office building seized by separatists in eastern Ukraine. Telephones ripped from the walls are piled atop broken furniture and mounds of old files. The stench of sweat and stale cigarettes is everywhere. The guards, slouching men with pistols shoved in their pockets or flapping loosely in holsters, look increasingly bored.

It’s been six weeks since they took over the building, a week since they declared independence from Ukraine. But the authority of the alleged nation barely extends beyond their ten-story office tower and a few heavily armed checkpoints on roads leading into this industrial city 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Russian border.

In the streets of Donetsk, the separatist leaders and their followers are increasingly derided as a collection of heavily armed, barely employed misfits. Outside of the rebels’ headquarters, it can be difficult to find anyone who agrees with their calls to secede from Ukraine and link this part of the country — with its generations of ethnic and linguistic ties to Russia — to Moscow.

“All this shouting about us being a republic. What kind of a republic is this?” asked Leonid Krivonos, a 75-year-old retired miner, angry that the separatists are refusing to allow Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election. “The young ones still have a future to look forward to, and they risk seeing that all destroyed.”

The interim Ukrainian government hopes Sunday’s presidential election will unite the country behind a new leader, but separatists across the east have vowed to block the vote.

Donetsk’s separatist leader waves away any prospect of an election. After all, insists Denis Pushilin, chairman of the self-declared Supreme Council, Donetsk is not in Ukraine anymore.

“How can we hold an election of a neighboring country on our territory?” said the 32-year-old Pushilin, smiling in an interview in his tenth-floor office.

A few feet away, his bodyguard fell asleep in a desk chair, one hand clutching a holstered pistol.

If the tide of opinion has appeared to turn against the separatists recently — with Russian President Vladimir Putin supporting Ukraine’s presidential election and billionaire industrialist Rinat Akhmetov calling on his 300,000 employees to stand up to the mutineers — Pushilin is unconcerned.

His movement’s support is vast, he says, extending north from the Azov Sea for hundreds of miles (kilometers) in eastern Ukraine.

“It’s people from different towns, from different political views, from different political organizations,” he said.

His skin is pale from weeks spent living and working in the building. He is exhausted. But Pushilin has a talent for words. Until recently, he was a salesman for a pyramid scheme that attracted millions of Russians and Ukrainians (“Financial pyramids are not forbidden and are not illegal,” he said, explaining his involvement). Talking points spill from him effortlessly.

“The junta in Kiev has destroyed Ukraine as a state,” he said, insisting his government is supported “by all the people who live in the region.”

Polling — and residents — say otherwise.

An April survey by the nonpartisan Washington-based Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of Ukrainians want the country to maintain its current borders, with the number falling to 70 percent in eastern Ukraine. The percentage drops more among Russian-speakers but even 58 percent of them want the country to remain unified.

“Ukraine is one country, and should stay as one country,” said a retired high school teacher who asked to only be identified by her first name, Lyudmila, fearful of criticizing the separatists.

She wants unity even though, like many people in the east, she detests the interim government in Kiev.

“Our natural disaster,” she called them on a recent morning, working in a flower-filled garden behind her apartment building.

Distrusting politicians is second nature to many Ukrainians, frustrated by years of crippling corruption. But those suspicions are magnified in the east, where people see a central government in Kiev dominated by Ukrainian-speaking westerners who rose to power after protests prompted President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia in February.

Ukraine’s complex divisions emerged from centuries of war and politics, but today’s divide largely plays out between a Ukrainian-speaking west, where most people are eager to join the European Union, and a Russian-speaking east rooted in ties to the Soviet Union and Russia.

The divide was magnified a few days after Yanukovych fled, when Putin deployed soldiers in Crimea, Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Black Sea peninsula. He then annexed Crimea in March.

Soon, separatist uprisings were flaring across the Russian-speaking east, with mutineers believing they, too, would be annexed by Russia.

Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine with nearly 1 million

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