DONETSK, Ukraine -- Days after a controversial vote on independence here in eastern Ukraine, the courtyard near the seized regional administration building in this industrial city, recently home to loud rallies, was quiet. It was a bright and hot spring day, and several pensioners milled around, eating chocolate ice cream pops.
But when Denis Pushilin, the leader of the separatists in Ukraine's Donetsk region, emerged from the building, a crowd of onlookers formed. An entourage of about 20 people moved with Pushilin, including a handful of men in camouflage, carrying rifles. When the entourage stepped into the leafy promenade area on Pushkin Street, Pushilin was briefly swarmed.
"Denis, what should I do about my credit in the banks?" one man asked, about his debts. Pushilin stopped walking.
"Posmotrim," he said, using the Russian expression for "we'll see."
The entourage walked on.
RESPECTED BY MOSCOW, THOUGH NOT ANNEXED
The pro-Russian, breakaway republic that declared itself a sovereign state after a controversial weekend referendum is this week moving ahead with setting up a parallel government in eastern Ukraine.
But the so-called "People's Republic of Donetsk" is still awaiting a response from Moscow after it formally asked to be annexed by Russia.
So Pushilin is biding his time, and telling curious supporters -- like the man with the bank debt -- to do the same. Two months ago, after Russia annexed the southern peninsula of Crimea, Ukrainian banks operating inside Crimea shuttered their branches. However, there is little sign that the ordeal in eastern Ukraine will be resolved neatly -- or soon.
In a statement Monday the Kremlin said that it respects the will of the people in Donetsk and the neighboring region of Luhansk, where a referendum was also held Sunday. During a TV interview this week, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, elaborated but did little to clarify, calling the request for annexation "hypothetical."
Its request for accession to Russia unanswered, the breakaway republic is in the meantime writing a constitution and moving ahead with other official business, including planning for fall elections to an alternate parliament in eastern Urkaine.
Andrei Purgin, a high-ranking member of the separatists, said this week that the constitution, drafted by committee, is so fresh that he has yet to review or sign off on it. "It will be a model for Luhansk and Kharkiv," Purgin said, referring to other states in eastern Ukraine home to pro-Russian movements. (The Kharkiv region did not hold a referendum Sunday, announcing beforehand that it was not ready.) But while work on building a political structure goes on, a standoff with Ukraine's new government in Kiev is growing tenser by the day.
Separatists in Donetsk have given the Kiev government a deadline of Thursday evening to remove government troops entirely from region. Tuesday, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, seven servicemen were killed by separatists in a roadside ambush near the city of Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region.
During a brief interview on Wednesday, Purgin said he was not involved personally in organizing the attack, though he said he thought it was necessary. A man standing next to Purgin agreed.
"We have no choice but to kill them before they kill us," said Semyon Kuzmenko, 28, referring to Ukrainian troops.
NBC News intersected the men Wednesday, as they walked near the Donetsk administration building.
FRUSTRATION IN DONETSK
The turmoil, locals report, appears to threaten the local economy.
Nova Poshta, one of Ukraine's largest private shipping companies, announced on its website it would raise prices Thursday for deliveries to and from Donetsk and Luhansk. A company representative confirmed to NBC News via telephone that the price increase reflects the political volatility in the region. Two months ago, the company suspended deliveries to Crimea.
Denis, 25, a manager at a Nova Poshta package center in downtown Donetsk, says he has seen fewer items shipped from his location since the February revolution that toppled Ukraine's Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich.
Denis voted "yes" in Sunday's referendum on regional independence. "At this point I would prefer to be part of Russia," he said during an interview outside his store.
Elsewhere, at a Donetsk butcher shop late on Wednesday afternoon, Anatoliy, 40, complained he didn't have enough money to take his two daughters, 6 and 14, on vacation this summer.
"Just look at how people are living in Russia," he said, noting that he has encountered Russian tourists who live on teachers' salaries taking two-week vacations in southern Ukraine.
Anatoliy says his work as a contractor has dried up since the February revolution. After an ongoing construction job at a local office building is finished, he says, he is unsure what he will do. Lately he spends slow afternoons behind the counter at the butcher shop where his wife works. He wears an apron and chops frozen cow's liver before walking her home in the evening. He isn't paid, but he likes to keep her company.
"I'm protecting my wife from provocateurs," he explained, referring to pro-Ukrianian activists.
First published May 15 2014, 11:25 AM