'Komendant' Sokolov leads self-rule in Ukraine region

27th January 2014, Comments 0 comments

The corridors of Lviv's occupied regional government headquarters are filled with activists, a field kitchen has been set up outside and the self-styled "komendant" is giving instructions to his 300 militants.

Despite his adopted military moniker and the improvised barricades of tyres and snow-filled sacks set up outside the building in the western Ukrainian city, 47-year-old Andriy Sokolov is no revolutionary hothead.

The de facto leader of the first regional rebellion in post-Soviet Ukraine -- for which in theory he faces up to 15 years in prison -- is in fact a friendly former train mechanic turned full-time trade unionist in jeans and a sweater.

"There is no way back for me. It's either prison or victory," Sokolov told AFP, adding that Lviv should serve as a "model" for other regions fed up with President Viktor Yanukovych.

Lviv has set up a "People's Parliament", which includes ordinary protesters and opposition lawmakers, as well as a new "Executive Committee" -- a title that echoes those used following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

This experiment in self-rule is unprecedented for post-Soviet Ukraine and is spreading to other regions touched by mass protests against Yanukovych-appointed governors.

In the space of just a week, half the country has effectively slipped from central control.

On its first day of work, Lviv's "Executive Committee" issued an appeal for assistance to Europe and the international community.

"We request help for the Ukrainian people to defend a democratic government and prevent a dictatorship," said Petr Kolodiy, the head of the committee and regional parliament speaker.

The committee also passed a decree setting up a "municipal police" and passed a motion banning the army or security forces from being deployed "in order to prevent citizens from holding peaceful demonstrations" in the region.

It also decreed that the local corps of "Berkut" special forces -- widely criticised for heavy-handed tactics during the protests -- should be expelled from Lviv.

The committee declared that local hospitals would help treat anyone injured in clashes with police wherever they come from in Ukraine.

Whether these decisions are actually implemented is a moot point as the ousted governor Oleg Salo says he is still in charge and running the region "by phone" from an undisclosed location -- rumoured to be a military base.

"Only the president can resolve this situation," said Salo, who along with other officials from his administration has been trying unsuccessfully to access the blockaded building on a daily basis since it was captured last week.

Salo warns the occupiers will be prosecuted.

The governor initially signed a letter of resignation but later said he had been pressured to do so by the protesters and withdrew it.

"The protest action in our region and across Ukraine does not mean that we should not be working," Salo told reporters, although he admitted that handling regional affairs in the current situation was "impossible".

Salo was head of the police force for the Lviv region during the 2004 "Orange Revolution" -- a successful protest movement by the opposition against Yanukovych's attempt to fraudulently claim a presidential election victory.

After the opposition came to power, criminal investigations were opened against Salo in 2005 and he became a fugitive from justice but they were later dropped after Yanukovych's election.

Apart from the tensions with Salo, the new protest government in Lviv is managing to work well with other officials, including the police.

Sokolov said he has an "understanding" with the local interior ministry that his "Self-Defence" force would now help enforce the law in Lviv.

Crucially, he said that the traffic police have agreed not to stop coaches of protesters leaving Lviv for Kiev -- the protest epicentre.

© 2014 AFP

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