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Serhiy Taruta, governor of the Ukraine’s Donetsk region, is keeping a low profile to avoid rumoured kidnap plots

Sergei Chuzavkov/The Associated Press

Serhiy Taruta is a billionaire steel baron, believed to rank as one of the richest men in the world. It would have been easy for him to stay that way and remain above the chaos and violence of Ukrainian politics.

He didn't, and now he's a governor without an office, a "peaceful" man tasked with trying to quell an increasingly violent uprising.

"The risk of the whole country falling apart was the reason I agreed to change my comfortable life as a businessman and become governor," the 58-year-old said in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, referring to his March 2 decision to accept Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's call for him to get into politics. Within weeks, the region he grew up in was the centre of a pro-Russian – some say Russian-backed – insurrection that turned deadly on Wednesday when three militants were shot and killed while trying to storm a military base in the port city of Mariupol.

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Slumped into a black leather couch in a deserted hotel lounge on the edge of this industrial city, Mr. Taruta is well-dressed – in a sharp blue suit, whose jacket he shucks off, and half-rimmed glasses – but little else about the encounter suggests a man worth the $2.7-billion (U.S.) that Forbes magazine estimated his holdings at in 2008. He's an oligarch, yes, but also a civil servant – and one looking over his shoulder now.

Mr. Taruta's new job as governor of Donetsk has brought him more personal danger than political power. As the region convulses – amid rumours that the Kremlin is intentionally stirring up the troubles to gain influence over the region – he is now keeping a low profile to avoid rumoured kidnap plots.

"Of course I understand that the risks are increasing and, of course, there are risks to me personally and it's not very comfortable to me as a peaceful man," he says as a clutch of bodyguards hovers a few metres away.

Mr. Taruta has been without an office since April 7, when armed pro-Russian militants seized control of the regional administration building. The 11-storey Soviet-era office tower is now a crude fort, surrounded by a wall of tires and razor wire, topped with the flags of the newly proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" and the tri-colour of the Russian Federation, the border of which is just 100 kilometres to the east.

The protesters inside the building say they no longer want to be governed by Kiev, the regime Mr. Taruta represents here. They believe Donetsk would be better off if the tax revenues generated by the region's coal mines and factories stayed in Donetsk, rather than going to the central government. Many say they would like to be part of Russia and are demanding a referendum on the future of the region.

Mr. Taruta said he's not against the idea of a referendum on the region's status within Ukraine, although he says the territorial integrity of the country can't be in question.

As the revolt spreads, the area that Mr. Taruta can claim to govern has been shrinking almost by the day. At least 10 cities in the Donetsk oblast – the Ukrainian equivalent of a province – are under the control of pro-Russian gunmen. Any effort to oust them became more complicated this week when a column of Ukrainian soldiers surrendered half a dozen armoured vehicles to the pro-Russian fighters.

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Mr. Taruta says he doesn't believe Russia wants to annex the Donetsk region, but says the gunmen occupying the government offices are hoping to provoke enough bloodshed to draw the Russian army in to "protect" Russian-speakers, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly vowed to do.

Mr. Taruta says he believes "Russian citizens" have taken part in the Donetsk uprising, and that some have been arrested and deported from the country. He adds that Russian television has also helped feed the insurgency by portraying the new government in Kiev as dominated by "fascists" intent on repressing Russian-speakers.

He says that opinion polls he has ordered show support for union with Russia has actually fallen dramatically since he took office, from about 40 per cent at the start of March to about half that level now.

"Out of 4.5 million people living in the Donetsk oblast, we're seeing only 10,000 who are protesting. Of course, that's a big amount, but it's not a critical amount."

Mr. Taruta said the responsibility for clearing the seized building lay with the central government in Kiev – which controls the military and security services – and that his task was to reduce pro-Russian sentiment by making Donetsk a better place to live. The region – already squeezed by the closure of more than half of its 230 mines – flew into a panic over the new government's plan to move closer to the European Union, fearing that would cost eastern Ukraine access to the Russian market that buys nearly all the goods produced in its factories.

"Both in Ukraine and the east of Ukraine, we need economic aid, humanitarian aid, to help us minimize the risk of a social explosion," he said, praising the governments of Canada and Poland for their support of Ukraine during the crisis. "Only sympathy is not enough. … We could really use this help in the future, and after a little time, everything will stabilize and of course we will be very grateful and create the best and most effective opportunities for Canadian businesses here on the territory of Donetsk region."

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Many in the region, however, wonder why Donetsk's oligarchs don't dip into their own fortunes to help the region through the crisis. One unanswered question is where another Donetsk native, Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, stands on the question of the pro-Russian militants.

Mr. Taruta and Mr. Akhmetov are long-time rivals, with Mr. Akhmetov reported to have once tried driving up the price of the coal produced in his mines in an effort to make life difficult for the Industrial Union of Donbass, the conglomerate through which Mr. Taruta runs his steel businesses.

Mr. Akhmetov, who was the main power-broker in Donetsk and beyond while Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych was in office, was among the biggest losers when the old regime suddenly collapsed in late February. He is said to have been rattled by the arrest last month of his fellow oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, and Mr. Akhmetov's silence toward the pro-Russian protests has been interpreted by many as a signal he supports them.

"This is [Mr. Akhmetov's] region, a place where he decided who the head prosecutor was, who the chief of police was," said Yuriy Koval, a professor of political science at Donetsk National University. The police, in particular, have stood aside as protesters have taken over government offices and allowed the militants to bring in fresh supplies to the occupied buildings.

Mr. Akhmetov could bring an end – or at least dramatically weaken – the protests if he wanted to, Prof. Koval said, but he won't do that until he's convinced the new government in Kiev will allow him to retain his influence over Donetsk. "He's playing all his cards right now. Even the separatist card."

Mr. Taruta rejects such analysis. "A lot of people think he plays a negative role, but this is wrong," he said of Mr. Akhmetov. "Of course he supports me."

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Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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