oDR

“The republic lives on and is managed by rumours”

After a series of sudden departures and murders in the “People’s Republics”, is Russia finally formalising its control in eastern Ukraine? RU

Yulia Abibok
19 February 2019

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A poster with New Year's greetings from the "head" of the "DNR" Denis Pushilin in Donetsk. Photo: Sergey Averin / RIA News. All rights reserved.

“Who’s the junta now?” joked residents of Luhansk in November 2017, referring to a well-known propaganda term for the post-Yanukovych Kyiv authorities. At that time two years ago, armed men in camouflage suddenly appeared outside the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) administration building, blocking the people inside.

In Luhansk today, people are too used to the mysterious arrests, deaths and disappearances of self-declared public officials and field commanders to be scared or surprised. In what is now something of a tradition, those in power usually point the finger at the Ukrainian security services or “diversion groups”. But people have stopped believing them. Clearly, the local leadership in Luhansk and their anonymous “curators” in Moscow – which, by 2017, locals were already talking about online – have been ridding themselves of superfluous leaders, bringing their own version of order to the territories under their control in the process.

November 2017 turned out to be the finale of the conflict that suddenly erupted between leader Igor Plotnitsky and the “Minister of Internal Affairs” Igor Kornet in Luhansk. This ended in the highly unpopular Plotnitsky fleeing to Moscow, and Leonid Pasechnik, the former head of the “Ministry of State Security”, becoming the new leader of the “Republic”. At the time, social media users in Luhansk welcomed their own “Maidan”, which went ahead without any participation from the local population, who didn’t have a clue what was happening, but were, however, happy that something, at last, was happening. For this half-destroyed and extremely impoverished region, things couldn’t get any worse.

“Donetsk has attacked Luhansk!” declared the admin of a local VKontakte forum at the height of the absurdity. (Indeed, this forum had more or less replaced the “official media”, which actually reported no real information.) The “Little Green Men” in the “capital”, which at that time was still under Igor Plotnitsky’s control, turned out to be from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) to the south, whose leadership had long failed to come to an agreement with their colleagues in Luhansk. It’s unlikely that anyone two years ago thought that Igor Plotnitsky, who was run out of Luhansk, would turn out to be “lucky” when compared with Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the “DNR”.

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31 August 2018: the "Separatist" cafe in Donetsk, after a bomb attack killed Alexander Zakharchenko. (c) Ukrinform/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Indeed, a far more effective “departure” awaited Zakharchenko, the same kind that had previously removed popular local commanders – Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov (blown up in his apartment block lift in October 2016) and Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh (killed in a rocket attack against his office in February 2017). Naturally, according to the authorities, they were killed by a “Ukrainian diversion group”. Then, on 31 August 2018, in the centre of Donetsk, an explosive device killed Alexander Zakharchenko as he entered the “Separatist” restaurant to attend a memorial service for the popular singer Iosif Kobzon, a Donbass native and friend of the “Republic”.

Just like the commanders “Motorola” and “Givi”, Zakharchenko, the “first elected head of the DNR”, was later honoured in an exhibition dedicated to “heroes of Novorossiya” at a local museum.

A naked year

The events of November 2017 in Luhansk left no doubts that the unrecognised leadership of the “LNR” (and thus the “DNR” too) did not have control over the “power block” – the armed forces, security services, police. Apparently, it did not have significant control over local media either, which were formally monopolised by the “state”.

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“No comment.” Armed men without insignia in the centre of Luhansk, 21 November 2017. Image still via "ГТРК ЛНР" / YouTube.

Although the Luhansk television and radio company remained loyal to Igor Plotnitsky until the end, the main news agency of the “Republic”, much like the “people’s militia” (that is, the army) opted for neutrality. The Luhansk “prosecutor’s office” was considered Plotnitsky’s praetorian guard. It was during a “passionate” interrogation conducted by these men that former “Prime Minister” Gennady Tsypkalov died in 2016, after Plotnitsky accused him of preparing a “coup d’etat”. “General Prosecutor” Zaur Ismailov, who quickly resigned after Plotnitsky chewed out Kornet in public for the first time, instantly reinvented himself as “Minister of Justice” after Plotnitsky fled the “Republic”.

At the same time, the fundamental difference between the two “Republics” was that, despite the obvious disorganisation of power in Luhansk, no new prominent opposition leaders had come to replace their liquidated colleagues. In Donetsk, certain individuals still speak out against the current regime, and use their real names while doing so. Even if those who do so are liable to be “taken to the basement”, where they can have their legs broken or face torture, as in the case of Roman Manekin, a prominent Novorossiya propagandist. Most likely, this is why Plotnitsky’s departure did not result in any mass expose of former representatives of the local authorities, as happened in the aftermath of Alexander Zakharchenko’s death in Donetsk.

Roman Manekin, an individual with a fairly vague line of work (media sometimes call him a journalist, sometimes a political scientist), is a native of Makiivka and a Russian citizen who returned to Donetsk region after the beginning of the “Russian Spring”. In two years, he was detained twice. In autumn 2017, Manekin mistakenly reported that Alexey Dikiy, the rather odious “Minister of Interior Affairs” in Donetsk, had been arrested. He then went on to justify this mistake by saying that, in the information vacuum created by the local leadership, “the Republic lives on and is managed by rumours”.

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Roman Manekin. Source: YouTube.

Even former Russian volunteer fighters felt they had to intervene in Manekin’s case, raising the issue publicly with Russia’s Foreign Minister. Manekin provoked little sympathy in these circles. He started his strange career in the “Republic” as a fiery apologist of Alexander Zakharchenko, under whom the most prominent fighters, both local and external, were gradually forced out of the region together with leaders such as Igor Girkin and Igor Bezler. Manekin’s situation looked to be an example of extreme arbitrary rule.

The second occasion that supporters and sympathisers of Manekin had to worry came in November 2018, when he once again disappeared after publishing a lengthy petition on Change.org that called for the “illegal” “elections of the head of state and “parliament” in Donetsk to be stopped. In the year that passed between these two disappearances, matters in the “Republic” once again changed fundamentally.

Romantics and rabble-rousers

The downing of Flight MH17 in July 2014 attracted far too much unwanted attention to the Russian presence in the unfolding military conflict. This attention centred on Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a former FSB officer and military adventurer, and his then close comrade, political technologist Alexander Borodai. At that time, the “leadership” of both “Republics” were hardly in control of the territories they had seized: different field commanders who had seized parts of the region were coming into serious conflicts with one another – in effect, localised wars. In mid-August 2014, the “Head of the Republic” Valery Bolotov and “Minister of Defence” Igor Girkin were, in effect, run out of Luhansk and Donetsk. Borodai, who “resigned his position” a few days before, transferred power to Alexander Zakharchenko, who was then “legalised” following “elections” in November 2014 – much like Igor Plotnitsky who took Bolotov’s post. It was obvious that these simultaneous shifts in the two self-proclaimed “Republics”, which had no formalised relationship to one another, could happen only on the will of someone on the outside.

In the aftermath, the new self-proclaimed leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk began to remove – also with support from outside – the most ambitious, ideological and uncompromising commanders and political figures, simultaneously sorting out some personal differences. As a result, two prominent militant leaders in Luhansk, Alexey Mozgovoy and Pavel Dremov, died in 2015. In the best mafia traditions, they both died in car bombs (Dremov died en route to his own wedding). In Donetsk, until the deaths of Givi and Motorola, most assassinations took place without this kind of drama. The leading lights of the “Russian Spring”, such as Andrey Purgin or Alexander Khodakovsky, were quietly pushed out of power, with the “state” media forbidden to make any further mention of them.

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September 2018: Pavel Gubarev, together with Ekaterina Gubareva, registers his candidacy for the post of "head" of the "Donetsk People's Republic". Source: YouTube.

Only the former “People’s Governor” Pavel Gubarev and his wife Ekaterina Gubareva, who became a “Deputy of the People’s Council”, managed to hold on to their levers of power (however weak they may have been). Given the absence of any political parties in the “Republic” – this role was performed by “civic movements” under the de-facto control of the authorities. The Gubarevs were not permitted to register their own organisation. As a result, Ekaterina joined a movement called “Free Donbass”, which entered the local “parliament” as a kind of “constructive opposition” force, together with the Zakharchenko-controlled “civic movement” “Donetsk Republic”. (The Gubarevs, meanwhile, still refuse to define themselves as the “opposition”, preferring the term “alternative”.)

In autumn 2018, when a congress of the “Free Donbass” group was supposed to put Ekaterina Gubareva at the top of their pre-election candidate list, she was detained on her way to the event. In the end, the event went ahead without her participation, and Gubarev was not included in the candidate list. Gubarev himself was prevented from participating in the “elections” for head of the “Republic”: the authorities declared the signatures of his supporters, collected as part of the “registration process”, to be fake.

Andrey Purgin, the first “Speaker” of the “Republic’s” parliament, was also unable to participate in the November 2018 elections. He was one of the fathers of the “Donetsk Republic” civic movement, which was formed in Donetsk back in 2006 in order to promote the same ideas and values that other participants of the “Russian Spring” would come to use publicly in 2014.

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Andrey Purgin. CC BY 3.0 Andrew Butko / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Four years after the events of 2014, the authorities simply refused to issue Purgin a passport, which local “legislation” required of any candidate.

Individuals close to Zakharchenko, including his right-hand man Alexander “Tashkent” Timofeyev, had wound up in Russian territory soon after the murder of their leader at the end of August.

Their participation in the election was, therefore, highly unlikely. Indeed, a campaign to expose Timofeyev soon began in the “Republic” – it was suddenly revealed that “Tashkent” had been robbing local businessmen and the “state” itself.

Alexander Khodakovsky, a former volunteer battalion commander who had managed to retain his popularity, was also prevented from balloting: he was not allowed to leave the Russian Federation.

Given there were no prominent political figures left either in Donetsk or Luhansk, the candidacies of the “acting heads” of the “Republics”, Leonid Pasechnik and Denis Pushilin, remained essentially unchallenged. The remaining candidates were hardly known even in political circles and participated, it seems, to provide an illusion of competition.

What went wrong

It’s difficult to say when exactly the clouds started to gather over Alexander Zakharchenko and what was the last drop for his Moscow curators. The general disorganisation and poverty reigning in Luhansk under Plotnitsky made the neighbouring Donetsk “Republic” look a stronghold of stability and progress. But when you took a closer look – often thanks to Khodakovsky, Manekin and the Gubarev family – it became obvious that this stability was achieved by the gangland-style raiding of local businesses and the monopolising of industrial plants. Formally, these activities were carried out for the benefit of the “state”, but in fact, as is now claimed, were done in service of Alexander Timofeyev, who combined the posts of “Minister of Income and Tax” and “Vice Prime Minister” in Donetsk after Zakharchenko himself took on the undefined functions of “Prime Minister”.

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January 2015: The head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, poses with students of Donetsk University after a press conference. Photo: James Sprankle / DPA / PA Images. All rights reserved.

That this illusive stability was fragile became clear in summer 2018. Due to a lack of oversight and a multitude of violations, the “Republic” failed to gather a full harvest. Prices shot up, flour disappeared from supermarket shelves. Information about the reasons and scale of the food crisis began to seep out into the public sphere, mostly via anonymous channels on Telegram and social media. Just like in Luhansk, with its lack of political opposition, these channels became the new media in Donetsk. Rumours Zakharchenko being summoned to Moscow and “inspectors” from the centre traveling to the “Republic” began to surface.

Zakharchenko had previously had the ear of Vladislav Surkov, Russian presidential adviser responsible for matters in the unrecognised territories. And, for a time, he and Timofeyev were able to test their luck with this system. Armed groups began appearing outside an unexpected range of “Ministries” – the “Ministry of Income and Taxes”, in particular. By spring 2018, Zakharchenko already had his own mini-army in the form of a personal security team. Zakhar Prilepin, a rather odious Russian writer who had found a place in Zakharchenko’s circle, also managed to find his own brigade of militants. All of this should have annoyed Moscow, which was supposed to have exclusive control over the irregular fighters, now combined into a single force. In mid-2018, the curators had attempted to disperse these units or “integrate” them into “official” “armed forces”, but this only happened after a change of power in Donetsk.

In November 2018, Zakharchenko’s “legal” term in power was supposed to come to an end. In Luhansk, another round of “elections” was needed to “legalise” Pasechnik, who had temporarily headed up the “Republic” on the “request” of Plotnitsky. Media and social networks had been discussing the coming elections since the beginning of the year. But at the beginning of August, “civic organisations” of both “Republics”, under the control of the self-proclaimed leadership, came out with almost simultaneous calls to extend the rule of Pasechnik, Zakharchenko and the “People’s Councils”, in order to give them time to implement the pseudo-states’ “development programmes”, passed in Donetsk and Luhansk after “society-wide discussion”.

Perhaps the Moscow curators, busy blackmailing Kyiv with the prospect of illegal elections in these territories, were behind these attacks. Ukrainian public officials and politicians were far from burning with desire to extend legislation, mandated by the Minsk Agreements, on the “special rules on local self-government in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. The Minsk Agreements provide for the possibility of local elections, which have still not been held in the “Republics”. District council leaders are, instead, appointed by Donetsk and Luhansk. After Zakharchenko’s death, it was the “local opposition” that raised the fact that the “elections” were being postponed, and the President of Ukraine eventually extended the law.

Donetsk is angry

Alexander Khodakovsky, the battalion commander who disappeared from public view back in May, announced his “return” to Donetsk on Facebook at the end of October.

Online, he explained his six-month-long absence by referring to “reasons that will take a long time to relate”, and said that, at his request, an assistant had been managing his social media accounts. Khodakovsky claimed that during this period, when he refrained from public statements (either voluntarily or by force), he had been “close to the centre of decision-making”. One of these likely decisions, according to Khodakovsky, was to unite the Donetsk and Luhansk “Republics”.

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Denis Pushilin, known locally as "Mavrodyevich" for his role in 1990s pyramid schemes. Source: smdnr.ru.

Some believed that Igor Plotnitsky was responsible for dividing the “people of Donbass” between Donetsk and Luhansk. In fact, the two pseudo-states had begun to merge under Zakharchenko, when Plotnitsky had been turfed out by Pasechnik – the almost full “sychronisation” of legislation and removal of border control, though this didn’t stretch to unification. In the five years of the “Republics’” existence, no one had ever publicly explained why there were two of them.

Meanwhile, both pseudo-states were undergoing a far clearer process of integration with South Ossetia, a part of Georgia which had broken away at the beginning of the 1990s. In 2008, the Russian Federation recognised the territory, maintaining it under almost total control. South Ossetia, the only “state” which had “recognised” the east Ukrainian “Republics”, had become a central link in their trade chain with Russia back in 2014. Payments were organised via the South Ossetia “International Clearance Bank”, which has had a branch in Luhansk since 2014 – and a branch is due to opened in Donetsk.

On the whole, everything that has happened since Plotnitsky’s departure, the death of Zakharchenko and especially the “elections” of 11 November speaks to the formalising of Russian control over these self-proclaimed states in eastern Ukraine. The experiment of summer 2014, to transfer all power in the region to local “miners and tractor-drivers” under supervision from Moscow, failed. Control has thus had to be localised.

Journalists have already looked into the mysterious Donetsk “Prime Minister” Alexander Ananchenko, who appeared after the “legal” division of powers between the head of the “Republic” and “Head of Government” in the wake of Zakharchenko’s death. Everything that we know about Ananchenko is that he was born in Makiivka and worked, until recently, in Russia. Before he began working in the “government”, he was an advisor to the CEO of Vneshtorgservis, a holding company registered in South Ossetia which is run by a former public official from Irkutsk. Indeed, it was Vneshtorgservis that took over management of all the large industrial plants in the “Republics” after Ukraine introduced a trade blockade in 2017. Ananchenko attracted attention first and foremost because of his lack of biography – he’d never made a public announcement, there was only one photograph of him available online (where he turns away from the camera).

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October 2018: Alexander Ananchenko (right) completes an agreement with Vneshtorgservis. Source: smdnr.ru.

It’s a similar story with the “Minister of State Security” in Luhansk, Anatoly Antonov, who was appointed after the “coup” in Luhansk. Previously, Antonov served as deputy “Minister of State Security” in Donetsk. Alexander Khodavkosy claimed that Antonov also came from Russia. In the year that he spent at the post, Antonov was never once caught in public. His photograph can’t be found on his “Ministry’s” website or that of the “Government”. It seems likely that “Anatoly Antonov” is a cover name for Luhansk’s new head security official.

Local users on social networks tend to call the new head of the Donetsk “Republic” by the nickname “Mavrodyevich” after the founder of a well-known Russian pyramid scheme. (Before the war, Denis Pushlin was involved in this scheme in Donetsk.) Indeed, it’s hard to find a person less respected among the local establishment in Donetsk. Having spent three years as part of Donetsk’s discredited power structure, Pushilin, it is worth noting, did not participate in the events of the “Russian Spring” or any combat operations. He became head of the “People’s Council” in 2015, after pushing out the more authoritative Andrey Purgin. In other words, Pushilin does not have blood on his hands, and in that sense, could continue talks with Kyiv – a fact that has annoyed and insulted many locals no less than his pyramid-scheme past.

In Donetsk, people instantly realised what their neighbours in Luhansk failed to in November 2017: Moscow had carried out a “state coup”. Then, without sparing funds, agreements or local moods, it placed rather doubtful appointees in key posts, thus taking responsibility for the actions of the new de-facto authorities. But this responsibility also covers the negative ratings that these authorities will inevitably accumulate. Previously, even in the darkest days, locals could hope for a future in the form of the half-mythic “Russian World”, which new rulers would lead them into – just like other rulers had, once, lead them to the triumph of communism. Now everyone understands that the “Russian World” has already arrived in the region, with “Mavrodyevich” as its public face. Not even Kyiv could have come up with a more anti-Russian project.

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