Voting in the Donetsk People’s Republic

Is there really anything Kyiv can do to respond to the recent elections in the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic?

Ilya Vasyunin
7 November 2014


In Kyiv, the emergency meeting of the Security Council took place in order to issue a response to the announcement of elections in the unrecognised Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (DPR and LPR respectively). On his Facebook page, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, Arsen Avakov, made a promise: ‘In the opinion of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Putin is on track for a massive, all-encompassing headache.’

But, despite the minister’s guarantees, no such headaches have (so far, that is) troubled the Russian president. The main outcome of the Security Council meeting was the cancellation of a previous law granting the Donbas special legal status; a law that had been designed to prevent the possibility of unsanctioned elections.

The staging of elections on territory, which is no longer under Kyiv’s control, was first provisionally agreed at the start of September in Minsk, where representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the unrecognised republics met around the negotiating table.

Elections – official and unofficial

As a result of those talks, President Petro Poroshenko signed the law granting Donbas a special status, the law, which will now be cancelled. As Ukrainska Pravda reports, elections were supposed to go ahead in Donetsk and Luhansk on 8 November, but in the end the text of the law contained a different date: 9 December. By-elections to Ukraine's parliament were supposed to take place on 8 November – a general election took place on 25 October in the rest of Ukraine, excluding Crimea – as well as elections to municipal organs.

But the leadership of the DPR and LPR refused to vote according to Ukrainian laws and announced that they would hold elections instead to the local ‘republican’ parliament. And while the development of parliamentarianism is not perhaps the primary political aim of the current leadership of the DPR, and LPR, elections serve a purpose. They also provoked a political reaction.

The development of parliamentarianism is not perhaps the primary political aim of the current leadership of the DPR, and LPR.

The EU and United States announced they would not recognise the elections. The Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced that there was no reason not to recognise them. The minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, called the elections ‘one of the most important steps to the realisation of the Minsk Accords. Moreover, in Lavrov’s words the elections were ‘important from the point of view of legitimising the authorities.’

The campaign

The pre-election campaign in both republics was a rudimentary affair. Two blocs campaigned for election to the DPR’s parliament: the social movement ‘Free Donbas’ pitched against the ‘Donetsk Republic.’

RIA (Credit as RIA Novosti, no author given)_0.jpg

An election campaign poster in Donetsk. Photo via RIA  

‘Free Donbas’ united participants in the ‘first wave’ of the Donetsk protests, for example, the ‘Donbas People’s Militia’ – a movement which arose last spring against the background of events in Kyiv; and which (some say) was supported by the billionaire Rinat Akhmetov as a ‘bargaining chip’ with Kyiv.

‘Donetsk Republic’ united the head of the unrecognised republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko with the vice-premier of the DPR, Andrei Purgin, and also the former speaker of the parliament, Denis Pushilin.

Several other social movements were supposed to take part in the elections, but Donetsk’s Central Electoral Commission, under the authority of Roman Lyagin, did not register them.

The movement ‘Novorossiya’ – led by one of the leaders of the spring protests, the so-called 'people’s governor,' Pavel Gabarev – was refused registration for ‘not observing procedure and clear insufficiencies in documents presented.’ The commission also refused to register several other organisations: Oplot (Stronghold) – a military organisation headed by Aleksandr Zakharchenko; ‘The Union of Donbas Paratroopers’ – a group under the leadership of popular field commander Igor Bezler; the DPR’s Communist Party; and ‘United Russia’ (the bloc supports the unification of Donbas with the Russian Federation, but has no relation to the Russian party of the same name).

The candidates

There were originally seven pretenders to the post of head of the DPR, but only three made it to the elections – the acting premier Aleksandr Zakharchenko; Aleksandr Kofman – the deputy to the Parliament of Novorossiya’(the federal ‘state’ that the DPR and LPR nominally constitute); and Yury Sivokonenko – deputy to the DPR’s High Council. Aleksandr Kofman is a former manager in the retail company ‘Rush,’ which owns the EVA network of perfume shops in Ukraine. Yury Sivokonenko is a former instructor of combat training in the Berkut (Ukrainian riot police).

Out of the three candidates, acting ‘prime minister’ Aleksandr Zakharchenko conducted the most noteworthy campaign. Two days before the elections, he met with students from several higher institutions in the building of Donetsk Polytechnic University. He answered their questions on bursaries, halls of residence and degrees, while simultaneously encouraging them to turn out on election day. He also promised that the DPR would award degrees of its own making, without Kyiv’s participation; in response to which, the students worried whether such degrees would be recognised outside the bounds of the unrecognised republic?

‘Prime Minister’ Zakharchenko said that negotiations with Russia were ongoing, but he said that Iosef Kobzon (a Soviet-era crooner and current Duma deputy) had been in Donetsk a few days earlier, and had promised that he would do everything possible to ensure that DPR degrees were accepted not only in Russia but the whole world. The halls of residence that were currently being partially occupied by militia would be returned to students in the next two–to-three weeks. As for bursaries, they would be paid again after the New Year. ‘Pensioners are currently not getting pensions, they’re going hungry,’ Zakharchenko explained, ‘students, the most aware and intelligent group of people, will have to wait.’

‘Will there be military departments in the university?’ asked one of the students. To which, Zakharchenko replied: ‘I invite you to the zone of military activities; learn to hold a weapon in your hand. Every man should know how to do this, and to dig trenches.’ And drawing on his combat experience, the ‘prime minister’ continued, ‘it is a characteristic of youths to dig trenches “two bayonets” deep. This is wrong. Trenches need to be dug to human height and even a little more. The deeper you dig, the longer you live,’,

‘Prime Minister’ Zakharchenko had reason to reach out to the youth vote.

‘Prime Minister’ Zakharchenko had reason to reach out to the youth vote. By the decision of the DPR Electoral Commission, the voting age was lowered from 18 to 16 (‘like in the referendum in Scotland’ – announced the head of the commission, Roman Lyagin). But the commission could not confirm how much the number of voters had increased after the vote was granted to 16-year-olds.

Indeed, the lack of exact lists of voters was one of the main concerns with the electoral process. They were based on the lists used for the carrying out of the May referendum, which were themselves comprised of lists taken before the elections in 2012. According to the lists made in 2012, there are 3,198,000 eligible voters in the territory controlled by the DPR. This is exactly how many ballots were printed.

Voting day

However, on the day of the vote, Roman Lyagin gave a corrected figure: 1,148,953 voters. ‘The ballots were printed “with some to spare,” and out of security concerns are kept by several different parties in five different places,’ he explained.

There were 351 polling stations on the territory of the unrecognised DPR. Since the start of hostilities, when the DPR came into existence, the number of polling stations had fallen by a factor of three. Many people from Donetsk and the surrounding region had left because of security concerns, out of fear of terrorist actions or shelling. As a result, lines of hopeful voters formed at every polling station.

In order to vote, a person had to present at the polling booth a passport listed on their residency card; and received two ballots. The ballot was printed on ordinary printing paper. The voting process itself appeared to conform to the norm: fill in the ballot, standing in a special booth; then place the paper inside transparent urns located in the middle of the polling station.

In extreme conditions, the usual voting regulations were dispensed with. For example, inhabitants of Donbas could vote at any polling station, as long as they had a passport. In order to do this you had to fill in a special declaration. After a person had voted at a polling station other than their own, members of the electoral commission were supposed to call headquarters and ask them to ‘cross off’ the given voter from their usual polling station. Such measures, it was explained by the electoral commission, were unavoidable because many people are registered in areas of Donetsk where military operations are ongoing. In order to avoid sending people into the ‘firing line,’ it was necessary to permit them to vote in other places.

But Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, even before the end of the voting, called the elections in the self-proclaimed republics ‘a farce carried out under the barrels of tanks and machineguns.’ The voting taking place in Donbas, he said, ‘has nothing in common with a real expression of people’s will.’

RIA Igor Maslov_0.jpg

Casting their votes in Donetsk. Photo: Igor Maslov via RIA 

The phrase ‘under the barrel of machineguns’ did not quite correspond to reality. There were patrols of two-to-three armed individuals with assault rifles at a few polling stations, keeping the peace, but they did not interfere with the voting in any way.

People living in territory controlled by the Ukrainian army also took part in the elections; and in Donetsk, voters from the surrounding area were allowed to vote in the city. ‘You should see how many people come from Makiivka and Yasinuvata (towns in the Donetsk Region), how many people came to vote and were crying,’ an electoral commission worker told journalists.

But far from everyone came out on election day. A taxi driver, Sergei, told journalists that he did not go to the polls, as he does not recognise the DPR, and considers Donetsk Region a part of Ukraine. In peacetime, Sergei worked as an auditor in a large coal and metallurgical company, but after the start of the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ in the east of the country, the firm had to close down. He didn’t believe the official turnout, and said that many of his acquaintances didn’t go out to vote, ‘even those who support the DPR.’

By nine o’clock that evening, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Roman Lyagin, was looking at the results of the exit polls (there were two people in white jackets standing in front of polling stations, asking people how they had voted). The results were as expected. In the parliamentary elections, 64% voted for ‘Donetsk Republic,’ and 36% for ‘United Donbas.’ In the elections for head of the republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko led with 81% of the vote. After counting 50% of the ballots, Zakharchenko’s share of the vote fell to 75%.

Hopes and fears

Many people talking to journalists said that they expected peace and stability to come from the elections.

Many people talking to journalists said that they expected peace and stability to come from the elections.

‘The point of no return has been crossed’ a young man called Ramil told your correspondent, ‘Kyiv should have negotiated in spring, when people wanted a referendum on federalisation.’

This summer, after the start of the military actions, Ramil left Donetsk for two months. Now he has returned and is working in a distribution firm. The firm is located in the ironically-named ‘Kyiv’ neighbourhood, which borders the Donetsk Airport, an area of constant exchanges of fire between the rebels and Ukrainian army. But he did not want to be away any longer. ‘My home is here.’ At this election he supported the acting ‘prime minister.’

‘Do you have any regrets that the Ukrainian general elections won’t be taking place in Donetsk?’ we asked a young man, who had come to the polling station with his wife.

‘Ah, let them vote without us.’

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData