The danger of wanting to be boss

8 October 2018, 10:00

ORDiLO, the occupied territories of Donbas, plan to hold elections for the leadership of the two pseudo-republics, DNR and LNR on November 11. The word “elections” really should be written in quotation marks because nothing resembling an electoral process is expected to take place. The Kremlin has already presented its preferred candidates as “acting heads of the republics,” so the “expression of the will of the people” will be little more than a formality.

Still, appointing the new leaders of DNR and LNR can’t be accomplished completely quietly, at least for now. When Ihor Plotnytskiy’s team was overthrown and chased out, there were no more rivals in the way of the current acting boss, Leonid Pasichnyk. In Donetsk, however, the August killing of Oleksandr Zakharchenko has led to an open struggle for his seat.

At first, Zakharchenko’s people tried to take over and within a few days one of the late bosses deputies, Dmytro Trapeznikov, took over as leader. However, subsequent events showed that Moscow was quite tired of the Zakharchenko boys and had decided to sweep it out of the leadership of the pseudo-republic. Over the course of a few days, the “Zakhar’s” men lost all their positions in DNR and left for Russia. Instead, the Kremlin appointed a new handler in Donetsk, Denys Pushilin, who headed the “people’s council of DNR” prior to Zakharchenko’s demise.

Back in DNR, however, not everyone was happy with this appointment. After the explosion at the Separ Café and the expulsion of Trapeznikov and Aleksandr “Tashkent” Timofeyev from Donetsk, three contenders for the leadership post appeared. In addition to Pushilin, they were Field Commander and former Alfa officer Oleksandr Khodakovskiy, and one time “People’s Governor of Donetsk” Pavlo Gubariev, who was involved in initiating the anti-Ukrainian insurgency in Donetsk.

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Khodakovskiy had already played the role of unofficial opposition to Zakharchenko and sometimes criticized the militants’ leader in the harshest of terms. Other “people’s commanders” in Donbas who allowed themselves to speak so freely were eliminated back in 2015, but Khodakovskiy clearly had powerful protectors in Russia and thus a certain measure of freedom. However, he was not given access to power in DNR. Khodakovskiy’s political movement, “Patriotic Forces of Donbas,” was never formally prohibited, but neither was he allowed to participate in elections.

In Donetsk, Khodakovskiy was seen as one of the main contenders for the boss’s seat long before Zakharchenko was eliminated. Still, this did not last long. The minute Khodakovskiy announced his intentions of running in the “election for the head of DNR,” Moscow gave a short and sharp answer: he was simply not allowed to exit Russia for DNR territory.

Like Khodakovskiy, Pushilin’s other rival, Gubariev, was actively involved in Donbas affairs since March 2014 and also has his own political force, called “Free Donbas.” Unlike the field commander, however, he immediately agreed to be the official opposition, that is, he criticized as a mere formality, for public consumption, but in fact was as much a part of the government as Pushilin. For this reason, Gubariev quite reasonably considers himself generally at the same level as Pushilin and has every reason to contend for the leadership of the DNR band. After Zakharchenko’s death, he traveled to Moscow where he supposedly was able to get approval for his participation in the “election for the head of DNR” and to gain the support of a number of influential forces. However, Pushilin’s team and whoever stood behind them clearly were not pleased with such a turn of events. And the pressure was put on Gubariev.

First what happened is that the presentation of the book “85 Days of Sloviansk,” in which Gubariev was to participate, was cancelled. And on September 29, the conflict between Pushilin and Gubariev became openly hostile. A convention of the Free Donbas movement led by Gubariev was planned for that day and his wife, Yekaterina, was supposed to head the party list. However, she was arrested that morning and the convention went ahead without her. Her name did not appear on the list and the movement was effectively taken over by Pushilin’s people.

“I left my home around ten to get to the convention,” Yekaterina Gubarieva later reported. “I was asked to drive up for a chat, where I was informed that the Free Donbas convention would go ahead without my participation. I was originally #1 on the Free Donbas party list. Now I’m not anywhere on it at all. After awhile, I was let go and all my personal belongings were returned.” After this incident, Gubariev’s wife left for Rostov-on-Don. Who these mysterious people were who asked her “to drive up for a chat,” she never said, but it’s easy enough to guess. Overnight the Gubariev family effectively lost their party.

Pavlo Gubariev himself so far has remained in power. Under DNR rules, to register for the upcoming “election,” he needed to collect 10,000 signatures, which he was able to do. Now he has to wait for the verdict of DNR’s central election commission. As has often happened with undesirable candidates in Russia, the signatures could simply be declared invalid. Incidentally, the “republic’s electoral commission” was chaired by Olga Pozdniakova, a Russian citizen who was a Yedinaya Rossiya deputy on the Shakhta City Council in Rostov Oblast prior to this.

Yet another rival of Pushilin’s was also given a very clear signal, probably because he was considered too independent a figure. Also on September 29, Ihor Khakimzianov nearly found himself sharing Zakharchenko’s fate when an attempt was made on his life. The Makiyivka native son suffered burns and injuries in the explosion, and to prevent further problems, he withdrew his candidacy.

In neighboring Luhansk, the “election campaign” is moving along more quietly. Since the Plotnytskiy team was driven out, LNR has been completely calm and the Pasichnyk team has a complete political monopoly. Naturally, a complete purge of any dissenters from the “general party line” has turned the occupied portion of Luhansk Oblast into a tiny replica of the USSR: a quiet bog with no hint of political life.

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Among the candidates for “head of LNR,” there is not a single even slightly familiar name, other than Pasichnyk. In no time and no place have such utterly technical candidates been seen. Pasichnyk’s rivals include a safety engineer at the Luhansk Train Station called Natalia Serhun, a union leader called Oleh Koval, the director of the Luhansk Alcohol and Liquor Plant called Leonid Derzhak, an employee at the “LNR Ministry of Culture” called Roman Oleksyn, the director of the Local Power Company Volodymyr Rodionov, another union activist called Yuriy Ryaplov, and an employee at the Perevalsk County History Museum, Liudmyla Rusnak. The only people who know what they even look like are probably their families and colleagues.

It’s long been obvious to even the most fervent supporters of the “people’s republics” that the “elections” in DNR and LNR have nothing to do with the actual expression of the people’s will and that people living in occupied Donbas have lost their right to vote. Still, the only option left for those who don’t like the situation is to pour out their negative feelings about it in social nets and anonymous Telegram channels.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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