Who’s Behind Separatism in the Donbas?

1 May 2014, 17:08

The police and the authorities are nowhere to be seen. Cities are controlled by unidentified men in camouflage. It's like some apocalyptic movie suddenly became the reality and we're right in the thick of it.

What began as peaceful demonstrations and comically awkward attempts at mimicking the events at Maidan is gradually turning into an outright uprising. Seasoned international correspondents compare the city of Slovyansk with Chechnya. According to them, things are looking exactly like they did just before the first Chechen conflict ensued: blocked streets, trucks parked across the roads, militant groups on the streets.

As the death toll climbs, there's no sign that separatists intend stopping any time soon. When asked about their goals and objectives, all as one are firm: we'll stand until the end. And to most of them that end means separation from Ukraine.

Politicians from the Party of Regions call for negotiations with separatists, demanding from the government of Yatseniuk to make concessions. Yet they don't seem to be in control of the situation. The debate regarding their role in this separatist insurgence is still on, but while it is safe to say that these politicians helped to stir the pot initially, it's hard to tell who's really in control now. Ever since the unrest ensued, it incorporated masses of uncontrollable types, from characters with criminal past to outright lunatics. Their position is mostly Makhnovist: zero trust in politicians, they're all crooks, no one's to be trusted. Mykhailo Dobkin, the Party of Regions’ MP, ex-governor of Kharkiv Oblast during Yanukovych’s presidency and a candidate in the current presidential campaign, nearly got torn to pieces by the crowd in Luhansk. The notorious mayor of Slovyansk Nelia Shtepa was accused of links with the Right Sector and removed from her office. Now the city is run by the "people's mayor", a local Afghan War veteran. Later Shtepa appeared on regional TV, saying that the situation in the city was out of control and that grocery stores were being looted.

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The separatist movement appears to consist of a number of different movements and clearly not all of them are controlled by the Party of Regions’ politicians, at least not by those still residing in Ukraine.

The situation on the ground is mostly handled by people with ties to the Family, as well as instructors from Russia. At least the most radical and well trained of the separatist forces are run by the people of Yanukovych and thus are not accountable to the local and more moderate the Party of Regions politicians who call to lay down arms and resolve the issue through negotiations. The statements by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov about readiness to make concessions, to hold a referendum and decentralize power in Ukraine that, one would think, should have helped to deescalate the conflict, came to nothing. All the participants of separatist rallies that I've been able to talk to were single-minded: Turchynov was a nobody to them. And the representatives of the Party of Regions that are calling for dialogue would also be inevitably chased away by the crowd. The majority claim they want federalization. But their understanding of this term envisages being part of Ukraine nominally at best: the complete political independence from Kyiv, own vector of foreign politics, Russian as the only official language on the territory of Donetsk region, own history books, own school curriculum "as in Russia", etc.

However, such fundamental stubbornness happens to perfectly correlate with the plans of Viktor Yanukovych, who is most certainly set to break off a part of Ukraine and establish his control over it. The conciliatory policy of the Donetsk elites, who are now struggling to secure preferential treatment for their business, is not to former president's liking. He'd be rather more content with authoritarian rule, even if that means settling for a handful of regions most loyal to him. Which is why he keeps reiterating the message so dominant in the eastern Ukraine these days: "The Donbas does not recognize the junta". This slogan is indeed echoed by the overwhelming majority at the pro-Russian rallies. Thus the Party of Regions members find themselves amidst a vicious circle, as by recognizing the legitimacy of the government they automatically become traitors for the masses supporting the unrest in the cities of the Donbas.

As for the role of the Russian government in the organization of mass riots and armed assaults of police stations all over Donetsk region, it isn't very significant for the time being. It looks like Russia is providing the people of Yanukovych instructors with combat experience and military professionals that help organizing armed assaults. Most likely small Russian diversionist groups do operate in Donetsk region, yet the main striking force is represented by local insurgents.

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For instance, the "Russian colonel" from Horlivka that was filmed speaking in front of local police officers turned out to be Horlivka resident and Ukrainian citizen, the retired lieutenant colonel of Main Intelligence Directorate Special Forces named Ihor Bezler (later, the SBU, Ukraine’s Special Service, disclosed his telephone conversation with Alfa, the leader of the diversionist group that kidnapped Volodymyr Rybak, a Batkivshchyna deputy of the Horlivka City Council (Donetsk Oblast) on April 17 after he tore down the Donetsk People’s Republic flag from the Horlivka City Council building. On April 19, his body, and the body of Yuriy Popravko, a student of the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute – both with signs of torture, were found in a river near Slaviansk. The SBU also tapped Bezler’s conversation with Viacheslav Ponomariov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, where he asked Ponomariov to “deal with the corpse; make sure he’s dragged out of here as soon as possible; he’s lying and stinking here” – Ed.). He used to be in charge of the local mortuary belonging to "Prostir" municipal enterprise. Later Bezler worked as the head of security service for candidates in parliamentary elections lobbied by certain Shakhov, in particular Artur Herasimov who ran for deputy of Horlivka majoritarian district but didn’t get elected. From 2012 onwards Bezler was part of security service of the Private JSC Horlivskyi Mashynobudivnyk in the team of Ihor Kryzhanovskyi who was elected deputy of Donetsk regional council with the Party of Regions.

Incidentally, the Horlivka mayor Yevhen Klep, whom separatists were forcing to resign, revealed that he was pressured by the locally known businessman Ruslan Shulika who has ties to the criminal authority Armen Sarkisian. It was Sarkisian who organized "titushkas" attack on the Euromaidan rally in Donetsk and later brought the militants to Kyiv. Reports in the media suggest that his people killed several protesters in the capital. Sarkisian is referred to as the "Family's" man responsible for Horlivka.

Hence, Russia is not trying to detach the Donbas following the Crimean scenario. The fairy tales about tremendous wealth of the Donetsk region may fool the lumpen population of half-deserted miner villages, but not the Russian government that is unlikely to burden the already troubled economy with the loss-making and subsidized enterprises of the Soviet ilk. Instead, creating a perennial "Transnistria" that will drag Ukraine off the path of the European integration and into the abyss of crisis is another matter altogether!

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One cannot rule out the possibility that some of the groups operating in the region are in fact not controlled by anyone but their leaders on the ground. They don't seem to be united by anything but sheer hatred towards Ukraine and the government in power. It very much remains a question whether anyone is going to be capable of getting them to disarm and surrender, even if politicians manage to find common ground. Some folks recently came up with an idea to impose tax on Jews, who were proposed to appear at the Donetsk Regional State Administration building and pay 50 dollars of tax as specified in the printed notice spread around the city. And although the separatist leaders distanced themselves from this initiative, many among the insurgents welcomed the idea. Something tells me we haven't seen the end of that just yet.

The Party of Regions spent more than a decade tallyhoing the local population with tales about cruel fascists from the western Ukraine that just can't wait for the right opportunity to come to the Donbas and do away with the locals. Eventually the hysteria reached such a degree that the lid blew off. And the first to succumb to the flood was Party of Regions itself. Since the conflict began its ratings went through the floor, including the home support in the east where the locals just couldn't forgive the indecisiveness and the crushing defeat to pro-European forces.

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Attempting to create some kind of Eastern Ukrainian identity, or de-facto simply importing Russian propaganda for the lack their own, Party of Regions has brought up thousands of Ukrainophobes and created in its core region not a "Donetsk Republic", but rather a "little angry Russia" that in one outburst of frenzy barricaded itself from the entire world. And the warfare that may break out any moment will either do away with it altogether, or spearhead its complete separation and transformation into a new Transnistria.

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