Small islands of rebel power make big trouble for Ukraine
Militants plan independence referendum on May 11th and vow to boycott May 25th presidential vote
A pro-Russian separatist stands guard inside a barricade constructed around the Donetsk regional administration building following its recent takeover by separatists. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
From the top floor of his towering, barricaded, poster-plastered headquarters, Denis Pushilin surveys the gritty glory of what he calls his Donetsk People’s Republic.
He can gaze past the leafy central boulevards and pavement cafes of one-million-strong Donetsk city, to a region studded with Soviet-era coalmines and smoke-belching metal works that is home to almost one-tenth of Ukraine’s 46 million people.
Beyond Pushilin’s 11-storey stronghold, however, hardly anyone has even heard of him.
He and his allies do not even seem to have authority over the entire Donetsk regional administration building that protesters occupied three weeks ago, with more radical elements suspecting them of political and financial opportunism.
Activists who reject the new pro-EU government in Kiev, and want either greater autonomy for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east or unification with Russia, now control official buildings in about 10 towns across the rustbelt Donetsk region.
But Pushilin’s name means little or nothing in places like Kramatorsk, Yenakievo, Horlivka and Slovyansk. They all fly the red, blue and black flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but each has its own leaders, who seem to have minimal contact with supposed comrades elsewhere.
These characters are a varied bunch: Pushilin was a casino croupier and sold financial products for Russia’s infamous former pyramid-schemer Sergei Mavrodi. His more forbidding counterpart in Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, says he served in a Soviet military special operations unit, and now owns a soap factory.
Other self-proclaimed leaders keep popping up across the east, but none have a popular mandate: in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, a tiny crowd voted last week for an obscure blogger to become the “people’s governor”.
Even fierce critics of the Kiev government, like opposition leader Mikhail Dobkin, said such “elections” were absurd.
“I don’t pay much attention to the election of local ‘people’s governors’ or ‘mayors’,” he said, in response to the Kharkiv vote. “When in a region of three million, a person is chosen by barely 100 people, what can you say?”
Ukraine’s security services believe these people are mere pawns in a scheme run by intelligence agents from Russia, which they accuse of seeking to destabilise and even split the country to prevent it turning decisively to the West.
Kiev believes the Kremlin is following a modified version of tactics it used in Crimea, where Moscow’s military – in unmarked uniforms and amid official denials – took control before a referendum that led swiftly to the peninsula joining Russia.
The man installed as Crimea’s leader by an assembly occupied by Russian gunmen was Sergei Aksyonov, whose party won just 4 per cent of votes in the last local elections, and who has been forced to deny alleged links to the criminal world.
What the east’s various protest leaders do agree on, is to hold a referendum across Donetsk by May 11th on a proposed split from Ukraine.
Later, they say, the region may vote again on whether to join Russia. Likeminded rebels occupying buildings in Luhansk, capital of the neighbouring province, share these plans.
Pushilin claims his republic has a central election committee and is preparing to publish ballots, and will rely on Cossacks to prevent “provocations” from Ukrainian nationalists.
Serhiy Taruta, the local oligarch who was appointed Donetsk governor by Kiev, poured scorn on the idea that the people occupying his offices could hold such a vote.
“We have 2.7 million voters in the region, and 5,000 polling districts, for heaven’s sake. Three people can band together and declare an American republic or I can call myself the pope. That doesn’t make it legitimate or transparent,” he told western newspapers this week.
Taruta, apparently with government support, proposes that a national referendum – on raising the status of the Russian language and decentralising powers from Kiev to the regions – be held on May 25th, together with presidential elections. Those are two key demands of people in the east, who feel ignored and threatened by a new national government dominated by politicians from the mostly Ukrainian-speaking centre and west of the country.
A survey conducted this month for respected Ukrainian newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia revealed strong dissatisfaction with the government in the largely Russian-speaking southeast, but no widespread desire for Kremlin intervention.
The poll revealed that 69.7 per cent of people across the entire southeast opposed joining Russia and, though this fell to 52 per cent in Donetsk, only 27.5 per cent of respondents in that region actually favoured rule from Moscow.
The new government must convince easterners that it will work in their interests, respect their traditional ties with Russia, and make their lives more stable and more prosperous.
Slide towards chaos
But first it must halt a precipitous slide towards chaos and further bloodshed, a process Kiev says Russia will seek to accelerate ahead of the May 25th presidential elections that would give more legitimacy to the new authorities.
“They have no political ideas. They have no programme. They are waiting for something to happen,” Taruta said of the militants.
Considering the current impossibility of the rebels holding a credible referendum, analysts wonder how they will dramatically change the situation in the east before May 11th, given that they are unlikely to simply cancel the vote and admit to having insufficient power or support to make it work.
A sharp escalation in violence or a Russian invasion could give them a way out.
Senior Russian politicians, meanwhile, are already casting doubt on the legitimacy of the presidential elections, and Pushilin, Ponomaryov and their allies are determined to disrupt them.
“We will do everything necessary to make sure elections don’t happen in the southeast,” said Ponomaryov.
When asked how far he would go to achieve his aim, he replied: “We’ll take someone prisoner and hang him by the balls. Seriously. Do you understand me?”