Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


The Luhansk and Donetsk separatists are busy preparing elections. Despite the Minsk agreement both “People’s Republics” say they will elect their leaders and parliament this autumn. The parallel preparations look highly orchestrated. Also in tandem, both “Republics” marked victory day and hosted foreign visitors. The separatist sharply criticized Ukraine’s decision to change the format of the military campaign.

Election preparations in tandem

On May 12, “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik presented a lengthy list of policy goals that he plans to achieve over the next five years. Dubbed “Our Choice” (Nash Vybor), the list is expected to serve as an election programme for Pasechnik, who has said that he will stand as “Head of the Republic” for the de-facto ruling party “Peace to Luhansk” (Mir Luganschchine) this autumn.

The actual programme is published nowhere, but during a more than 30-minute long speech in front of separatist dignitaries, Pasechnik promised that his “People’s Republic” will become strong and prosperous while retaining a “unified space with Russia”.

The “LNR” leader came to power only in November, after his bitter rival Igor Plotnitsky was ousted in a coup. In his speech, Pasechnik was careful not mention Plotnitsky or the troops from the neighbouring “DNR” putsch that supported the coup (see Newsletter 25).

Elections preparations are also ongoing in the “DNR”, where the de-facto ruling party “Donetsk Republic” on May 7 unanimously approved a strategy called “Sila Donbassa” (Power of Donbass), which it said will serve as the programme for the re-election campaign of separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko. Like Pasechnik’s programme, the full text of Zakharchenko’s programme has not been published, but according to the “DNR” leader it puts his “People’s Republic” on course for a “union” with Russia: “A common future with Russia is our firm choice. It is already happening … and we won’t leave this path,” he told the convention.

Both “People’s Republics” have said that they will hold elections of their leaders and de-facto parliaments this autumn – four years after the first such elections in November 2014. This creates a fresh conflict with Ukraine and her western allies, who insist that elections in those areas must be held according to the “Package of Measures” signed in Minsk in February 2015. The agreement stipulates the holding of local elections under Ukrainian law, i.e. with the participation of Ukrainian political parties.

The separatists have postponed planned communal elections three times in 2015/2016, probably under pressure from Moscow. Instead they opted to hold “primaries” in October 2016 (see Newsletter 5). This time, however, a postponement might be less likely as both leaders need a popular vote to reaffirm their legitimacy – especially Pasechnik, whose path to power has been without election at all.

Preparations for both elections are apparently ongoing for months – on February 28 the “LNR” Elections Commission said that it was working on a plan for the vote. The “DNR” in December 29 passed a new election law that prolongs the leader’s term from four to five years (Zakharchenko announced it officially after the New Year break). No such law is known from the “LNR”, but the fact that Pasechnik’s programme is for five years makes a change very likely.

The election preparations are also interesting, because as in previous instances, both “People’s Republics” are rolling out highly similar campaigns in tandem, inviting suspicion that they are both orchestrated from outside.

Both “Republics” launched highly similar online voting campaigns for their programmes – Donetsk started it on March 13, in Luhansk Pasechnik announced it one day later. Subsequently, both “People’s Republics” official media outlets were awash with reports about how many thousand citizens had submitted suggestions. Afterwards, separatist leaders promptly announced that all parts of society had taken part in drafting the programmes.

As of yet unclear is, who will stand against both Zakharchenko and Pasechnik. In Donetsk, the pro-forma opposition group “Svobodny Donbass” (Free Donbass) said in April that it had postponed a convention to decide on a candidate. A new date has not been set.

Speculation that renegade commander and Zakharchenko’s only Donetsk-based critic Alexander Khodakovsky will stand, was not confirmed. Such a scenario is also unlikely because Khodakovsky’s “Donbass Patriotic Forces” movement is not officially registered in the “DNR”.

Minsk-violating Victory Day Parades

As in previous years, the People’s Republics held military parades to mark the May 9 Victory Day. Both in Luhansk and Donetsk, they displayed heavy weapons that should be kept behind withdrawal lines according to the Minsk agreement.

Among them were, according to the OSCE Monitoring Mission, nine artillery howitzers, six tanks and three multiple-launch rocket systems in Donetsk, and 18 howitzers, six tanks and six multiple-launch rocket systems in Luhansk.

After the parade, “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko toured an exhibition of what he called the “Republic’s” military industrial complex – displaying grenade launchers, a sniper rifle and even a multiple-launch rocket system, which, he claimed, were all produced locally.

Fears about violent attacks on Victory Day proved unfounded. The Luhansk separatists on April 17 accused the Ukrainian military of destroying a historic tank they were planning to use in the parade. However, when OSCE monitors visited the site later the same day, they recorded damaged trucks, trailers and a surface-to-air missile system, but no tanks.

Apart from proscribed weapons, the OSCE monitors also noted foreign participants at the parades. In Luhansk, some 20 Spanish-speaking people marched with representatives of Russia’s Communist Party, while in Donetsk, a formation of 70 armed men was presented as a formation from South Ossetia.

In fact, both “People’s Republics” actively promoted the presence of foreign guests for the parade and the ensuing “Republic Day” on May 11 (the anniversary of the referenda held in 2014). The most “prominent” was South Ossetian de-facto president Anatoly Bibilov, who met “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik in Luhansk on May 10 and “DNR” leader Zakharchenko one day later.

South Ossetia, itself a little recognized breakaway province of Georgia, is the only region on the globe that has officially recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk republics. When Bibilov visited Donetsk one year ago, he signed a friendship agreement that also recognizes the tiny Caucasus region’s key role in enabling the Donbass separatists making international financial transactions (see Newsletter 22).

By contrast, Georgia’s other breakaway province Abkhazia has not recognized the “People’s Republics” so far. This is probably why it sent only a vice-president to Donetsk for “Republic Day”.

Other visitors included representatives of far-right and far-left European parties who support Russia’s policies in Ukraine. According to the Donetsk “Foreign Ministry”, among them was Andreas Maurer, a city councillor for the far-left Die Linke party in the north German town of Quakenbrück, and Norbert Lindemann, a deputy for the far-right populist AfD party in Berlin’s city parliament. Lindemann said that he went to Donetsk for a private holiday” to support local ethnic Germans. Maurer, who has visited Donetsk and Russia-annexed Crimea before, is currently on trial in Germany for manipulating votes in local elections held two years ago.

The Donetsk Foreign Ministry had also announced a visit by retired German General Harald Kujat, but the former NATO military committee chairman and well-known defender of pro-Kremlin views did not show up.

From ATO to OOS

The separatists – unsurprisingly – had nothing good to say about the implementation of Kiev’s “reintegration law”, which from May 1 onward changes the military campaign – handing over command from the SBU intelligence service to the armed forces and changing the name from “Anti-Terrorist-Operation (ATO) to Joint Forces Operation (known in Russian and Ukrainian by the acronym OOS).

“DNR” chief Minsk negotiator and “parliamentary” speaker Denis Pushilin said that Kiev was just “trying to legalise its crimes”. The change in name won’t bring any significant change, he said in a statement carried by the official DAN news agency on April 30. A few days earlier, Luhansk military spokesman Andrei Marochko made exactly the same allegation.

“LNR” parliamentary speaker Denis Miroshnikchenko claimed that by renaming the operation Ukraine proved that it wanted to retake Donbass by force. He did not elaborate. In addition, “DNR” military spokesman Eduard Basurin claimed that the Ukrainian military will use the new format to force more civilians to move out of the frontline zone.

One of the few separatists who made a substantial claim about the change was Sergei Zavdoveyev, a member of the Donetsk “parliament”. In an interview with DAN, Zavdoveev argued that the SBU’s removal from the command meant that Ukraine’s hopes of fighting separatism with the means of intelligence agents had failed. The new format is meant to enable the Ukrainian Armed Forces to carry out a military offensive, he was quoted as saying.

The separatists also argued that the new format is a violation of the Minsk agreement. However, Martin Sajdik, the OSCE’s chief negotiator, did not mention the issue after the May 4 trilateral contact group talks in Minsk.