Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


Conflicts among the Donetsk separatists continued as their leader Zakharchenko lashed out against two MPs with links to his potential rivals. Meanwhile, the main medical university in Donetsk might soon issue Russian diplomas. And the Luhansk separatists opened their first foreign office – in Messina, Sicily.

Zakharchenko attacks political rivals

The Donetsk “People’s Republic” was hit by fresh political infighting last week after separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko demanded that two members of “parliament” should be investigated for unethical behavior and ordered parliamentary “speaker” Denis Pushilin to oversee this.

Zakharchenko said during a TV question and answer programme on June 28, that Yelena Melnik and Valery Skorokhodov should lose their parliamentary seats if accusations against them are upheld. In footage shown during the programme and backed by a loyal TV reporter, Melnik was alleged to have been rude to hospital staff. Skorokhodov was accused of illegally acquiring a nationalized farm.

Pushilin duly promised the next day that the parliamentary ethics committee would look into both cases, but the committee had already sided with Skorokhodov. In a highly unusual move for the otherwise servile “people’s council”, the committee on June 28 demanded an apology from Oplot TV for the report in which the MP is lambasted for resisting the farm’s nationalization. The committee added that it recommended Skorokhodov to file a complaint to prosecutors and sue the TV station for libel.

These findings are especially daring because Oplot TV, named after Zakharchenko’s pro-Russian movement, serves as a mouthpiece for the “DNR” leader and his powerful ally and Income “Minister” Alexander Timofeyev.

The Oplot report, aired on June 27, accuses Skorokhodov of doing business “with the enemy”, having bought a farm, that “should be” state property, from its Ukrainian owner. The footage shows a tense standoff between armed men from Timofeyev’s “ministry” and Skorokhodov, who is seen arriving at the farm south of Donetsk in a shiny Range Rover.

The “MP” later denied that he had bought the farm and said that he had just been helping a local farmer, who had called him for help. He also accused Timofeyev’s people of acting with impunity and alleged that the Oplot programme was fabricated.

Skorokhodov is a deputy for “Donetsk Republic”, the unofficial “DNR” ruling party (officially a movement) headed by Zakharchenko. However, he is reportedly a close ally of Pushilin, who was ousted as “Donetsk Rublic’s” executive officer in October, just as Zakharchenko announced that he would seek re-election in November 2018 (see Newsletter 28). On July 3 the party presidium unanimously expressed its disapproval of Skorokhodov’s behavior.

Melnik is a member of the “Svobodny Donbass” faction, which has in the past weeks repeatedly challenged Zakharchenko’s and Timofeyev’s authority.

Notably, the dispute between Zakharchenko and the MPS was reported on the official DAN news site, but there was no mention of it on the site of Melnik’s “Svobodny Donbass” party, nor on dnr-live.ru, a news site linked to the party. The official “DNR” website also did not report the story.

Zakharchenko’s attacks against both MPs can be seen as a warning against potential opponents in the upcoming “DNR” election. The separatist leader said during the June 28 TV programme that “there are more and more” pretenders for his job.

Zakharchenko also claimed that campaigning had not begun, which Ukrainian media interpreted as a signal that Moscow, believed to control much of the separatist politics, has not decided who it will back if such elections are to be held.

However, Zakharchenko made some typical pre-election promises, like raising wages for miners (up to 45,000 roubles) and reducing petrol prices. On June 2, his office said that the nighttime curfew would be moved forward from 11pm to 1am after “numerous requests” were made during the TV show.

Donetsk university to hand out Russian diplomas

Zakharchenko also reiterated during the June 28 TV programme, that despite the Minsk agreement, his aim remains to build an independent state. In another step towards the separatists’ goal of “integration with Russia”, the “DNR” said that its main medical university will soon be offering Russian diplomas to its students. The Donetsk National Medical University will be evaluated by Russia’s education oversight agency Rosobrnadzor between July 9 and 24, the Education “Ministry” said in a statement on July 2.

If the evaluation is positive, the university will become the first in the separatist-controlled areas to offer Russian diplomas. Like most universities, the Donetsk Medical University in 2014 split into two parts after pro-Ukrainian staff and students set up a new campus in government-controlled Krasniy Lyman.

Universities in both “People’s Republics” started handing out diplomas from Russian universities already last year. However, to receive them, students had to enroll in Russian universities and engage in distance learning. Ukraine does not recognize diplomas issued by separatist authorities. The government in Kiev has recently stepped up efforts offering students in separatist-controlled areas and in Crimea to get Ukrainian diplomas by enrolling in distant learning programmes known as “externat” in Russian and Ukrainian.

“LNR” office opens in Sicily

Meanwhile, the Luhansk People’s Republic” announced the opening of its first representation abroad. The office in Messina on the Italian Island of Sicily is another step towards the republic’s international recognition, Foreign “Minister” Vladislav Deinego said. However, Deinego did not attend the opening, but spoke to the centre’s Italian activists during a video call from Luhansk.

Both “people’s republics” are recognized by no other country except South Ossetia, itself a little-recognized breakaway territory in Georgia.

However, the “DNR” has already opened representations in five European countries, including Greece, Finland and France. In December 2016 it opened an office in the north Italian city of Turin (see Newsletter 12). A centre in the Czech city of Olomouc was closed by Czech authorities in April.

The centres are typically run by local pro-Russian activists and have no official links to the host country’s governments. On its Facebook page, the “LNR” office in Messina claims to be a cultural centre. Its head, Daniele Macris, is apparently a local scholar for Greeks and other ethnic minorities in southern Italy.

The late opening of the first “LNR” foreign representation can be explained with the fact that the Luhansk separatists appointed their first foreign “minister” only in September 2017. And as “Minister”, Deinego has continued to focus on his job a s the “LNR” chief Minsk negotiator. To this date, his “ministry” has no website but only a Facebook page with a mere 100 likes.