Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
The separatist leaders visited the Caucasus to mark the anniversary of Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia – the only “state” which recognized the “DNR” and “LNR”. At home, a major political concession was looming as both “People’s Republics” are signaling that they might not hold elections this autumn. Moreover, in Luhansk members of the separatist Elections Commission complained to Moscow that they had been forced to resign. For the Kremlin, the elections are reported to be a tool of pressure in the Minsk negotiations – partially in contradiction to the interests of the separatist leaders. A Russian TV station caused an international outcry after it aired an interview with an imprisoned journalist in Donetsk, and the separatists’ crackdown on non-orthodox religious minorities continued, in particular on the Baptists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims.
Separatist leaders, spouses, attend South Ossetia celebrations
“DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko and the “LNR’s” Leonid Pasechnik where in South Ossetia on August 26, where they took part in the celebrations for the ten-year anniversary of Russia’s decision to recognize the Georgian breakaway province’s independence. Both men even brought their spouses to the regional capital Tskhinvali, who have rarely been seen in public before. South Ossetian TV showed the wives, both of whom are called Natalya, escorting their husbands on a red carpet before drinking tea together with local “first lady” Linda Kumaritova and Nuhu Abdul-Waheed, the wife of the Syrian Ambassador to Moscow.
Zakharchenko and Pasechnik where the only “heads of state” at the ceremonies but did not make any speeches or significant statements. This was left to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin aide who oversees both eastern Ukraine and Georgia’s breakaway provinces and the most senior Russian official to attend the celebrations. Speaking in Tskhinvali, he praised South Ossetia for “becoming the only state brave enough” to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics”.
Moscow recognized the Georgian separatist provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008, after a five-day war in which Russian troops routed Georgian government forces who tried to recapture South Ossetia. The move seriously worsened the confrontation with the West, who insists on Georgia’s territorial integrity. However, Moscow has not recognized the “People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine, despite playing a huge role in creating and sustaining them. Instead, President Vladimir Putin signed the Minsk peace accord, which envisages the separatist-held areas’ reintegration into Ukraine.
South Ossetia has been recognized only by a handful of other states (Syria did so in May), but it recognized both the Donetsk and the Luhansk “People’s Republics” in June 2014 and to date remains the only “state” to have done so. This has made it possible for Russia to use the tiny South Caucasus region as a hub for financial transactions between Moscow and Donetsk and Luhansk respectively, while denying any direct involvement (see Newsletter 22).
In his speech in Tskhinvali, Surkov clearly hinted on the role played by South Ossetia when he said that infrastructure that was set up there provides a lifeline to the east Ukrainian “republics” because of Ukraine’s blockade.
No elections in Donetsk and Luhansk this year?
In early August, official media in both “DNR” and “LNR” began a campaign for not holding elections this year and extending the terms of office for both republics’ leaders and “parliaments” from four to five years.
While largely synchronized, the campaign appeared markedly weaker in Donetsk, which probably reflects stronger resistance from “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko and/or his entourage to an initiative originating in Moscow.
The first publication appeared in Donetsk on August 6, when the official news site DAN published a call by three members of the ruling movement “Donetsk Republic”, who argued that a five-year term would give the electorate more time to judge the government’s work.
This relatively vague statement was made more specific only a week later, when the same site published two more “opinions”, one saying that holding elections in times of war may harm the consolidation of society, the other arguing that terms of office should be similar to those in Russia.
However, the opinions were voiced by little-known activists and the stories appeared only on DAN, while both the official “DNR” website and the site of the “Donetsk Republic” movement ignored the issue altogether.
In the “LNR”, by contrast, the official Luhansk Information Centre news site put out more than ten news items since August 9, in which more and less well-known academics and trade unionists argue for postponing the elections and extending terms of office. (Most stories were published at exactly 09:00 h, indicating a prepared campaign.)
On August 20, the Moscow-based RBC media group published a report which cited a Kremlin source and three sources in Donetsk and Luhansk confirming that the elections in the “People’s Republics” would be cancelled and that preparations for them had been stopped months ago.
The report cited “multiple reasons” for this, among them that “risks for the Minsk negotiations and the danger of new (western) sanctions. It also said that pollsters sent from Moscow to Donetsk earlier this summer had found that the “DNR” separatist leadership was not popular among the electorate.
“Carrying out elections is desirable if they solve problems, but not if they create them”, the report quoted Moscow political scientist Alexei Chesnakov, a former close aide to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s point man for eastern Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, the RBC report was dismissed by Alexander Kazakov, the Moscow-installed advisor to “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who said that no official decision had been taken so far. Rodion Miroshnik, an adviser to “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik, gave a similar comment. Writing on Facebook, Kazakov added that both Zakharchenko and Pasechnik had a strong interest in holding elections.
The elections were expected to be held in November, when the four-year terms of both leaders and parliaments expire. This spring, both People’s Republics” saw something close to election campaigns when five-year “programmes” were adopted after “public discussion” and online votes on the official separatist websites (see Newsletter 28).
The “DNR” has already extended its leader’s term of office, and Zakharchenko said in January that he will stand for a five-year term later this year. During a call-in show in June he stressed that elections were necessary even under conditions of martial law “because this proves that we are independent”.
A popular vote may be even more important for Luhansk separatist leader Pasechnik, who came to power through a putsch last year. Even pro-Kremlin voices like the Crimea-based blogger and analyst Boris Rozhin (aka Colonel Cassad) argue that extending terms of office without elections is another challenge for the separatist leaders’ already dubious legitimacy.
On the other hand, Rozhin argues, the relatively smooth power change in Luhansk proved that the Kremlin can change separatist leaders at little cost. And Luhansk leader Pasechnik, a shadowy intelligence officer, might be much happier to remain in power without having to campaign in public.
These elections clearly have more to do with the Minsk negotiations than with the “People’s Republics” themselves. “DNR” chief negotiator Denis Pushilin actually admitted after a round of talks in Minsk on July 25 that there is pressure to cancel the elections – without saying from where. The separatists have in the past cancelled elections under pressure from Moscow to comply with the Minsk agreement, which stipulates them to be held under Ukrainian law (see Newsletter 5).
On August 22, Moscow hinted that it is using the elections as a bargaining chip versus Kiev. In an interview with the Tass state news agency, which was carried by both the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist news sites, the Kremlin-connected Chesnakov said that the vote won’t be held if Ukraine extends the so-called special status law versus Donbass.
“If this law won’t be extended, the Minsk agreements will be broken by Ukraine. In this case, I am sure that the elections … will be held in this year,” Chesnakov was quoted as saying.
Observers agree that Moscow is currently hoping for an end to the sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States over the conflict in Ukraine. This was highlighted by President Vladimir Putin’s surprise visit to the wedding of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl on August 18 and his talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Meseberg near Berlin later the same day.
Luhansk Election Commission purged
In Luhansk, meanwhile, another election-connected conflict became public when Russia’s RBC reported on August 7 that the leadership of the “LNR” Election Commission wrote a complaint to the Kremlin Administration and Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee after being fired over a conflict with separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik.
The report said that in May, Pasechnik’s administration demanded from Commission chairman Alexander Shubin and some of his colleagues to alter voting lists so that nine people – presumed to be Pasechnik loyalists – could be given vacant seats in the separatist “parliament”. After Shubin refused on grounds that this is illegal, Commission members received open threats.
In June 29, Shubin was relieved of his duties by parliament. Before the vote, a member of the “LNR” State Security “Ministry”, known as MGB and formerly headed by Pasechnik, visited MPs and recommended them to vote for Shubin’s dismissal in order to avoid “negative consequences”, the report quoted Shubin’s deputy Pavel Shupranov as saying.
Shubin told RBC that after his dismissal he was arrested by MGB people and held in a windowless cell in Luhansk. He added that he was released after two and a half hours but that his wife continues to receive phone calls from the MGB agent who detained him. “I fear for my life and am hiding from him,” he said about the agent.
RBC even managed to get confirmation from both the Presidential Administration and the Investigative Committee that the Commission members’ complaints were received.
On July 18, “LNR” media reported that six new members have been appointed to the Election Commission – three by Pasechnik and another three by “parliament”.
This is not the first conflict with separatist election officials. In 2016, reports said that Roman Lyagin, who headed the “DNR” Election Commission, was beaten and arrested after an argument with Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko. Lyagin has since then been released and is believed to be living in Russia, but his Facebook page remains a platform for open criticism of the “DNR” leadership.
Imprisoned journalist paraded on Russian TV
On August 17, Russian State TV station Rossiya 24 broadcast an interview with Stanislav Aseyev, the Donetsk-based blogger and journalist who has been held, apparently on spying charges, by the separatists since summer 2017.
The interview, in which Aseyev admits that he spied for the Ukrainian Military Intelligence Agency, was condemned as “highly questionable” by Radio Liberty, the US broadcaster for whom Aseyev worked under the pseudonym of Stanislav Vasin.
Yehor Firsov, the former Ukrainian MP and friend of Aseyev, said that the separatists had “beaten Stas (Aseyev) into confession” (Stas is an affectionate form of Stanislav). Media rights organizations also condemned the publication. “Hauling a jailed journalist in front of a camera and apparently forcing him to equate his reporting with spying is an outrage,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said.
The TV interview follows the publication of a diary, purportedly by Aseyev, in which he wrote about working for Ukrainian intelligence. Firsov has called the diary a fabrication (see Newsletter 37). Earlier, Firsov said that Aseyev had started a hunger strike in late June.
Aseyev vanished in Donetsk in June 2017. The separatists have never confirmed his detention. Instead, the “DNR” Interior “Ministry” published a missing notice about him in July 2017. The first independent confirmation that Aseyev is imprisoned by the separatists was made by Ihor Kozlovsky, the scientist from Donetsk who was released after being incarcerated in the “DNR” for almost two years.
Crackdown against Baptists in Luhansk
The separatists also continued to crack down against minority religious groups in both Luhansk and Donetsk. The “LNR” State Security “Ministry” (MGB) said on July 26 that it had raided the premises of a Baptist Church in Luhansk. Footage published on the MGB website showed masked men entering a makeshift chapel during a religious service.
The MGB claimed that the Baptist Church was an “extremist religious organization” that refused to register in the “LNR” and accused it of cooperation with Ukrainian nationalists, propagating the forceful return of the “LNR” to Ukraine and of even drugging members in order to carry out these “destructive activities”.
The report warned that more measures against illegal religious organizations were underway.
On August 16, “DNR” MPs together with lawmakers from Russia’s Orenburg region discussed legal amendments to introduce the idea of “religious security” into law, thus making it easier to ban religious organizations under the pretext of national security. One MP, Vitaly Kravets, argued that because of the ongoing war people were more vulnerable for sects’ proselytizing and that the state should protect them from this.
The crackdown against non-Russian-Orthodox groups has been ongoing for some time. Among the prime targets are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who saw the seizure of 14 premises in non-government-controlled areas, according to a recent report by the UN Human Rights High Commissioner.
Muslims have also been targeted, notably in June, when the “DNR” MGB said that it had uncovered a Muslim terrorist cell during a raid in an office in Donetsk. The given address in Berestovkaya Street used to house the city’s Islamic Culture Centre and a number of Muslim organizations.
On August 21, “DNR” leader Zakharchenko published an official congratulatory statement on the occasion of Kurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha), in which he stressed the republic’s multi-confessional society and Muslims’ role in defending its independence. The Donetsk Information “Ministry” published a short video from the festivities outside the city’s main mosque.