Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


The lingering speculation about the ouster of Russia’s Donbass point man Vladislav Surkov has in turn triggered fresh speculation about a possible ouster of Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko. In this politically charged atmosphere, the long-forgotten former “People’s Governor” of Donetsk Pavel Gubarev makes a comeback by openly accusing the “DNR” leadership of fabricating evidence against him. And the separatists’ promise to form a customs union between the two “People’s Republics” are troubled by a new tariff imposed by Luhansk on beer from Donetsk.

Speculation about Zakharchenko and his main rival

“DNR”-leader Alexander Zakharchenko gave a press conference in Donetsk on June 5, ending speculation in Ukrainian media about his whereabouts after not appearing in public for a whole week.

However, observers noted that Zakharchenko did not travel to Crimea, where on the same day local leader Sergei Aksyonov hosted prominent separatists for an annual Russian-language festival. While “LNR”-leader Leonid Pasechnik attended, the “DNR” was represented by parliamentary speaker Denis Pushilin, who is seen as a competitor to Zakharchenko.

On June 6, Crimean news site primechaniya.ru reported that the “Chairman of the Donetsk People’s Soviet” Pushilin would replace Zakharchenko, citing anonymous sources in Donetsk. The report also speculated that “LNR” and “DNR” might be merged into a single separatist republic under Pasechnik.

While the Russian Telegram-Channel Nezygar repeated the“Pushilin replaces Zakharchenko” rumour on June 7, leading Russian media did not report it. Instead, Zakharchenko was given a large appearance on a popular Russian state TV show (“Evening with Vladimir Solovyov”) the same evening, where he said that he is expecting a huge “provocation” by Ukrainian armed forces.

The speculation centered on the assumption that Vladislav Surkov, the influential aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, will no longer oversee the Kremlin’s policies towards eastern Ukraine. Surkov was thought to back Zakharchenko over Pushilin in an intra-party struggle last autumn (see Newsletter 24).

Despite expectations, Putin has not announced any reshuffles in his administration since being re-elected in March. On June 10, Konstantin Dolgov, a blogger who moved from Donetsk to Moscow last year and has since often criticized Zakharchenko, said in a video blog that Surkov continued to work in his office in the Kremlin administration.

While Zakharchenko reappeared, his main rival inside the Donetsk “People’s Republic” remained hidden from the public for more than a month. Alexander Khodakovsky, the one-time commander of the “Vostok” brigade, has not posted anything on his social media channels since May 11. In the past, Khodakovsky published vast quantities of lengthy posts on Vkontakte and Facebook, and also hosted a question and answer show on YouTube.

Whether Khodakovsky has been detained or just decided to take a break from his political activities is unclear. Alexander Zhuchkovsky, a separatist fighter who often publishes political posts on social media, linked Khodakovsky’s disappearance to the recent pressure against “Svobodny Donbass” (see Newsletter 31) and suggested that “DNR” leaders, including Zakharchenko and his powerful “Income Minister” Alexander Timofeyev were nervous about their uncertain political future because of the (perceived) power vacuum in the Kremlin.

Denis Kazansky, a Kiev-based journalist originally from Donetsk, pointed out that while Zakharchenko has made himself numerous enemies in Donetsk, a power change could happen in various ways and at various times – ranging from a putsch like in Luhansk 2017 to leadership elections, which are expected to take place in both “People’s Republics” in autumn 2018.

Gubarev claims to be accused of plotting against Zakharchenko

In yet another sign of growing political nervousness in Donetsk, Pavel Gubarev, the almost-forgotten “people’s governor” of the city’s first pro-Russian protests in 2014, published a lengthy article accusing the “DNR” leadership of falsely suspecting him plotting a coup.

In the text, published on June 12 on the dnr-live.ru website, Gubarev writes that senior separatist leaders possessed printouts of a WhatsApp chat in which he allegedly discusses the necessity of overthrowing the current rulers.

Gubarev denied the charges and stressed that the printouts were based on photoshopped screenshots. Moreover, he warns that the fabricated evidence might be used to censor his (online) TV channel Novorossiya TV and to turn his political movement, Svodbodny Donbass, into a “puppet organization” of tightly controlled deputies.

His comments come less than two weeks after Svobodny Donbass complained that two of its members had been abducted, probably by “DNR” security forces who were accusing them of spying for Ukraine (see Newsletter 31).

While Gubarev undoubtedly shares the same pro-Russian convictions as the “DNR” leaders (he said in a recent interview that all of Ukraine belongs to Russia), his political analysis of the “People’s Republics” deserves attention because he indirectly admits the massive role played by Moscow.

Thus, he argues that while it would be exaggerated to call the “DNR” a Russian puppet state “our dependence on Russia cannot be denied” and adds, citing US military strategist Edward Luttwak, that a homegrown putsch is impossible in the “DNR” because the source for its government’s legitimacy lies “nowhere near Donetsk”.

In a veiled reference to Russia, Gubarev adds that the putsch that deposed “LNR” leader Igor Plotnitsky in November wasn’t carried out by Luhansk political elites but by “outside forces”. Plotnitsky, he writes, was ousted because he tried to concentrate all power in his own hands, engaged in massive embezzlement and in reprisals, including torture and killings, against his opponents. Gubarev concludes that in Donetsk and Luhansk a coup d’etat can only happen from above (i.e. with direct support from Moscow), and that is what happened in LNR.

Gubarev’s conspicuous recent political activity is certainly not just linked to the autumn elections (he has not said if he is standing) but also to the (real or perceived) power vacuum in Moscow. Whether Gubarev can succeed in the often violent political scene in the “DNR” remains to be seen.

Separatists impose tariffs on each other

Uneasy relations between the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” were highlighted last week when Ukrainian media publicized a decree by the “LNR” Council of “Ministers” which says that beer from the “DNR” will be subject to a 5 per cent tariff until December 31.

The decree, dated May 29, contrasts with statements by Luhansk separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik, who has vowed to remove tariffs for goods from neighbouring Donetsk. During his first meeting with “DNR” leader Zakharchenko on January 31 in Luhansk, both leaders signed a letter of intent to form a customs union between them (see Newsletter 26). The “LNR” said shortly before that it would lift all tariffs for goods produced in the “DNR”.

Three months later, Pasechnik announced that the “LNR” was “almost completely” lifting its customs border with the “DNR”. However, he cautioned that limitations would remain on alcohol and tobacco products.

The fact that the “LNR” official media did not report about the new tariffs indicates that their purpose might really be to increase budget revenue and/or to protect local industry.

There is a brewery in Rovenki, but beer production in Luhansk ceased after the war. The city’s separatist-controlled authorities said on May 17 that the local Luga-Nova plant would soon begin to produce beer.

The “DNR” on the other hand, claimed last year to have restarted the main Donetsk brewery “Sarmat” with a (theoretical) capacity for 32 million litres per month.

More broadly, tariffs between the “People’s Republics” decry the separatists’ idea of “Novorossia” and an ultimate union with Russia. After all, the conflict in Ukraine started over the question whether the country should join a Customs Union with Russia or sign a trade agreement with the European Union.