Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
The “People’s Republics” reacted both reserved and incoherent to the Ukrainian presidential election. Separatist leaders continued to demonize Ukraine and stress their future with Russia.
Zelenskiy a no-show in separatist media
Separatist-controlled media in both “People’s Republics” reported very little about the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election. Five days after the March 31 vote, the “DNR” official website had not mentioned the winner, Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a single time. The official DAN news site has not mentioned Zelenskiy since February 1 and ran just a single story on election day, in which the separatist “People’s Militia” claimed that the Ukrainian military was attempting to prevent opponents of President Petro Poroshenko from voting, an allegation that was never proven.
The official “LNR” news site Luhansk Information Center (LITs) ran a similar story (“Poroshenko ordered military commanders to take control of elections in the Joint Forces Operation Zone”) but the outlet regularly mentioned Zelenskiy and other candidates. However, its election coverage consisted mainly of quoting foreign separatist sympathizers as saying that the Ukrainian elections are undemocratic and/or falsified.
A report in the Donetsk-based separatist-controlled “Union” TV Channel suggested that the elections were the “dirtiest elections in Ukrainian history”, lacked fairness and that its results were questionable. Overall, “DNR” propaganda focused on Poroshenko, culminating in the installation of a massive “Order of Judas” monument on April 2 outside Donetsk that was modelled on a 1709 sculpture, with which Tsar Peter I denounced Ukrainian Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa as a traitor.
None of the separatist reports explained, why the falsifications, for which they blamed either the government or its western backers, might result in such a poor result for Poroshenko. “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik was also incoherent when he declared on March 25 that the elections are “a farce” that must not be recognized, but reiterated at the same time that he was ready for a dialogue with the new president.
However, “DNR” spokesman Eduard Basurin said on Russian TV that dialogue with Zelenskiy was not possible because of the showman’s open support for government forces fighting in Donbass. And Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin said in an April 3 interview that the elections won’t bring improvement because Ukraine remained under foreign (ie Western) dominance. The only way forward is “to return the Republic to Russia as a full family member,” Pushilin told Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
Kremlin official resigns
Meanwhile, there was fresh speculation about a possible weakening of the role of Vladislav Surkov, the top Kremlin official responsible for eastern Ukraine. According to Russian media reports, Oleg Govorun, who headed the Kremlin directorate that reports to Surkov, handed in his resignation and has been replaced by his deputy, Alexei Filatov. And staff at the Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation has been reduced from almost 30 to 10, the RBC news site reported. RBC also reported that Surkov’s office in the Presidential Administration has been moved from a staircase with powerful officials to one with mid-ranking ones. “This might be a bad sign” the report quoted an unnamed former administration official.
Speculation that Surkov’s influence was waning because the Kremlin was unhappy with developments in Donbass peaked last spring, when President Vladimir Putin waited three months after his re-election before reappointing Surkov. In October, reports surfaced about a downsizing of Govorun’s directorate (see Newsletter 46).
However, there were no immediate signs of policy changes in the “People’s Republics”, both of which recently embarked on policies closely associated with Surkov, who for many years oversaw the Kremlin’s youth policies. After initiating a Youth Parliament and a Public (or Civic) Chamber, the “DNR” on April 5 announced that it had founded a new military-patriotic youth movement called “Molodaya Gvardia” (Young Guard). A movement with the same name forms the youth wing of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
Pasechnik PR offensive
In Luhansk, separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik surprised with a minor PR offensive. In early March, he launched a Twitter account, which one month and 26 Tweets later had about one thousand followers. On March 25 Pasechnik held a call-in-show for residents of Ukraine, in which the slightly uncomfortable looking “LNR”-leader answered (presumably well-prepared) questions read out by a moderator. Only two questions were filed via video, both by students from Luhansk proper and not from government-controlled areas.
Such “direct lines” were held frequently by Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who modelled them on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s much larger annual TV show. The new PR policy in Luhansk coincided with reports that the editor in chief of the official separatist TV station was sacked and replaced with an activist from Crimea.
Pasechnik, a career intelligence officer who in 2014 defected from the Ukrainian SBU to the “LNR”, where he became “State Security” Minister, has previously not appeared much in public, unlike his predecessor Igor Plotnitsky, whom he ousted in a coup in late 2017.
On March 21, Pasechnik and his Donetsk colleague Pushilin signed a memorandum about merging the state railway companies in both “People’s Republics”. Pasechnik called the signing “another important step towards closer cooperation between the brotherly republics”. However, it was not clear when and if the merger will take place.
Despite promises to lift tariffs and even creating a customs union, cooperation between both separatist entities is developing extremely slow, even after the removal of leaders Plotnitsky (Luhansk) and Zakharchenko (who was killed last summer), who were said to have little like for each other (see Newsletter 32).
Pastor arrested during service
The “LNR” continued its crackdown against religious groups not belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. State Security Ministry officials in separatist-controlled Sverdlovsk detained a Protestant Priest during a Sunday church service on March 24, according to fellow priest Serhiy Kosyak. The “LNR” has in the past raided services of Baptists in Luhansk (see Newsletter 40). Both People’s Republics force minority religious groups to register with authorities and no protestant church has so far managed to receive registration, according to Kosyak.