Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
New rumours about the fate of Kremlin “curator” Vladislav Surkov raised questions over Russia’s policies vis-à-vis the „People’s Republics“, just as the separatists prepared to celebrate the fifth anniversary of their existence. Meanwhile, Moscow’s decision to distribute Russian passports is getting closer to be implemented as local inhabitants began submitting applications for Russian citizenship. In Luhansk, another “minister” vanished after being sacked.
Fresh rumours about Surkov
Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov, believed to be the “People’s Republics” chief architect, became the target of yet another information campaign when numerous social media posts suggested that he would no longer oversee Russia’s policies over Donbass.
The campaign began on 30 April, when Alexander Zhuchkovsky, a Russian writer and former volunteer fighter, wrote on Twitter that Surkov had been ousted as “chief Curator” for “DNR” and “LNR”. “This time really”, he added, because similar rumours had been launched before. Zhuchkovsky suggested that Surkov’s job might be given to Mikhail Babich, a longtime Kremlin official who had been fired as Russian Ambassador to Belarus the same day.
On 2 May Zhuchkovsky tweeted that Babich had been appointed as Surkov’s successor (“as expected”) and on 5 May he claimed that Babich had already left for Donetsk. On the same day the rumour was also spread by Ukrainian activist Vera Iastrebova, who heads the Eastern Human Rights Group and said on Facebook that Babich had arrived in Donetsk to meet with separatist officials.
The WarGonzo Telegram Channel, which is operated by Russian blogger Semon Pegov, said later on May 5 that Babich had not yet arrived in Donetsk but that separatist leader Denis Pushilin was in Moscow for “consultations in the Kremlin. The rumours also spread to Luhansk, were a Telegram channel and a Twitter account, both of them anonymous, claimed that separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik was about to be replaced by his chief of staff Olga Bass.
However, none of this was confirmed. Instead, the separatist-controlled DAN news site said on 11 May that Surkov issued a congratulatory statement to the “People’s Republics” on the fifth anniversary of their controversial “referendums”.
Surkov has been the subject of speculation before, especially in 2018, when Russian President Vladimir Putin waited three months to reappoint him as a Kremlin aide. Russian media have speculated that Putin and/or senior members of his administration want to replace Surkov because they are unhappy with the state of affairs in the “People’s Republics” (see Newsletter 33).
While the rumours about Surkov may just reflect unhappiness with him among his enemies in Moscow, one significant staff change did occur in the Kremlin: The head of the Presidential Administration’s department responsible for eastern Ukraine, Oleg Govorun, resigned in April and was replace by his deputy Alexei Filatov. The Kommersant newspaper reported that Govorun left for “family reasons”, but other media reports suggested that both his department’s and Surkov’s influence in the Kremlin was being significantly cut back (see Newsletter 54).
In another indication that Surkov’s fortunes are going down, his allies in Moscow, first and foremost political scientist Alexei Chesnakov, were silent this time. Only Konstantin Dolgov, a Moscow-based blogger who has supported Pushilin and Surkov in the past, came out with a blog post claiming that Surkov was “so far” in charge of the “People’s Republics”.
Few foreigners attend fifth anniversary celebrations in Donetsk and Luhansk
Meanwhile, Donetsk and Luhansk saw a string of political celebrations marking May Day, Victory Day, and the fifth anniversary of the 11 May 2014 referenda. Called “Republic Day”, the anniversary celebrations kicked off in Donetsk on 11 May, attended by the same handful of foreign visitors as in previous years: South Ossetian de-facto president Anatoly Bibilov, Abkhazian de-facto Prime Minister Valery Bganba and “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik. A group of supporters from western Europe was given medals and letters of thanks during a meeting with “DNR” Foreign “Minister” Natalia Nikonorova.
“DNR” leader Denis Pushilin gave Pasechnik an order of friendship and the two together presented a set of commemorative stamps. In a first, Pushilin took to the stage with a guitar and performed a song called “Russia – Motherland”.
South Ossetia, a Russian-controlled breakaway region of Georgia, is the only territory that has recognized the “People’s Republics” so far. Abkhazia has not done so, as has Russia. As in past years, Moscow sent no government officials but members of both houses of parliament to Donetsk and Luhansk.
On May 12, celebrations were held in Luhansk with Bibilov, Pushilin and Abkhaz de-facto Foreign Minister Daur Kove. With Bibilov, “LNR” leader Pasechnik exchanged the ratification documents of a friendship treaty signed last year. Foreign “Ministers” Vladislav Deinego and Dmitry Medoyev signed an agreement on establishing diplomatic relations, almost five years after June 2014, when South Ossetia recognized the “People’s Republics” as independent states. The agreement apparently allows the existing representative offices to become embassies.
The “DNR” announced last year that it plans to open an embassy in South Ossetia, but this has not happened. Pushilin said in an interview published on 1 February that there was a “technical delay” and that embassies would open later this year.
Russia begins passport campaign
Meanwhile, separatist de-facto authorities said that they have begun accepting applications for Russian passports. The “DNR” said on 7 May that applications can be handed in at all 33 offices of its Migration Service.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed that people were queuing up in both non-government-controlled parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions on 7 May. However, people in “LNR”-controlled Antratsyt told the OSCE observers that they were waiting to receive information about obtaining Russian passports and not in order to submit applications.
Russian President Vladimir Putin decreed on April 24 that holders of “DNR” and “LNR” passports can obtain Russian citizenship on a fast-track basis – a move that was widely seen as a reaction to comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy winning the Ukrainian presidential election (see Newsletter 55).
The move was widely condemned in Ukraine and the West. Writing for the Jamestown Foundation, US analyst Vladimir Socor said that Russia effectively “annexes the population, still without acknowledging the territorial annexation, but cementing it.”
How many inhabitants of the “People’s Republics” will accept Russian citizenship will be an important indication of the population’s political leanings, as has been the case with separatist-issued passports. Available figures suggest that only a fraction of the local population have accepted “DNR” and “LNR” citizenship”. The “DNR” said in November that almost 250,000 “passports” have been distributed, some 15 per cent of the assumed population of just under 2 million.
Assuming that Russian passports are part of a “hearts and minds” campaign by the Kremlin, Ukrainian activists have claimed that few people will demand them. Thus, the Eastern Human Rights Group said on May 10, quoting information obtained from separatist authorities, that just seven per cent of pensioners and less than a third of the local population are likely to apply. Priority will be given to members of the armed formations, security services and local officials, the group said. This was seemingly confirmed by photos spread on Twitter that showed notices at a Donetsk Migration Service office saying that applications will be accepted only from members of those professions.
There are also clear capacity limitations. The “LNR” said that it can process up to 3,000 applications per week. This means that no more than 156,000 passports can be issued per year. Given that the “LNR” has an estimated population of more than one million, it would take more than six years to provide all inhabitants with Russian passports.
“LNR” minister vanishes
In the “LNR” another “minister” was fired without warning. Industry “Minister” Dmitry Bozhich was replaced by Yuri Govtvin, formerly a deputy Interior Minister, on April 30. Bozhich, who had been sacked already by former “LNR” leader Igor Plotnitsky in February 2017, was reappointed after Leonid Pasechnik ousted Plotnitsky in a coup in November 2017. In one of his last public appearances, Bozhich oversaw the distribution of flour with a government-imposed price ceiling.
As with previous staff changes, “LNR” controlled media did not mention Bozhich, the fact that he was sacked or the reason, when they reported the new minister’s appointment. Bozhich is the second minister to simply vanish from public view since Pasechnik formed a new government after winning the November 11 “election”. In January, transport minister Vladimir Gerasimchuk was replaced with Alexander Basov, a former deputy in the State Security “Ministry”, which was headed by Pasechnik before November 2017. Gerasimchuk had been made responsible for the failure to clean roads after heavy snowfalls this winter.