Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


Despite dramatic warnings by the separatist leaders, no religious war has broken out anywhere in Ukraine during this year’s anniversary of the “Baptism of Rus”. However, the Church dispute remains unsolved. Meanwhile, the promised economic recovery inside the “People’s Republics” remains elusive as industrial production seems possible only on with masked Russian imports.

No escalation on the Baptism of Rus anniversary

On July 28, Orthodox believers in both “People’s Republics” and in the rest of Ukraine marked the Baptism of Rus anniversary. Despite earlier warnings by the separatist leaders, there were no signs of religious strife and peaceful processions were held in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kiev and many other cities. The “Baptism of Rus”, marks the day on which the Kievan Rus accepted Christianity 1030 years ago.

A week earlier, “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko and “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik had said that Kiev’s attempt to form a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of the Russian Orthodox Church risks a religious war of unheard proportions.

But when the feast day came, Zakharchenko mentioned the dispute only in a statement, in which he lambasted “criminal Ukrainian politicians for betraying their faith and their people”. When the “DNR” leader appeared at a religious ceremony in Donetsk later the same day, he wore his trademark battle dress, but made no mention of the Church dispute.

Furthermore, the official separatist news site “DAN” did not mention Zakharchenko’s statement in its report about the ceremony, nor did it publish it anywhere else.

Even more surprisingly, Zakharchenko’s Luhansk colleague Pasechnik seems to have decided to completely ignore the issue. He made no mention of the church dispute in his official congratulatory statement on the Baptism of Rus anniversary. Furthermore, Pasechnik did not show up at a church ceremony to mark the feast, which was held in Luhansk on July 27.

A career intelligence officer, Pasechnik has shown little religious convictions since coming to power through a putsch in November, and also Zakharchenko does not have a reputation of being very religious. Both their July 23 statements seemed improvised, inviting suspicion of being ordered from Moscow – which has reasons to fear losing significant part of its influence over Ukraine (see Newsletter 38).

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had expressed hope that Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul would by July 28 grant independence (autocephaly) to an amalgamated church, after both the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church filed an official request.

However, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has expressed sympathy with Kiev but has not made a decision so far. His Patriarchate, which holds primacy of honour inside Orthodoxy, does not even recognize the Kiev Patriarchate nor the (very small) Autocephalous Church as lawful (synodal) and holds that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is the only legal Church in Ukraine. To this day, the Russian Church’s branch in Ukraine controls most of the country’s Orthodox parishes, especially in the Russian-speaking east.

In his address during the Kiev Patriarchate procession in the Ukrainian capital on July 28 (the Moscow Patriarchate Church held its procession one day earlier), Poroshenko said that the Russian Orthodox Church poses a national security risk to Ukraine because it “unconditionally supports the Kremlin’s revanchist imperial policy.”

The Autocephaly project has been linked with the political future of Poroshenko himself, who wants to stand for re-election next year, despite trailing in opinion polls at well below ten per cent.

“DNR” tram revealed to be copy of a Russian model

The “People’s Republics’” economy continue to struggle, despite claims by separatist leaders and the media controlled by them that industrial production is returning to the region.

In a typical example, Ukrainian media showed evidence that the tram, which the Donetsk separatists presented earlier this year as having been developed and built in the “DNR” is really just a copy of a tram developed in the Russian city of Izhevsk – which in turn is based on an old Czechoslovak model.

Photos of both the Russian and the “DNR” trams published by the Ukrainian ostro.org news site on August 1 show that there is practically no difference between the two. While the Russian plant in Izhevsk openly admits that it is restyling old trams from Czechoslovakia by using locally produced equipment, separatist Industry “minister” Alexei Granovsky claims that the “DNR” managed to build a new tram from scratch, importing only electrical components.

This is not the first time that the separatists claim to have started homegrown industrial production while really remodelling Russian-made goods. Previous success stories about the first Donetsk-assembled passenger buses and revamped refrigerators from the city’s “Nord” plant are also thought to be based on imported goods from Russia (see Newsletter 27).

Granovsky also highlighted another serious problem for the separatists’ hopes to mend the damage done by war and separation – the continuing brain drain. At a July 31 roundtable meeting in his “ministry”, he said that the “Stirol” chemical plant in Horlivka suffers from the fact that all the main specialists had left the “Republic” since 2014. “When preparing the plant’s re-start of production, we were facing a serious deficit of cadres,” Granovsky said.

The Stirol plant belongs to the Ostchem holding controlled by Ukrainian Oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is currently in Austria fighting an extradition request by the US. The plant has not been operating since 2014 and in 2017 came under the separatists’ “external management”, meaning that assets and staff were put under their control. The “DNR” said on July 16 that it had begun preparations to restart production.

The plant’s current director Maxim Chepak told the same meeting that in order to address the deficit, Stirol is hosting work experience sessions for students from both Horlivka and Donetsk.

With a prewar population of more than 250,000, Horlivka is the second biggest city controlled by the Donetsk separatists.

A similar staffing deficit hampers the work of the Horlivka meat processing plant. The plant management and the city’s food technology institute discussed setting up new training facilities for junior staff, Granovsky’s “ministry” said in an August 1 statement.

Granovsky also made a surprising confession in an interview for the “DNR” Information Ministry’s YouTube channel, where he said that 50 per cent of the Donetsk “People’s Republic’s” imports where counterfeit. He did not say where the counterfeit goods came from, but according to “DNR” statistics recorded by the ostro.org website, 73 per cent of imports are from Russia, 10 per cent from the “LNR” and 2.8 per cent from Belarus.