Is Eastern Ukraine Becoming a People’s Republic or Puppet State?

Is Eastern Ukraine Becoming a People’s Republic or Puppet State?

Is Eastern Ukraine Becoming a People’s Republic or Puppet State?

Some reform-minded leaders in the Donetsk People's Republic want to create a socially oriented alternative to the oligarch-led government in Kiev—but will the Kremlin let them?


Boris Litvinov, the acting chairman of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine, had wanted his Communist Party to run in last Sunday's election for parliament. But the separatists' backers in Moscow had other plans.

The Communist Party was not registered in the elections for allegedly technical reasons, and in an intercepted phone call that Litvinov told The Nation was authentic, one of the Kremlin's main advisers of the seven-month-old pro-Russian uprising told him to stop fighting against this decision. Members of the two coalitions who did run said they don't plan to let communist deputies in, and Litvinov's own future position won't be clear until the parliament is announced on Monday.

“Moscow says, We gave you money, listen to what Borodai says,” Litvinov said while discussing a recently leaked phone call between him and Russian political and investment consultant Alexander Borodai, the former prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic who reportedly remains one of the Kremlin's point men on the seven-month old uprising. “I say, What of it? We need to do what the people want to do.”

Over the course of the seven-month-old pro-Russian uprising, many separatist activists' and local citizens have called for the establishment of a social welfare state and the nationalization of key enterprises. One rogue commander of a city in the Luhansk region has even claimed to be building a Cossack socialist republic. But few reforms have actually been implemented, and the simmering conflict—shelling rocks areas along the frontline daily despite an ongoing ceasefire—and Moscow's political expediencies may prevent social programs from being realized. Communists and other iconoclastic politicians have been kept out of electoral politics. Not only are such ideological figures less pliable for the Kremlin, but Russian political and business elites are scared of the possibility of a social revolution in eastern Ukraine that could spread across the border, according to Marxist political analyst Boris Kagarlitsky.

“The social government is being destroyed in Russia. Most of the demands being voiced in Novorossiya could be brought forth in Russia as well,” Kagarlitsky said, referring to the “Novorossiya” area of southeastern Ukraine conquered by the Russian empire, which some rebels want to bring back into the fold.

“They are removing people who are not controlled by Moscow or who are more popular than the leaders now being put forward by Moscow,” Kagarlitsky said, citing an apparent assassination attempt deep within rebel territory on Pavel Gubarev, a more radical pro-Russian candidate, before the November 2 elections.

Alexander Kofman, a separatist politician who reportedly has designed an anti-Kiev iPhone game and who symbolically ran against Zakharchenko for head of the DPR, denied that the Kremlin was closely involved in the elections.

“Moscow protects our interests in foreign policy and provides humanitarian aid,” Kofman told The Nation over a cigarette outside the central electoral commission headquarters. “Everything else we do ourselves.”

But the leaked Borodai phone calls suggested the communists were excluded to preserve Russian advisors’ tight control over the elections. According to a common interpretation, Moscow is manipulating the rebel states to establish a frozen conflict as a means of leverage over the new pro-Western regime in Kiev.

In the recording, which was published last week by Ukraine's main intelligence service, an angry Borodai then calls Litvinov and upbraids him for “planning to run” for office, telling him that DPR deputy chairman Andrei Purgin is the “person directing these processes” and calls on him to show “maximal loyalty.” “Our main problem is independent action within the republic,” he says.

When Litvinov argues that “the people want to see” the communists run, Borodai answers that the “will of the people means nothing.”

While the rebels enjoy strong local support, the separatist movement almost certainly owes its survival to Moscow: Captured Russian paratroopers, secretive funerals for Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine and analysts' appraisals have indicated that a Russian military intervention in mid-August turned the tide against a Ukrainian campaign that had reached the doorstep of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

In addition, the separatist states, with their destroyed infrastructure and flooded coal mines, are likely to depend on Moscow financially, at least to a certain extent. The DPR has received financing from the Russian government to cover as much as 7 percent of its budget for pensions and social benefits, and it is seeking more, Litvinov said.

Rather than focusing on socioeconomic demands, the popular rhetoric of rebel leaders and Russian state media coverage from the beginning of the uprising has centered on an alleged campaign by the “fascist junta” in Kiev to persecute Russian speakers, often citing a quickly aborted parliamentary attempt to cancel Russian's status as a second language in some regions.

Nonetheless, some welfare-state suggestions have also been present and remain popular among activists and residents, many of whom have done back-breaking, dangerous work for only about $300 a month in the coal mines that undergird the local economy. The day after protestors seized the Donetsk administration building, a “people's soviet” adopted a “Declaration of Sovereignty”—authored by Litvinov—that not only sought closer ties to Russia in opposition to Kiev's move west, but also the development of collective forms of ownership “that exclude the appropriation of the results of others' labor.”

Many far-left activists have supported the separatist movement over its opposition to the nationalist forces that played a major role in toppling the regime of president Viktor Yanukovich in February, growing US influence in Ukraine, and Kiev's program of painful cuts to subsidies and social services.

The fledgling Donetsk government has taken isolated steps to develop social welfare aspects of the state. For instance, the DPR health minister said he would cancel a reform of the state-dominated healthcare system launched by the Ukrainian government, which he said was meant “to hand over as many medical institutions as possible into private hands.”

And at the end of October, the DPR Supreme Soviet said it was considering a law on nationalization of property, without announcing the further details. Miroslav Rudenko, a close ally of Gubarev who is guaranteed a spot in the parliament after the recent vote, told The Nation that his Free Donbass coalition supports a “social government with greater authority for municipal government” and greater state control of vital industries, although that may be achieved through a buy-out scheme or other program besides forced nationalization, he said.

Zakharchenko said in October the majority of enterprises in the DPR would be owned by the state and that two factories belonging to oligarch and former regional kingpin Rinat Akhmetov, who has made pro-Ukrainian statements during the conflict, had already been taken under “temporary management.” But Kofman later told The Nation that Akhmetov's holdings would be nationalized only if he doesn't obey the tax laws of the Luhansk and Donetsk people's republics.

Notably, advisor Borodai spoke out against state takeovers when he previously serving as prime minister of the still-new DPR, saying in June “we have nothing in common with communists who seize something and nationalize it.”

The most pressing state-building issue is revenue collection, and while the DPR is still drafting its tax code, it has canceled sales taxes in favor of a flat 20-percent profit tax—not a progressive tax system but one that has helped offset a war spike in prices for basic goods, according to a tax ministry official.

Otherwise, little actual progress has been made toward a more socially-oriented economic policy. A major obstacle is damage from this summer's campaigns and the ongoing low-level artillery war. Fifteen percent of coal mines in the Donetsk and Luhansk region will be impossible to restore after fighting, according to the DPR energy minister said. (Unless its maintenance systems are constantly operated, a coal mine typically floods, ruining the integrity of the walls.)

Although rebel leaders like Denis Pushilin, who was one of the three parliamentary candidates listed by Zakharchenko's winning coalition, told The Nation that a priority of the new republic would be to create jobs, the energy minister said this week the DPR would have to shut down unprofitable coal mines, exacerbating the existing unemployment problem.

Some of the most radical rhetoric has come from commander Pavel Dremov, a foul-mouthed member of the Cossack traditional military caste who, having accused the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics of failing to remove oligarchic influence, promised to eliminate poverty and build a Cossack, socialist “fair society” in the depressed coal-mining city of Stakhanov. But Dremov also subscribes to the ultraconservative, often racist views of many Cossacks—he has called the ceasefire with the Kiev government, whose top two leaders are sometimes rumored to have Jewish roots, a “kike ploy.” Under his rule, pensions in Stakhanov have been halved, and the Cossacks reportedly send busloads of elderly people into Ukrainian-held territory to draw their stipends.

Just down the road in Alchevsk, Alexei Mozgovoi, the commander of a unit called the Ghost Brigade who names Vladimir Lenin and Ukrainian anarchist leader Nestor Makhno as political influences, dreams of a direct democracy with state control of key economic sectors. But his experiments in transparent popular governance took a darker turn during a recent “people's court” at which rebels and local citizens sentenced two accused rapists to death and to front-line military service, respectively, by a show of hands. Mozgovoi later said that any female who is caught in a bar or club would be arrested, arguing that women should instead “sit at home and do embroidery.”

The commander told The Nation he had simply been trying to engage residents in civic life and challenge a judicial system that is widely condemned as corrupt, and he said neither the execution nor arrests of women in bars had been carried out. But the two accused rapists are still being held captive in the rebels' espionage and military justice headquarters.

“I would like [the rebel governments] to have a social character, but we don't see this fully yet and we probably won't see it soon,” said Okay Deprem, a correspondent for the newspaper of the Turkish Labor Party who has been reporting from Donetsk in recent weeks. “There is the possibility of a Belarus type of government here, but also a large chance it will be like Abkhazia,” a mostly unrecognized Russia-backed republic which has suffered low economic development since it broke away from Georgia.

Stanislav Retinsky, a member of the Donetsk communist party and an employee of the people's republic press service, said that so far the pro-Russian uprising has “answered Ukrainian nationalism with Russian chauvinism,” adding that Russia suffers from the “same oligarchy and same corrupt government as Ukraine has.” He said the communist party in Ukraine, which formed the basis for the new DPR Communist Party, has a history of compromising its ideals to “negotiate with the regime.” (The Communist Party of Russia has also served as a relatively toothless faux opposition in parliament in the years since the Soviet breakup.)

Vitaly Leibin, editor of the magazine Russky Reporter and a native of Donetsk who has reported from there often since the separatist movement took control, said that although it had cleared out the old political and business elite, the fledgling state is becoming a mimicry of the Russian government. The main obstacle to true social revolution, he said, is the tight control over the political situation by the Kremlin, which is seeking to keep the conflict under control and respond to growing Western influence in Ukraine.

“Western countries' have interfered in Ukraine's affairs just as much as Moscow has. They share the blame for the split in Ukraine,” Leibin said. “Moscow will need to stabilize the social situation here and take it into its own hands.”

But Retinsky, although he believes Zakharchenko's leadership is a “product of an agreement between the Moscow and Donetsk elite,” nonetheless sees the basis for revolution in eastern Ukraine. “The working class has expressed the seeds of social protest” that more radical local communists hope to turn toward Marxist reforms by organizing party cells among workers and rebel fighters, he said.

“The people here have more social demands than the rest of Ukraine,” he said. “Those who don't give them that will be kicked out.”


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