They come from advertising agencies and the military, but have scant political experience. Eastern Ukraine's new strongmen have one thing in common: They're all "Friends of Vladimir."
DONETSK — It’s not often that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is happy for the release of a person accused anti-Constitutional acts and the violent occupation of government buildings by authorities in another country. But if that country is Ukraine he’ll make an exception.
And so a few days ago Putin registered pleasure that Kiev’s interim government had released separatist leader Pavel Gubarev, the "People’s Governor" in the rebel-dominated region of Donetsk and a key figure in Kremlin attempts to gain control over eastern Ukraine.
In February, Gubarev, 31, a former history student and owner of an ad agency, was a complete unknown in the area when he began his campaign for the annexation of eastern Ukraine to Russia. However Gubarev was well-known to the radical right Russian National Unity (RNU), which depending on the situation is either tolerated by the Kremlin or used by it.
Gubarev was an RNU member as early as 2002, as revealed by photographs and videos collected by Nikolaj Mitrochin of the Eastern European research facility at the University of Bremen. A phone conversation tapped by the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine (SBU) also showed that RNU boss Alexander Berkashov was an advisor to another leading figure of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Dimitri Boizov, on how the separatist referendum should play out.
Hero or bandit?
By early March it looked as if Gubarev’s role had already played itself out when the Ukraine intel agents arrested him and brought him to a prison in Kiev. Both the rebels and Moscow demanded his release. And the separatists got their way after they took three Ukrainian agents hostage, and then at the end of last week exchanged them against Gubarev and other prisoners.
Right now Gubarev is in the separatist stronghold of Sloviansk and the Kremlin has higher things in mind for him as Monday’s praise in the government newspaper Rossiskaja Gaseta made clear by celebrating him as a hero of the Donetsk People’s Republic and "courageous revolutionary" against the Kiev "bandits." The radical-right leaning People’s Governor is one of the leading Moscow-supported separatist figures fighting the alleged "Kiev fascists."
According to the rebels their referendum was successful, yet voter participation appears to have been massively manipulated, as the Donezker Infodienst predicted on voting day.
Nevertheless the Kremlin hailed the result as "the will of the people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions" and stated that it should be implemented without violence and in a spirit of dialogue. And should that dialogue end up taking place around a table, both the separatists and the Kremlin will doubtlessly insist that Pavel Gubarev and other men be part of the decisions about eastern Ukraine’s future. This backing comes even though none of them have any past experience of politics, were never elected; moreover, some of them are on EU and American sanction lists, and to all intents and purposes they are Kremlin proxies.
That also goes for Vyacheslav Ponomarev, self-appointed mayor of rebel-controlled Sloviansk. Ponomarev is said to have served in special units right up to the end of the former Soviet Union and later drove Russian cars from the factory to Ukraine sales points before managing first a textile then a soap factory in Sloviansk.
But that he doesn’t have sole power of decision was revealed by the recent negotiations that obtained the freedom of military observers of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). It wasn’t Ponomarev who decided on his release — it was secret service colonel Igor Strelkov-Girkin on orders from Moscow, as tapped phone conversations between Girkin and Kremlin envoy Vladimir Lukin show.
Self-appointed "Supreme Commander"
On Monday evening, on separatist leader Gubarev’s Facebook page, a call by Strelkov-Girkin was posted that demanded that Russia ensure "adequate measure to protect the population" in the Donetsk region and examine the possibility of sending in peacekeeping troops. In the post, Strelkov-Girkin is referred to as the "supreme commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic fighting forces."
Another figure with no political past is Valariy Bolotov, 44, the People’s Governor of the Luhansk People’s Republic created on April 21. His qualifications for the job would appear to lie in his former occupation as a Soviet parachutist. In late April, both the US government and the EU included Bolotov on their lists of undesirable persons. Bolotov shares this honor with other separatists including Denis Pushilin, 33, also unknown in Donetsk until recently but now "Head of Government" of the "Donetsk People’s Republic."
On Monday after the referendum he called for eastern Ukraine becoming a part of Russia. Raised in Makeevka near Donetsk, Pushilin graduated from a technical college, served in the Ukrainian army, and worked briefly for an ad agency before joining MMM — a company that used a pyramid scheme to divest thousands of Russians of their savings in the 1990s.
In the event that the dialogue recommended by the Kremlin does not come to pass, and the interim government decides to up its military activity, Putin can use the alleged results of the referendum not only to justify annexing eastern Ukraine but also for sending in Russian troops to "protect the Russian-speaking population." In March Putin had already gotten authorization to do this from the Russian parliament.
Kiev’s interim government is refusing to consider "dialogue" with rebel leaders. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov only wants to deal with legally nominated or elected recognized government or people’s representatives, business people, and representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk civil society — something easier said than done.
Serhiy Taruta, the steel magnate appointed Governor of Donetsk, stood by helplessly as a pro-Russian mob plundered his company headquarters. He also couldn’t stop the "referendum." Mikhail Bolotskikh, who was named Governor of Luhansk in early March, avoided conflict with the separatists by declaring himself sick, and was fired on May 10 by the Acting President.
Until now in the Donetsk region, business people were men like billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, who many describe as the real leader of the region. Yet Akhmetov has until now avoided siding openly with the Kiev interim government and a few days ago even stated that Kiev should stop its eastern offensive.
There also are fewer and fewer qualified representatives of civil society in Donetsk and Luhansk to step up. Amidst ongoing rebel hostage-taking and murders, many have fled to Kiev or other points westward.