Meet The Shady Pro-Russian Leaders In Eastern Ukraine

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."

Separatist leader Pavel Gubarev, the "People’s Governor" in Donetsk
Separatist leader Pavel Gubarev, the "People’s Governor" in Donetsk
Florian Hassel

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.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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