Ukraine crisis: Former separatist leader who fell foul of the Kremlin maybe be sidelined - but he will not be silenced

Andrei Purgin on how he was ousted as regional chief and the 'ruinous policies' being pursued by those who overthrew him

Kim Sengupta
Thursday 24 September 2015 19:53
Andrei Purgin’s desire for closer integration with Russia appears to have been at odds with Moscow
Andrei Purgin’s desire for closer integration with Russia appears to have been at odds with Moscow

After his enforced stay, along with his family, in one of the intimate underground cells of the State Security Ministry of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic, Andrei Purgin was enjoying the sunshine as he sat in a café describing what has gone wrong with the Ukrainian revolution and the “ruinous policies” being pursued by those who overthrew him.

Just three weeks ago he was the head of the separatist administration, enjoying the fruits of years of dedicated struggle to remove the region from the rule of Ukraine’s government. Then he suddenly disappeared, amid rumours that he had been detained or worse, or that he had been taken back to Moscow.

The reason for this, it is believed, was that he was too independent for the Kremlin, complaining repeatedly about the Minsk agreement which is supposed to end the civil war between the government and the separatists, just when Vladimir Putin is seeking to defuse the strife in Ukraine as part of his wider global strategy.

Denis Pushilin, Mr Purgin’s deputy and the man who replaced him as the putsch unfolded, denied at the time that anything untoward had happened to his boss.

“As far as I am informed, Andrei Yevgenyevich [Mr Purgin] feels all right, he has not been arrested. This sounds like Ukrainian disinformation to me”, he declared.

But Mr Purgin told The Independent: “It’s not just a rumour, I was arrested and detained. I was kept in the State Security Ministry for four days. My wife and Aleksandrov junior were also arrested, I don’t know why, I couldn’t work out what they wanted. We were freed after four days. In the meantime all kinds of things were taking place, rules of all kinds were being broken.”

Mr Purgin, stocky, red-haired and bearded, spoke of dramatic “differences of opinion” with his former comrades over accommodation with Petro Poroshenko’s government, a move being pushed through by Moscow, and greater economic ties between the two sides in the future.

The Minsk agreement, which is meant to underpin all this, will not work, declared Mr Purgin, because “unfortunately in Ukraine there is no elite that is interested in peace”. He had been warning Donetsk’s People’s Council “for months about ceasefire violations, unprovoked attacks by the Ukrainian side. But it’s not just the ceasefire, a whole complex of measures had been signed up to in February [at Minsk]”.

The policies being pursued by his successors were, said Mr Purgin “ruinous strategically, it may have some short-term economic gains, maybe six months or a year, but it’ll be very damaging in the long term for the Donetsk Republic.

“It’s not just about Minsk. I am speaking from experience. I have been in public politics for 10 years, before that I was in underground politics. I was one of the creators of the Donetsk Republic and I say the people here in power may think they are getting a tactical victory, maybe in economic terms, but it’s short term, maybe six months or a year, but they will lose in the long run.”

Mr Purgin warned that the new leadership risked repeating the mistakes made by the Party of Regions, led by President Viktor Yanukovych who was overthrown last year, starting the chain of violent events which led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbass. “The danger we face is that of a division of the state and the people, and enormous disappointment among the people and it’ll be seen as our great failure”, he said.

The shadow of Vladimir Putin hangs over the Ukraine crisis, but Mr Purgin holds that the West credits Russia’s President with more power than the facts warrant. “I wouldn’t concentrate on Putin because Russia is not only Putin. European politicians exaggerate Putin’s role. Russia is a federation of very complicated mechanism with big numbers of points of influence.”

However, he does accept that Mr Putin is the conduit for these “points of influence” running Russia’s policy.

Mr Purgin is viewed as a pro-Russian left-winger who wants greater integration with Russia when it does not fit in with the plans of the Kremlin.

Mr Pushilin, who replaced Mr Purgin as speaker of the People’s Council [effectively the head of the separatist state] earlier this month, is close to Vladislav Surkov who is the personal adviser to President Putin on Ukraine as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two pieces of former Georgian territory which seceded after the war between Georgia and Russia six years ago.

A member of the People’s Council who had worked alongside Mr Purgin said: “It is a great shame that Andrei Yevgenyevich no longer has a say in the running of the Donetsk Republic, he played a big part in forming it. But the difference is that he is a romantic who dreams of the mosaic of Russian history. Denis Pushilin thinks in terms of Russian realpolitik.”

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