Sunday’s vote, which critics say contravenes peace agreements signed in Minsk early 2015, has been postponed several times.
The erstwhile leader of the Donetsk separatist forces, Alexander Zakharchenko, was for a long time apparently opposed to any electoral challenge. The Kremlin’s position remained ambiguous. But on 31 August, Zakharchenko was assassinated in downtown Donetsk. Russia swung behind the elections.
Now, Moscow’s men say the region needs an election to fill a power gap – and not only in Donetsk but in neighbouring Luhansk too. Not so long ago Luhansk also had its longtime leader removed – but by considerably more vegetarian means. After a short military coup, he was spirited across the border to Russia.
Donetsk and Luhansk are in full electoral flow ahead of the vote.
Across the region, campaign billboards urge citizens to vote “with their heart”, “for Russia”, “for peace”, and occasionally all at the same time.
In Donetsk, pensioners were promised free tea and coffee for turning up at the polling station. Neighbouring Luhansk meanwhile went after the youth vote – with this unconventional take on the Skibidi dance challenge.
As with the last elections, held here in November 2014, there will be a team of international observers to watch over the vote. Objectivity might be a challenge, however. The delegation includes a “representative from Yemen,” who is actually a medical student from Russia; a Chilean who also fought in one of the separatists’ armies; and a citizen of Finland, who for the last few years has headed one of the separatists’ own news agencies.
Citizens of the separatist states have been left in little doubt about who the preferred candidates are, with positive profiles dominating prime time on local TV networks.
In Donetsk, the chosen man is Denis Pushilin, the former head of the revolutionary parliament the “People’s Council” and also previously distinguished for his pre-war work as an officer of a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. In Luhansk, it is Leonid Pasechnik, who has headed up the Luhansk separatists’ security forces since 2014, during some of its most bloody months.
The path has been cleared for both men. In Donetsk, well known rivals Alexander Khodakovsky and Pavel Gubarev were removed from the ballot paper – the former barred on entry from Russia, the latter only after his wife was locked away in a cellar. A similar story was in play in Luhansk.
At stake for the Kremlin is control, legitimacy – and a bit more besides.
Moscow has steadily increased control over eastern Ukraine and the people’s militias that emerged in eastern Ukraine following the Maidan revolution of 2014-15.
Officially Russia denies backing the militias in a bloody war that has cost upwards of 10,000 lives. But an increasing body evidence suggests, on the contrary, it has played a leading role. In November 2017, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission released video footage showing a column of military vehicles entering Ukraine from Russia via an illegal, unofficial crossing point.
With the new regimes headed by Mr Pushilin and Mr Pashechnik, the Kremlin is likely to enjoy much closer and more reliable cooperation than at any time before. Both men are obedient technocrats, unlike the belligerent and erratic military men they replaced. Mr Pushilin in particular is considered close to Vladislav Surkov, a key Putin aide understood to have masterminded much of the Kremlin’s Ukraine strategy.
Speaking at the time of Zakharchenko’s assassination, Alexey Chesnakov, a spin doctor and associate of Mr Surkov, said Mr Pushilin’s “People’s Council” was the “only legitimate body in Donetsk”.
Moscow and its candidates say the elections will allow the region to choose “legitimate leaders”. The west does not agree, arguing it is in contravention of the Minsk settlement and risks a new escalation. Kurt Volker, the United States special envoy to Ukraine, urged Russia and the separatist authorities to call off what he described as a “sham” vote.
In a sign of increased frustration last Thursday, US authorities introduced a fresh round of sanctions against individuals and organisations associated with Russia’s Ukrainian campaign. These, said Mr Volkov, for the first time “explicitly recognised … the notion that Russia actually controls the Donbass and eastern Ukraine.”
Both sides accuse each other of not fully implementing the Minsk agreements – and not without reason. But tomorrow’s vote is likely to be met with a particularly fierce reaction in Kiev.
Ukraine, entering an unpredictable election season, could easily end the year with a new president and government. The war in the east continues to be the number one issue to be used and abused by its politicians.
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