Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Changing the Guard in Donetsk

Behind-the-scenes attempts to create a functioning separatist administration have failed so far.
  • Alexander Borodai, former prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, at one of his first press conferences. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
    Alexander Borodai, former prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, at one of his first press conferences. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)

The latest change of leadership in Donetsk sees Moscow resident Alexander Borodai replaced by a Ukrainian national, Alexander Zakharchenko.

Borodai and others like Igor Girkin aka “Strelkov” and their people are out. A new team of lower-profile figures has come in, many with backgrounds in the Russian military.

When Borodai arrived in Ukraine in May, I had my first real presentiment of impending disaster.

Just before Borodai’s appointment as prime minister, an acquaintance who was closely involved in the Donetsk People’s Republic was as optimistic as I was pessimistic, telling me that from now on there would be a proper government run by seasoned and competent administrators.

The occupation of the regional administration building in Donetsk would end, the barricades would come down, the riff-raff would be sent home and order would be restored. That meant that getting rid of Strelkov and the like. My acquaintance assured me that a Ukrainian-born official had called in a favour from President Vladimir Putin and was to become prime minister, backed by a Russian special forces squad that would be assigned to deal with the more wayward separatists from Slavyansk and Gorlovka.

“You don’t understand how serious the people behind this are,” he said, “Or the assurance and professionalism with which they’ll take this country apart, region by region. No one in Ukraine will be able to stop them.”

It all sounded very impressive. But that very day, the new prime minister was named, and it was not a Ukrainian national but Borodai, a Muscovite who had previously been in Crimea after the Russian takeover there.

It is still hard to figure out what Borodai did as prime minister. He presented well at press conferences, but it was hard to make sense of what he said. He had trouble remembering the names of neighbourhoods in Donetsk city and had a loose grasp of the military situation. For instance, he asserted that Avdeevka had been captured by Polish troops backed by Romanian and Bulgarian tanks, and announced that Debaltsevo had fallen to Ukrainian troops a week before they even reached its outskirts.

Away from the microphones, Borodai was clearer about his main aims, saying that one was to coordinate the diffuse paramilitary groups and create a semblance of unity, and another was to distribute the funding provided by the sponsors of the “Novorossia” project.

By July, my acquaintance was deeply disappointed.

“You know, he [Borodai] is living in his own game, and we mean absolutely nothing to him, and nor does Donetsk,” he said. “We don’t exist, our city doesn’t exist, its buildings don’t exist. He lives in his own imaginary world.”

The Borodai administration’s non-interventionist policy had its up side. Local government departments dating from before the takeover just carried on working, repairing the roads, planting flowers, cutting the grass, and keeping public transport running. Until July, banks, restaurants and factories in Donetsk were all functioning.

That changed after July 5, when Strelkov’s men arrived from Slavyansk after that town was captured by Ukrainian forces. Banks and cash machines were raided, so they closed down. Pensions and benefits stopped being paid. Threats were made against city mayor Alexander Lukyanenko, who understandably left.

The next attempt to sort things out came with the arrival of a new team of leaders from Transdniestria, the de facto statelet that separated from Moldova in the early 1990s .

General Vladimir Antyufeev, who was security minister in Transdiestria from 1992 to 2012, became deputy prime minister of the Donestsk Republic on July 10. From July 29 to August 3, he was acting prime minister, as Borodai was away in Russia.

Antyufeev found Donetsk a familiar environment and was comfortable both with military and civilian administration, bringing in new city managers. A second figure from Transdniestria, Alexander Karaman arrived to become deputy prime minister in charge of social policy. He increased the welfare ministry’s staff to 60, instituted systems and tried to sort out departmental work.

Inside the institutions of the Donetsk People’s Republic, many are hoping for more signs of direct Russian engagement, in terms of civil administration as well as military intervention. Without that, they realise that the whole project is dead in the water.

The average city resident, meanwhile, is terrified of war and would welcome anyone who can stop it. But the conflict continues, and the latest phase in the construction of the state of “Novorossia” comes as the east of Ukraine – and the rest, too – are sliding into a full-scale war without rules.

Dmitry Durnev is editor-in-chief of the MK-Donbass newspaper in Donetsk.

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