The leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko, was assassinated by a bomb blast on August 31, after almost four years of continuous service to the Russian occupation in three capacities simultaneously: “head of the republic” (“glava respubliki”), head of the “council of ministers” (government), and commander-in-chief of the DPR forces with a titular rank of general. Zakharchenko was an impulsive, sometimes reckless figure, with an organized-crime background (fight club business and thugs-for-hire). While a civilian, he joined the Donetsk paramilitary forces from their first hour in March 2014.
Zakharchenko is the latest and most prominent casualty in a long series of internecine assassinations among political and paramilitary leaders in the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (DPR, LPR). Local authorities and Moscow never elucidated those assassinations. Instead they blame Kyiv rhetorically, without bringing evidence, and invariably relegate the investigations to quick oblivion. These high-profile killings are often traced (also by a resigned local populace) to personal and business rivalries among local leaders, within the milieu of crime and lawlessness from which they emerged and from which Moscow recruited them.
The Kremlin has reacted to Zakharchenko’s death by ordering elections to be held, in both DPR and LPR, for the posts of head of the republic and for the respective “people’s councils” (would-be parliaments). On September 7, the two people’s councils synchronically scheduled both types of elections for November 11. This date corresponds with DPR-LPR’s four-year “electoral” cycle inaugurated in November 2014. Moscow also considered the option of prolonging the incumbent authorities’ term of office by another year, so as to avoid diplomatic complications in the “Minsk process” (TASS, August 22, 2018). But the Kremlin discarded this option after Zakharchenko’s death. Still, it cannot entirely be ruled out that Moscow would revert to the one-year prolongation option, in exchange for concessions to the DPR-LPR at Ukraine’s expense in the Minsk negotiation process (see Part Two).
Meanwhile, Moscow has picked Denis Pushilin as interim head of the DPR, pending the elections. His early background is also in organized crime (the MMM financial fraud). Pushilin is currently the chairperson of the DPR people’s council, as well as chief representative to the Minsk Contact Group. The Kremlin first announced its choice of Pushilin on September 5, and the DPR people’s council “appointed” him (a technicality, different from electing) as interim head of DPR on September 7 (Donestkoye Agentstvo Novostey, September 7, 8).
The neighboring LPR’s head, Leonid Pasechnik, also has an interim status. Pasechnik, formerly “state security minister,” overthrew the LPR’s “elected” head Igor Plotnitsky in November 2017 through a Moscow-backed military coup. The people’s council then technically appointed Pasechnik as head of the LPR. He has not been formally elected since then (Luganskii Informatsionnyi Tsentr, November 24, 2017; September 7, 8, 2018).
Meanwhile, the terms of office are due to expire in November 2018 for the DPR’s and LPR’s respective heads, as well as for the two people’s councils. All these authorities were “elected” in November 2014 (see EDM, November 5, 10, 2014) for four-year terms. Russia alone has recognized the validity of those “elections.”
The Kremlin’s overseer of the DPR-LPR, presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, has publicized the rationale for new elections through his associate, Aleksei Chesnakov (formally head of the Institute on Current Political Affairs, informally deemed to be Surkov’s public voice on Donbas and Ukraine). Although Surkov undoubtedly communicates detailed instructions to the Donetsk and Luhansk leaders through direct channels, it was evidently deemed necessary to have these explanations publicized by Surkov’s reputed proxy, via the official TASS news agency, for the local factions to heed and follow the new line.
The scheduled elections aim, in part, to strengthen the hands of Moscow and DPR-LPR vis-a-vis Kyiv and the West in upcoming negotiations. The “republics” should pretend to observe at least some formal electoral procedures, so as to embellish their claims to a special status under the Minsk armistice. The grounds for calling new elections are set forth in Chesnakov’s statements with reference to both local and international factors (TASS, September 5, 10).
The new elections are meant to confirm the DPR-LPR’s new heads post factum, after Moscow has already chosen them. Surkov cabled assurances of the Kremlin’s “full support” to Pushilin (DAN, September 5, 8). Surkov also issued an “address” on the occasion of Zakharchenko’s funeral, addressing him as “Sasha, my brother,” and signing it as “Slava” (friendly diminutive from Vladislav) (DAN, September 2). The Kremlin must bestow internal legitimacy on Pushilin and Pasechnik through popular election for full terms, as distinct from unelected, technically “appointed” interim heads, which is Pasechnik’s and Pushilin’s current status.
>From Moscow via TASS, on September 5, Chesnakov prescribed the electoral scenario in four steps: Moscow chooses Pushilin as DPR interim head, he must as such receive a formal investiture from the people’s council, he must then be confirmed by popular vote, and that vote must be scheduled in November to coincide with the “election” of the people’s council to another four-year term (DAN, September 8; see Part Two).
The unexplained assassination of the Donetsk “People’s Republic” leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, on August 31 (see Part One) provoked a factional commotion in Donetsk. The Kremlin had to intervene openly from September 5 onward to stabilize the political situation. This sequence of events (Donestkoye Agentstvo Novostey, August 31–September 9), exposed the DPR’s endemic lawlessness; although the neighboring Luhansk “People’s Republic” (LPR) admittedly has the worse reputation for violent factionalism.
On August 31, a body self-identified as “DPR Operational Command” and, alternatively, as “Territorial Defense Headquarters,” announced Zakharchenko’s death, along with a decision by this conclave to appoint Dmitry Trapeznikov, hitherto “deputy prime minister,” as interim “president” of DPR. On September 1, a joint meeting of the aforementioned military conclave and the DPR “council of ministers” confirmed Trapeznikov as interim “president.”
Trapeznikov, along with the remaining “deputy prime minister” Aleksandr Timofeyev (both are former paramilitary fighters), were Zakharchenko’s closest associates, with Timofeyev moreover the godfather of Zakharchenko’s children. Still more significantly, Timofeyev (nom de guerre Tashkent), served as “state revenues minister,” in charge of administering the massive industries and mines confiscated by the DPR from Ukrainian owners. As such, Timofeyev commands important financial resources, usable also for political purposes.
The “people’s council” (would-be parliament) chairperson, Denis Pushilin (see Part One), initially complied with the change at the top of the executive “branch.” Pushilin introduced Trapeznikov as interim “president” in the Donetsk press center on August 31, and introduced him again on September 1 to a plenary session of the people’s council, where Trapeznikov made a programmatic statement. On September 2 the “defense minister” and titular “general,” Vladimir Kononov (nom de guerre Tsar), unilaterally announced that Trapeznikov had also been appointed commander-in-chief of DPR forces (without specifying who made that appointment), and pledged that the “defense ministry” would follow Trapeznikov’s orders. However, the internal affairs and state security “ministers” conspicuously refrained from endorsing Trapeznikov.
The prospect of destabilization in Donetsk prompted Moscow’s urgent intervention, staking on Pushilin. On September 5, in Moscow, Aleksei Chesnakov (close associate and public voice of Vladislav Surkov, Kremlin overseer of the DPR-LPR—see Part One) publicized a set of political instructions to Donetsk, almost certainly a summary of the Kremlin’s unpublicized instructions (see Part One). On September 7, the DPR’s “acting prosecutor-general” (a certain Andrei Spivak) issued a “legal” opinion, resembling in its wording a constitutional court’s verdict. This took all cues from Chesnakov’s statement. Thus the Donetsk prosecutor judged the appointment of Trapeznikov as interim “president” to have been “unconstitutional.” The prosecutor asked Pushilin’s people’s council to form a new council of “ministers,” and to appoint a new electoral commission with a view to holding new general elections. Moscow’s TASS news agency replayed the Donetsk prosecutor’s statement on the same day (September 7), for an implicit but clear political endorsement.
Those tasks were duly completed (at least in form) by September 9. The state security and internal affairs “ministries” issued endorsements of Pushilin, and are retained in the new “government.” Kononov, hitherto defense “minister” who had endorsed Trapeznikov, is no longer there; the new “government’s” list does not even mention the “defense ministry” as such (for now). Trapeznikov issued a statement of abdication from the post of interim “president” to make room for Pushilin. Furthermore, Pushilin has also changed the head and the composition of DPR’s electoral commission, in preparation for the scheduled “elections.”
In Moscow, Surkov’s aide Chesnakov slightly lifted a curtain’s corner on the Donetsk events, in two interviews with the official TASS news agency, rerun by its counterpart in Donetsk. He stated that the deceased Zakharchenko, however meritorious as a military figure, “left economic affairs in the hands of individuals whom he trusted, but who misused his trust. In short, they stole. Order must be imposed there. Budget money must benefit people, not go into the pockets of ministers… Worming their way into Zakharchenko’s confidence they were busy embezzling money and grabbing other people’s property,” Chesnakov went on. Specifically regarding the “state revenues minister” Timofeyev (see above), “many people in the DPR have many grievances about him, and such people might rise up in a situation of political instability.” Moreover, Zakharchenko’s initial successor (for just one week—see above) Trapeznikov not only “lacked a ‘legal’ mandate, but would not manage to control the situation for any length of time. Everyone out there saw that. A matter of time before disorders and tremors would begin. And if elections are held, he would not be strong enough to conduct them in orderly ways. His only base of support is Timofeyev” (TASS, September 5, 10).
Chesnakov’s disclosures are politically targeted, and reflect but a fragment of the overall situation in the DPR. Even so, Surkov’s associate and reputed proxy admits to rampant corruption in Donetsk and to a precarious, risk-fraught, deceptive political stability there. He points a finger at the deceased Zakharchenko’s entourage, apparently controlled de facto by Timofeyev and Trapeznikov, both of whom have now been ousted—along with their ally Kononov (see above)—by Pushilin’s measures orchestrated from the Kremlin. And given these disclosures about financial crimes and property grabs, it seems plausible to suppose that the assassination of Zakharchenko may well have been a criminals’ “Razborka” (brutal settling of accounts).