Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


In Donetsk, the dismantling of the system under slain separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko continued after the controversial November 11 elections. The new “Prime Minister” of the “DNR”, an obscure Russian industrialist, was given significant new powers, while for the first time a high-ranking official Zakharchenko-era official was arrested. In Luhansk, it took separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik a whole month to confirm a new government – with surprisingly few new faces.

Signs of growing influence of secretive Oligarch holding in Donetsk

On December 1, the Donetsk “Parliament” unanimously endorsed Alexander Ananchenko, a secretive industrialist, as Prime Minister (he has been acting in office since October 18). One day earlier, MPs had approved a law that gives the head of government the right to initiate legislation, saying that this would make the executive’s work more efficient. They also unanimously voted for a constitutional amendment that bans the head of government from being “leader” of the “Republic” at the same time. The reform also renames the “Cabinet of Ministers” as “Government” and the Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers as “Prime Minister”, apparently following Russia’s example.

The changes mark another stark break with the system under former “DNR” leader Zakharchenko, who since 2014 held both jobs and had tasked his powerful deputy Alexander Timofeyev (aka “Tashkent”) with running the economy. Zakharchenko was killed by a bomb on August 31, which also wounded Timofeyev, who subsequently fled to Moscow and has not been seen in public since September. The subsequent purge of Zakharchenko allies has fueled speculation that his assassination was motivated by Moscow’s desire to take back control and end the large-scale embezzlement of funds.

The main vehicle to achieve this is thought to be Vneshtorgservis, a secretive holding company that took control of key industrial assets after the separatists seized all plants in their areas in the spring of 2017. Little is known about Ananchenko, who was appointed acting head of government in October by then interim leader Denis Pushilin, and there is only a single, non-profile photo of him. However, he has been linked to Vneshtorgservis, which in turn been linked to Serhiy Kurchenko, a formerly Donetsk-based businessman who rose to prominence under ousted Ukrainian President Vyktor Yanukovych. One Russian website claims that Ananchenko worked as an advisor to Kurchenko.

Both Russian and Ukrainian media have reported that Kurchenko, who was believed to be in Russia since 2014, opened an office in Donetsk after Zakharchenko’s assassination and that he was in the city for Ananchenko’s December 1 confirmation in office. A Radio Liberty report in September quoted an unnamed “DNR” government source as saying that all state-run enterprises should be handed over to Vneshtorgservis, which in 2017 was given control of just nine of the more than 40 “DNR” industrial assets.

Pushilin himself seemingly predicted such policies in a November 20 press briefing, during which he stressed that economic growth is a key goal for the next five years and that this could only be achieved together with integration with Russia. Pushilin, a Kremlin loyalist and longtime Speaker of “Parliament”, came to office after the controversial November 11 elections, from which his most credible competitors were barred and whose official results have been described as massively manipulated.

First senior separatist arrested for wrongdoings under Zakharchenko

Meanwhile, the crackdown against former members of the “DNR” Revenue “Ministry”, which was headed by Timofeyev and is accused of having pilfered and seized companies, continued. On December 14, the separatist “Prosecutor General” said that Mikhail Khalin, who was First Deputy Revenue “Minister” under Timofeyev, has been arrested. Khalin is accused of abuse of office in connection with the seizure of a farm. The Prosecutors also said that they opened criminal cases against unnamed Revenue Ministry officials – one because of the sale of train cars, the other for the seizure of a fuel company.

Khalin is the first senior “DNR” official who has been openly arrested for wrongdoings during Zakharchenko’s administration. He and another Timofeyev deputy, Sergei Chetverikov, were sacked by Pushilin in early November. Official “DNR” media began publishing accusations against the Revenue “Ministry” on September 7 – the same day that Pushilin was approved as interim leader by Parliament and fired Timofeyev, replacing him with Yevgeny Lavrenov, a former member of Zakharchenko’s administration.

“DNR” Cabinet reshuffles

By December the purges reached the Finance “Ministry”, where “Minister” Yekaterina Matyushchenko was replaced with Yana Chausova, a former accountant in Pushilin’s parliamentary administration. In early November, Matyushchenko had already lost her position as one of three deputy cabinet chairpersons, which she had held under Zakharchenko. She was replaced by her former deputy “minister” Tatyana Pereverzeva. The “DNR” Finance “Ministry” oversees state expenditures while the “Revenue Ministry” is supposed to collect taxes and tariffs.

Also replaced were the ministers of economic development and health. The top posts in two other key ministries for the economy were already replaced earlier. On October 30, Ruslan Dubovsky became Energy “Minister” (he held that position already from 2015 to 2016), and on November 2, Eduard Armatov, became Industry “Minister”.

Pasechnik keeps his cabinet

By contrast, Luhansk separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik did nothing about his caretaker government for a whole month after “winning” a similarly uninspiring election on November 11 against three little-known competitors with officially 68 per cent of the votes. On December 11, the “Parliament” of the “LNR” unanimously endorsed acting Prime Minister Sergei Kozlov in office – upon which Pasechnik officially appointed him two days later.

Kozlov’s new government contains only two new faces – Yelena Kostenko was promoted from Economic Development “Minister” to one of two deputy Prime Ministers, while her former First Deputy Svetlana Podlipayeva became “Minister” for Economic Development.

Pasechnik had never been elected before, but came to power in November 2017, when security forces from the State Security “Ministry”, headed by him, and the Interior “Ministry“ ousted longtime separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky. The “Luhansk Putsch” succeeded thanks to the arrival of unmarked troops from Donetsk who were later identified as members of the Special Forces Brigade loyal to “DNR” leader Zakharchenko.

The European Union, which has condemned the November 11 elections as illegal, on December 10 updated its sanctions by adding Pasechnik, his Speaker of “Parliament” Denis Miroshnichenko and other election officials to the list.

Separatists hand over prisoners to Ukraine

On December 12 and 13, the “LNR” and “DNR” each sent a group of convicts across the contact line into government-controlled areas, where they are supposed to continue their prison terms. All 55 of them were convicted before the conflict began in 2014 and have expressed the wish to be transferred to other Ukrainian regions where they can be visited by relatives.

The “LNR” sent 42 persons, using the otherwise closed bridge in Shchastya for the handover. The next day the “DNR” handed over 13 prisoners at the Novotroitske crossing point south of Donetsk. “DNR” Ombudswoman Daria Morozova said that she was preparing another 50 persons that should be handed over next month. She did not explain why the “DNR” did not hand over all prisoners at once.