Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


The separatists commemorated the first anniversary of Alexander Zakharchenko’s killing by stressing the first “DNR”-leader’s cult-like status. They largely ignored the latest diplomatic offensive by the Normandy Format powers, instead sticking to their narrative of integration with Russia. There were fresh reports that the issuing of Russian passports is not entirely voluntary. And efforts to unite “DNR” and “LNR” railway companies seemed to progress very slowly.

Zakharchenko cult confirmed in Donetsk

On 31 August, separatist leaders stressed their bonds with Russia during memorial ceremonies on the first anniversary of the killing of former “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko. At the unveiling of a black marble bust of Zakharchenko in central Donetsk, his successor Denis Pushilin promised to “immortalize” everything Zakharchenko did. At the end of the ceremony, Pushilin and his Luhansk colleague Leonid Pasechnik stood silent before the bust before – visibly on Pasechnik’s initiative – both made a sign of the cross.

At a later ceremony at Zakharchenko’s pompous grave, which has been adorned by two white angels and a life-size bust of the slain separatist leader, Pushilin said that he will carry on Zakharchenko’s work by moving towards integration with Russia: “The Republic is developing and continues to do what Alexander Vladimirovich (Zakharchenko) always said -to strengthen the integration with our big motherland – the Russian Federation.”

The ceremony was attended by a handful of Russian MPs led by former Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, who currently heads the A Just Russia faction in the State Duma. Federation Council Senator Sergei Mamedov recalled that Zakharchenko had often said that he was fighting for Russia in Donbass – “and nobody here should have any doubt of this”, Mamedov said. Also present was prominent Russian biker Alexander Saldostanov.

South Ossetian separatist leader Anatoly Bibilov was not at the ceremonies despite a prior announcement, and sent an open letter instead.

Pasechnik promises that killers will be caught

When Pasechnik addressed the mourners, he claimed that Zakharchenko was killed by the “cowardly” hands of Ukrainian special services: “God sees everything – those guilty (of his murder) will be found and definitely punished,” he said.

While the separatists keep blaming Ukraine for the killing, they have produced no convincing evidence for their claim. The circumstances of the assassination, a remote-controlled bomb that went off when Zakharchenko entered his favorite café in Donetsk, the ensuing removal of his loyalists from the separatist leadership and the forceful reaffirmation of Russian control over the “DNR” make it more likely that the killing was at least tacitly approved by the Kremlin (see the discussion in our Annual Report 2018, p 6).

Separatists stress integration with Russia, ignore international diplomacy

The separatists also failed to react to the latest round of high-level diplomacy and the possible holding of a Normandy Format summit (Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany). Official media in both Donetsk and Luhansk did not report about the G7 summit in Biarritz, where French President Emmanuel Macron said on 26 August that conditions exist “for a useful summit” already in September.

Instead, Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin reiterated his narrative that the “People’s Republics” should join Russia at an unspecified future date. “Given ongoing integration processes, including the handing out of Russian passports, this is a matter of time”, Pushilin said at a youth forum on 29 August. “Spiritually we have long been united with Russia,” he added, but cautioned that “there are a number of geopolitical complications. As soon as the possibility arises, it will happen. We just have to wait”, he said.

In Luhansk, a senior official stressed that separatist leader Pasechnik orients his work according to “the Russian vector”. “Everything we do we consider with regard to Russian law, because .. this allows us to strive for the results that our republic achieved over (the past) five years,” Pasechnik’s aide Marina Filippova said on 28 August.

Reports of pressure to accept Russian passports

The issuing of Russian passports to inhabitants of the “People’s Republics” began in June, two months after president Vladimir Putin issued a controversial decree that allows holders of “DNR” and “LNR” passports to receive fast-track Russian citizenship without having to give up any other citizenship.

The Russian Interior Ministry said on 15 August that it has received more than 60,000 applications and issued ore than 25,000 passports on the basis of the decree. The “DNR” said on 31 August that more than 12,000 passports had been issued to its inhabitants.

Reports in Ukrainian and Russian media suggest that the passports are mainly given to separatist officials, members of the security services and armed formations. The Ukrainian news site ostro.org reported on 13 August that the “LNR” is threatening emergency services staff in Kadiivka that they would lose their job if they do not apply for Russian passports, while raising their wages at the same time.  The report, which quoted an unnamed “LNR” law enforcement source, also said that owning businesses or buying and selling real estate will be illegal for Ukrainian passport holders from next year onwards, forcing more people to take separatist-issued passports.

The share of the local population that has accepted separatist-issued passports is thought to be just 15 per cent, despite the fact that these passports have been issued since 2015 in the “LNR” and 2016 in the “DNR”. This figure has also been taken as an indicator of the share of the local population that is loyal towards the separatists (see Newsletter 56).

 “DNR” deletes links to secretive holding

Meanwhile, the level of secrecy over the economy increased. The “DNR”, where key industrial assets are controlled by the secretive Vneshtorgservis holding, removed a lot of information about the holding’s plants. Thus a list of enterprises and sites about plants controlled by Vneshtorgservis vanished from the website of the “DNR” Chamber of Trade and Industry.  Also gone were any links to Vneshtorgservis on the Industry and Trade “Ministry” official site.

Information about individual plants remained accessible in a less detailed list on the vsednr.ru/ (“All about the DNR”) site, run by the Donetsk Information “Ministry” and on the DNR Live portal, which is linked to former separatist leader and opposition figure Pavel Gubarev.

Vneshtorgservis is believed to be registered in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, the only territory that has recognized the “People’s Republics” and is in turn recognized by Russia. The company has no public records and nothing is known about its present management since CEO Vladimir Pashkov became a “DNR” deputy Prime Minister overseeing the economy in April. Pashkov, a Russian citizen, reports to the secretive and powerful Prime Minister Alexander Ananchenko, who is also believed to be a former Vneshtorgservis executive.

Although the holding controls the nine biggest metallurgical plants inside the “DNR”, separatist leader Denis Pushilin did not mention Vneshtorgservis in his official congratulations for Metallurgy Worker’s Day in July.

Pushilin obliges officials to inform him before travel

Despite the official narrative of closer links to Russia, “DNR” leader Pushilin decreed on 28 August that top officials must inform him in writing before they leave the “People’s Republic”, ie including to Russia. The decree published on his website says that heads of ministries, state agencies and their deputies need to state the route and purpose of any travel outside the “DNR”. This includes not only Russia but also the “LNR”. Members of Pushilin’s administration are exempt.

Travel restrictions were first introduced in early 2018, when the “DNR” banned officials from entering government-controlled Ukraine, citing the risk of the SBU security service recruiting them as spies.  It is not clear whether this restriction is still in place.

Slow railway service from Donetsk Central Station

Meanwhile, the “DNR” on 19 August opened the first passenger train service from Donetsk central station since it was closed for security reasons in 2014. The 30-kilometre ride to Olenivka, a frontline village just south of Donetsk, is painfully slow, taking 1.5 hours, according to official information and underlined by video footage.

Similar slow progress is the case in efforts to unite both “People’s Republics” railway companies. In March In March, “DNR” leader Denis Pushilin and LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik signed a corresponding memorandum (see Newsletter 54), but both Donetsk and Luhansk continue to operate their own railways. The common railway company’s founding on 25 July was only reported later by the “LNR” official site and by the DNR Live news site but otherwise largely ignored by “DNR” official media.

Efforts to create synergies or at least avoid rivalries between the two People’s Republics” have not been very successful in the past. Last year, the “LNR” introduced a tariff on beer from the “DNR” (see Newsletter 32).

When the “Parliament” in Luhansk changed the “LNR” constitution on 1 August to rename the Cabinet of Ministers “Government”, separatist lawmaker Nelli Zadiraka explained that the change aims to harmonize the “LNR” and Russia, where the executive is also called government. In fact, the “LNR” was more likely following the example of the Donetsk “People’s Republic”, which introduced a similar name change in December, also saying that this was inspired by Russia (see Newsletter 49).

However, while the “DNR” significantly boosted the powers of “Prime Minister” Ananchenko, there were no immediate signs of changes in the balance of power inside the “LNR” leadership.