Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
After more than three months without network coverage, the Vodafone mobile operator has begun working again in the “Donetsk People’s Republic”. However, it is not clear why and for how long. The security services in Luhansk and Donetsk, known as MGB, continue to parade people confessing to be spies on video. And while the separatists keep talking about integration with Russia, the economic situation in the “People’s Republics” remains precarious.
Vodafone blackout ends after more than three months
Mobile phone communications inside the Donetsk “People’s Republic” were restored on April 27, when the Vodafone Ukraine operator came back into service after an outage that had lasted since January 11.
The move came as a surprise to many who thought that mobile phone communication was becoming another wedge in the growing rift between separatists and the rest of Ukraine. While the real reasons for the outage remain unclear, the most likely explanation is a payment dispute between the separatists and Vodafone.
Official statements did not mention that repair works had taken place for the network’s restoration. Vodafone spokeswoman Viktoria Ruban said on April 27 that services would return after a “technical monitoring” had been carried out.
The OSCE Monitoring Mission said that it had facilitated a trip of Vodafone employees to carry out “damage assessments” on April 25 and 26 to Donetsk and other separatist-controlled cities. This also matches a statement by Donetsk Communications “Minister” Viktor Yatsenko, who said on April 27 that Vodafone specialists had “audited” the state of the company’s hardware in Donetsk.
Vodafone has previously denied claims by the separatists that the severing of a cable near Olenivka south of Donetsk had caused the network failure and suggested that the real issue was that the “DNR” was demanding electricity payments for the base stations (see Newsletter 26).
Whether any such payments have been made in the meantime is unclear. However, restoring Vodafone has been a regular issue at the OSCE-sponsored Minsk talks between Separatists, Ukraine and Russia, which have solved payment issues, eg for water supplies, before.
However, the network is clearly in bad shape since Vodafone has not been able to carry out maintenance work at its base stations in separatist-held areas for four years. Numerous users said on social networks that coverage remained patchy. Company spokeswoman Ruban said that coverage will return only in those places that have working equipment: “The question is for how long .. let’s hope that reason prevails”.
The separatists have undoubtedly profited because Vodafone’s absence caused skyrocketing demand for their own “Phoenix” mobile operator. Phoenix, which “DNR” authorities established by using infrastructure left behind by the Ukrainian provider “Kyivstar”, added more than 560,000 users since the beginning of the year, boosting overall user numbers to 1.2 million, according to Yatsenko’s “ministry”, which is running the provider.
Ukrainian analysts have suggested that “Phoenix” SIM card sales generated up to 60 million roubles (787,000 euros) for the separatists during January and February. Yatsenko said in March that Vodafone’s local revenues had amounted to 150 million per month (he did not name a currency) and that this money was now staying inside the “People’s Republic”.
However, “Phoenix” suffers from serious capacity limitations that seriously undermines its ability to compete with Vodafone. This has led to speculation that the decision to let Vodafone return was made in order to remove pressure from Phoenix and allow it to improve quality.
Also unclear is why Vodafone remained cut off just in the Donetsk “People’s Republic”. Network coverage in the Luhansk “People’s Republic” was restored eight days after the January 11 outage and has been functioning since, albeit with temporary disruptions. This despite the fact that the situation in the “LNR” is very similar to that in the “DNR” – Vodafone is the only properly functioning network, while the “Lugakom” operator is run by the de-facto separatist authorities using infrastructure abandoned by Ukrainian providers.
This does not bode well for the future. The past months have shown that the separatists can switch off mobile coverage at any point. They could even seize Vodafone’s equipment and put it under “external management” like they did with most Ukrainian-run firms last year – something that “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko already threatened to do on January 15.
Spies, foreign agents and explosive devises
While mostly unaffected by the Vodafone saga, the Luhansk separatists claimed over the May Day holiday that Ukraine had attempted to disrupt the “People’s Republic’s” internet and mobile phone connections. The Luhansk State Security “Ministry” said on Tuesday, May 1, that it had prevented a massive act of sabotage by discovering an explosive device at an optical fibre cable near Krasnodon (a city close to the border with Russia), and accused Ukrainian agents of planting it.
The claim was repeated on Wednesday by “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik, who said in comments carried by the separatists “state TV” that the prevented plot was part of Kiev’s plans to attack the “republic”. Neither Pasechnik nor the “Ministry”, which was headed by Pasechnik before he assumed the “LNR” top post in November, presented any substantial evidence for this claim.
Better known by its Russian acronym MGB, the Luhansk Security “Ministry” traditionally focuses on parading purported Ukrainian spies and publishing “evidence” about soldiers from NATO countries taking part in the military campaign against the separatists.
Thus, on April 17, it published what it said were the names and passport numbers of seven soldiers from Norway, Canada, Latvia and Denmark, who had trained Ukrainian special forces to carry out sabotage operations on “LNR” territory. On March 30, it published a video of a man, who it said had turned himself over from the Ukrainian Armed Forces and who claimed that instructors from Britain, France and the US were training Ukrainian special forces.
The Luhansk MGB also claimed that Ukrainian sabotage groups were preparing to assassinate Pasechnik and his Donetsk colleague Zakharchenko. Their training was being carried out at a private camp in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya Region under the leadership of a Georgian national, ministry spokeswoman Yevgenia Lyubenko said in a statement published on April 14.
While the Donetsk separatists made fewer sensational claims, the Donetsk MGB in early March published a bizarre account about a cactus grower turned Ukrainian spy. In a video confession, a man who introduces himself as Yury Shapovalov, declares that he spread “destabilizing information” on Twitter and warns everybody inside the “DNR” not to publish any information about the location of military hardware.
Ukrainian media were quick to uncover Shapovalov’s Twitter feed, which ostensibly consists solely of Tweets about a Donetsk-based cactus fan group, and identified Shapovalov as an employee of the city’s botanical gardens. If convicted, Shapovalov faces up to 20 years in prison.
These and similar cases show that the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk continue their practice of arresting civilians and using them in their propaganda war effort without fair trial (see our Annual Report 2017, p 7).
Few signs of recovery
One year after the separatists seized the remaining large enterprises in the areas they control in response to a wide-ranging trade blockade initiated by Ukrainian activists, there are still few signs of economic recovery or the much touted “reorientation” to Russia.
Instead, the “DNR”, where the bulk of industrial assets is located, conducted a public discussion campaign about the “republic’s” future strategy. Residents were asked to submit their suggestions online until May 7.
Unsurprisingly, the campaign, headed by “DNR” leader Zakharchenko, was accompanied by comments from experts who support the “People’s Republic’s” drive towards Russia. Thus, the official Donetsk News Agency on May 2 quoted an agriculture expert as saying that integration with Russia is the only way forward.
When reporting on the economy, separatist media often carried Soviet-style propaganda, like this report that 15 workers of the Donetsk Metallurgy Plant have joined the ranks of the “Donetsk Republic” movement, the “DNR” de-facto ruling party. Detailed reports about rising output or even profits are rare, despite the highly streamlined content of the official “DNR” and “LNR” news outlets.
“DAN” reported in late April that the former “Nord” refrigerator plant in Donetsk, renamed “Donfrost”, plans to increase production from 70,000 in 2017 to 120,000 this year. However, it did not mention that “Nord” had an annual output of more than 300,000 units before the war. The report also did not say on what basis the refrigerators would be manufactured in Donetsk.
Plant director Konstantin Klimov has said that more than 90 per cent of the output will be sold in Russia, and that some 60 per cent of the workforce had left since the war.
The “DNR” also announced in April that tramway production is restarting in the Donetsk Electrotechnical Plant (DEZ) and that the first car will hit the rails in July. When the separatists said last year that the first passenger busses had been assembled in the “DNR”, it turned out that the vehicles were really produced in Russia and had been sent to Donetsk for final fittings (see Newsletter 23).
“DNR”-leader Alexander Zakharchenko on April 26 again admitted that his “republic” is facing a shortage of skilled labour by announcing a “cadre reserve” for top jobs in both industry and public administration.
In addition, rumours of a fuel shortage began in April, when a prominent Donetsk separatist “parliament” member predicted that supplies of diesel fuel will run out at the end of the month. The deputy, Yevgeny Orlov, claimed on April 18 that the shortage had arisen because Russian refineries have less incentives to produce diesel when the oil price rises and because of higher Russian licensing costs.
The director of the separatist fuel monopoly denied that there was a diesel deficit. Three days after Orlov’s comments, on April 21, the “Svobodny Donbass” movement, which is led by Orlov, was forced to cancel a convention in Donetsk, reportedly because firemen were holding exercises in the conference hall.
“Svobodny Donbass” (Free Donbass) functions as a loyal but quasi-opposition party in the “DNR”. It was co-founded by Pavel Gubarev, who declared himself “people’s governor” when he led the first separatist protests in Donetsk and 2014 and who has sometimes disagreed with Zakharchenko.