A pro-Russian protester guards a barricade outside the regional state administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on April 10, 2014. Ukraine's acting president promised today not to prosecute pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings if they lay down their arms and end their siege. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY
Editor’s Note: This is an investigation conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project, a Kyiv Post partner.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- In March, a series of pro-Russian rallies swept through Donetsk.
Similar events also took place in other southern and eastern oblast capitals in Ukraine. All of them followed similar scripts: people with Russian flags stormed buildings of regional state administrations, and, in the event of success, raised Russian flags over them. In Russia and among pro-Russian activists in Ukraine these events were called the Russian Spring.
According to participants, these assaults represented the “activation of Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine in their fight for the preservation of their language.” Although Russian is widely spoken in many places in Ukraine, and ethnic Russians make up 17 percent of Ukraine’s population, the demonstrators say the government in Kyiv is threatening their language and culture.
Their demands also followed the same script: An urgent referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March. The TV cameras captured thousands of Ukrainian residents waving Russian flags who all, supposedly, wished to reunite with Russia.
But is it true?
A closer look at the phenomena of “Donetsk separatism” reveals a different picture.
Many of the key personalities and organizations associated with the separatist events, it turns out, are either Russians or people with identifiable connections to Russia. Moreover, the local government budgets of Donetsk funded at least some of these anti-Ukrainian demonstrations.
Gubarev and friends
The first massive pro-Russian rallies were held in Donetsk on March 1 and 3. Citizens of Russia also took part in them.
In Donetsk, Pavel Gubarev, a Ukrainian citizen and former member of the Russian National Unity movement, attempted to head the protest. However, on March 6 he was arrested on suspicion of separatism and the violent overthrow of the constitutional order.
Gubarev is 31. He was born in Luhansk Oblast’s Severodonetsk. In 2005, he graduated from Donetsk National University with a major in history.
In 2006 he was elected to Kuibyshev district council from Natalia Vitrenko’s Bloc People’s Opposition. In his autobiography he mentions that after becoming acquainted with the facts of “bureaucratic arbitrariness” he resigned in protest. He actively participated in various election campaigns as a campaign staffer.
Since 2007 he had been working in advertising as director of an agency. During the same period he obtained degrees in management and governance.
Despite being a leader of Donetsk separatists, Gubarev says that he had not been planning to enter politics, “but the arbitrariness of the Nazi militants” forced him to change his course. He assembled an entourage that included Russian nationalist radicals and militants.
For instance, the former head of the Moscow Shield organization, Alexey Khudyakov, actively took part in rallies in Donetsk next to Gubarev. Khudyakov was a suspect in a criminal case involving an attack by Russian radical nationalists on a hostel in Moscow where migrants lived.
Khudyakov escaped from liability for the September raid through Russian President Vladimir Putin-ordered amnesty in December. Due to the same amnesty, Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists were also released. Khudyakov had been charged with “hooliganism committed by a group of people by prior agreement.”
According to eyewitnesses and Russian media, Moscow Shield was violent. In one of the videos from the raid, it can be seen that some of organization’s members were armed with handguns. There were also skinheads among them.
Khudyakov is not the only right-wing Russian radical noticed in Donetsk. The head of the Sverdlovsk regional branch of the political party Other Russia, Rostislav Zhuravlev, also was among the participants of Donetsk protests.
This party is not registered in Russia because of its radical views. Representatives of this party, led by the notorious Russian writer and politician Eduard Limonov, seized the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow on March 17, as the party boasted on its website. This party also actively participated in anti-Ukrainian agitation in Crimea in anticipation of an unrecognized referendum held on March 16, which led to the annexation of the peninsula and its accession to Russia.
On March 3 “other-Russian” Zhuravlev was present at the negotiations of the protesters with the head of Donetsk regional department of SBU Valeriy Ivanov, although, as he mentioned in his Twitter, he was there as a ‘journalist.’
Until recently, the pro-Russian movement in Donetsk Oblast had been highly marginalized. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, only 0.4 percent of the population voted for the radical Russian Bloc. By comparison, the bloc got 5.5 percent of the votes in Crimea’s Sevastopol, the base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
While there are representatives of openly pro-Russian parties in the Crimean Parliament, you will not find them in Donetsk Oblast or its city council.
Nevertheless, in the wake of the EuroMaidan Rvolution in Ukraine that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, these views have seriously gained momentum.
According to a poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology on Feb. 8-18, 33.2 percent of respondents in Donetsk Oblast believe that Ukraine and Russia should unite in one state; in Crimea, 41 percent responded that way.
The Donetsk city budget, which is controlled by the local authorities, has served as a source of funding for separatists and even pro-Russian organizations for a long time.
Donetsk Mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko, for example, issued order No. 224 on March 17 which allocated Hr 40,000 to the Donetsk regional organization called the Society of Ukrainian Defense Assistance. The organization is a direct partner of Russia’s DOSAAF, a voluntary defense organization. Mention of this association was only recently removed from the Ukrainian organization’s website.
DOSAAF (Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Fleet) is an organization that considers its main task as “wide propaganda of military knowledge within working people.”
Moreover, Yuriy Chizhmar, assistant manager of the Ukrainian organization claims that, despite the defense mobilization in Ukraine and the military threat from Russia, his organization does not actively work in Donetsk Oblast on preparing citizens for defense because of “the tense situation in the region.”
For example, Lukyanchenko, in a March 17 order, allocated Hr 13,950 to the Afghans Donetsk non-governmental organization V.Arsenov National-Patriotic Center.
In several other orders, the mayor supplied Hr 9,000 and Hr 50,000 for the purchase of commemorative signs issued to the Donetsk city organization Ukrainian Union of Afghan Veterans.
In addition to financial assistance, the Donetsk City Council regularly issues public property for the Afghan group. For instance, on Nov. 20, the executive committee of Donetsk City Council issued a decree giving the Veterans of Afghanistan 50 square meters of office space.
Officials, however, claim that they do not support separatists.
“Separate the wheat from the chaff. There is a program Care, which defines the activities towards different categories of people: Afghans, Chornobyl victims, disabled people, etc. They are people who have some certain legal status,” says Maxim Rovinskii, the head of the public relations department of Donetsk City Council. “It is one thing is when the question of social care and support for people with the status of soldiers-internationalists is considered, and another question, when these non-governmental organizations are involved in some political projects. These two things must be considered separately.”
Oleksiy Matsuka is the chief editor of Novosti Donbassa newspaper. Vitaliy Sizov is an investigative journalist at Novosti Donbassa.