When Russia-backed militants took over cities and towns in eastern Ukraine in spring 2014, some saw it as an opportunity.
Some mayors and other local officials endorsed the occupation. They appeared before crowds and expressed support for the armed men who came to seize their cities.
When the Ukrainian army beat back the invaders after several months, liberating some of the cities, those officials laid low.
Six years later, they are seeking to return to power – and some likely will.
A number of former officials are running for mayor in Donetsk and Luhansk oblast cities in the Oct. 25 local elections.
Thanks to Ukraine’s decentralization reform, local communities are now unprecedentedly independent from the central government, receive wider authority and keep more tax money.
These extensive powers attract many, including controversial former Donbas officials keen to win back their offices.
In six years, none of them have been convicted for assisting Russia in its invasion. Several investigations are ongoing, and some cases are being reluctantly heard by courts.
“Impunity breeds new crimes,” said Konstantin Reutski, executive director at the Vostok SOS nonprofit, which helps victims of the war in the Donbas.
“I expect serious unrest and a new round of pro-Russian sentiments, the providers of which will be precisely these people who let it happen, made the Russian invasion possible in 2014, and in fact opened the doors to Russian mercenaries in the east of Ukraine,” he added, referring to local officials in the Donbas.
Among the formerly pro-separatist politicians running for reelection are several who came to wide prominence during the occupation. The biggest is Nelya Shtepa, the former mayor of Slovyansk in Donetsk Oblast.
It’s hard to forget Nelya Shtepa.
The 58-year-old platinum blonde is gently smiling from a billboard in Slovyansk, a city some 70 kilometers from the war’s front line. She is depicted in a yellow dress on a blue background, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Next to her are the words “Slovyansk – For peace and development.” The sign is in Russian, the language spoken by the majority in the city.
Shtepa is running for mayor of Slovyansk, the post she held when the war started in 2014.
As mayor, she gained nationwide fame for her outlandish behavior. At one event, she rode a horse dressed like a queen. At another, she called a journalist a “bitch.”
Fond of bright outfits, furs and high heels, Shtepa often opened her wardrobe for TV crews to film. Her house had a fountain in the yard, featured a fireplace room and was decorated with her portraits and mirrors so she could enjoy her reflection. Sometimes she would gather local journalists for press conferences there.
Shtepa served as mayor from 2010 until April 2014, when the Russia-backed militants occupied the city. She allegedly supported them.
On April 12, 2014, Shtepa was there, next to the administrative buildings the armed men came to seize. She can be seen in some videos from that day calming down the crowds of worried locals, saying that the militiamen are not a danger and declaring that she “is against the Kyiv authorities.”
A week after the Slovyansk occupation she appeared on Russian TV channels. In one interview, she said she trusted Russian President Vladimir Putin and would prefer him to be her leader. She then called on Putin to invade the city.
“Enter the city, stand for it and protect me, as a woman,” Shtepa appealed to Putin, sobbing. Her eyes were full of tears as she spoke with the journalists.
“Our entire community will come and vote in the referendum (to separate from Ukraine),” she reassured Putin in the video.
When the Ukrainian military freed the city in July 2014, Shtepa firmly renounced her pro-Russian sentiments. She claimed that the militia was holding her in captivity and blackmailed her, saying that they would hurt her family if she did not say what they wanted.
The Kyiv Post reached out to Shtepa for an interview to let her tell her story, but her representatives eventually stopped communicating with our journalist.
Others, however, question the story she has previously told. Denis Kazansky, a journalist, native of the now-occupied city of Donetsk and one of Ukraine’s representatives in the Minsk peace talks, does not believe Shtepa. She was truly anti-Ukrainian, he said.
Kazansky told the Kyiv Post that he was there when the city of Slovyansk was seized and he saw how Shtepa behaved.
“I saw how she happily welcomed these militants,” he said. “At the time, she was not yet (imprisoned) in the basement, no one had put any weapon to her head, but she was telling people that ‘these are our guys, do not be afraid,’ she calmed down the crowd who stood there and waited for the ‘liberators.’”
In one of the videos, she does say that the militants “are not some people coming from western Ukraine as we are now worried about; these are our Donbas guys.”
However, in another video filmed on the same day, she says she “has nothing to do” with the invaders.
Valentyn Krasnoperov, head of the Strong Communities watchdog and another witness to the 2014 events in Slovyansk, said that Shtepa obstructed the EuroMaidan movement in Slovyansk.
The EuroMaidan Revolution began in Kyiv in November 2013 when people took to the streets to protest against the country’s corrupt president and government. The movement soon spread all over Ukraine and eventually ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Krasnoperov was co-organizing EuroMaidan in the Donbas. In March 2014, he traveled with a car rally from Donetsk to Slovyansk.
“Some people used to hire titushkas,” he said, using a slang term for athletic men who served as paid political thugs, “but Shtepa had feisty grannies. Slovyansk is a city of pensioners.
“She used the administrative resources and set up garbage trucks around the (central) square, blocking our cars from entering it, as we wanted to go there for our meeting. And then she instigated those organized grandmothers on us.”
The former mayor was detained right after the Ukrainian army recaptured the city back in July. She was immediately accused of threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the inviolability of its borders and of forming a terrorist group.
After spending three years in a detention center, Shtepa was released and placed under house arrest in September 2017.
Since then, she has started working on clearing her name.
On July 31, 2018, an anonymous YouTube channel titled “Correspondent” and created on the very same day published an almost two-hour film about Shtepa. It has never published anything else since then.
The film is called Outside the Law. It presents only one side of the story: that Shtepa is innocent. It includes multiple interviews with people presented as witnesses to the Slovyansk occupation in 2014. They all express support for the former mayor and endorse everything she was doing. Some scenes were staged and performed by actors to reconstruct situations that, as the film suggests, that Shtepa experienced in captivity.
She also brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), demanding over 60,000 euros in compensation from Ukrainian authorities. Shtepa complained that her pre-trial detention had been lengthy and unjustified and that the criminal proceedings against her had dragged on for an unreasonably long time.
The ECHR found that it had taken Ukraine too much time to investigate Shtepa. The court awarded the former mayor with 2,600 euros in non-pecuniary damages and 1,000 euro of court expenses.
But Ukraine did not speed the case up after the ECHR’s ruling. Shtepa’s house arrest expired in 2018, and the court never issued another. Instead, the case is bouncing from one Kharkiv court to another because the judges — already nine panels — keep recusing themselves.
The Kharkiv Oblast Prosecutor’s Office told the Kyiv Post that the reason for this is mostly staff changes unrelated to Shtepa. “There is no evidence of pressure on judges, including by prosecutors,” it said in a statement.
The prosecutor’s office also said that the pretrial investigation and collected evidence had “fully proved” Shtepa’s guilt.
While the litigation against Shtepa continues, she is running for mayor.
She has been planning her triumphant return to Ukrainian politics for six years, ever since she was detained. The former mayor used to tell journalists that she believed she would become Ukraine’s president in 2017 because this was predicted by a psychic.
She tried her luck, but failed in the parliamentary elections in 2019, running with the Opposition Platform, a political force with a vocal pro-Russian stance and a successor to the Party of Regions to which Shtepa belonged before the events of 2014.
Shtepa soon split from the Opposition Platform and decided to run for mayor with the Party of Peace and Development, a sister political force to the Opposition Bloc, a different pro-Russian party.
In an interview with a regional news outlet, Shtepa acknowledged that she is now backed by Vadym Novinskyi, a businessman, lawmaker and member of the Opposition Bloc party. Novinskyi neither confirmed nor denied backing Shtepa.
“I consider Nelya Shtepa a decent candidate and I am convinced that she can win the elections even without my support. She is respected by the residents of the city, she went through difficult times with dignity,” Novinskyi told the Kyiv Post in an email. “If I were a resident of Slovyansk, I would most likely vote for Nelya Shtepa.”
Shtepa’s election campaign has been in a full swing since mid-August.
Her face appears on billboards in the city. Her social media accounts are full of video addresses and photographs taken during her meetings with the public. She is featured opening new flower beds and playgrounds and negotiating the reconstruction of a local cultural center.
Struk continued helping separatist militants when their confrontation with the government heated up, according to Reutski.
“(Struk) was supplying firewood, field kitchens,” he said. “He used the resources of the Luhansk city council. Municipal vehicles brought firewood and sandbags (to the separatists’ barricades).”
Struk’s actions didn’t go unnoticed.
The SBU has been investigating Struk since 2014. He is the subject of two separate proceedings. In one, he is suspected of threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the inviolability of its borders. Another focuses on Struk’s alleged involvement in the seizure of state power.
But the cases are dragging.
In 2019, pro-Ukrainian activists that fled the Donbas tried to give SBU a nudge and sent it a letter of complaint about Struk through the Kyiv-based Miller law firm.
“Procedural deadlines are dragging on,” Natalya Baranova, a lawyer at Miller, told the Kyiv Post.
According to her, after six years of investigation, SBU should have either indicted Struk and handed the case to the court or closed the case.
When the full-scale war began in the Donbas, Struk laid low. He fled to Crimea and stayed at the resort he owned there.
His daughters and wife soon moved to Kyiv and bought apartments in a luxurious residential area, Novopechersk Lypky, according to Garna Hata, an investigative project that monitors who owns elite housing in Ukraine. The last e-declaration that Struk filed as a lawmaker in 2013 shows that he did not earn enough income for such a purchase.
Since the war started, the family has been living a luxurious life in Kyiv. Struk’s daughters posted photographs from their travels around Europe and America. In early 2014, their father was telling people at pro-Russian rallies that Ukraine should stay away from the EU and U.S.
In 2016, Struk reappeared in public and came to the opening of a public water pump in Kreminna, where he is now running for mayor.
He tried to return to Ukrainian politics in 2019 and ran for parliament as an independent candidate in a single-member district in Luhansk Oblast but lost. He distributed free eyeglasses to pensioners, opened several new public water pumps and sponsored concerts.
Now Struk is running for the mayor of Kreminna. While no polls are published for the 20,000-people city, there is a good chance Struk will win. He is nominated by the Opposition Platform – For Life, a pro-Russian party. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the party won 52% of votes in the constituency that Kreminna belongs to.
This time, instead of free eyeglasses, Struk is giving away jars of honey to his elderly electorate and organizing concerts for Kreminna residents. A charity named after him has been highly active for several months, routinely posting plans of the town’s renovation on social media.
“Nothing good will happen if Struk becomes the head of this part of the region. And I am afraid that he may use his power in the same way as he used it in 2014,” Reutski told the Kyiv Post.
“I am afraid that these people may face the same fate (as the residents of Yuvileiny and Luhansk),” he added.
Fugitives from justice
However, not all of those suspected of fueling pro-Russian and separatist ideas in the Donbas in 2014 are now aiming to reenter Ukrainian politics.
Many simply disappeared to escape facing justice — like infamous former Party of Regions member Serhiy Kravchenko, the former mayor of Luhansk. He reportedly fled Ukraine in 2014 after Russia-backed separatists seized his city and was last spotted in Karlovy Vary, a spa town in the Czech Republic, in 2016.
Volodymyr Sliptsov, another former Party of Regions’s member, is also on the run. Before 2014, the 73-year-old was mayor of Toretsk, a town in the Donetsk Oblast. It is controlled by Kyiv but is located directly next to occupied Horlivka.
But even if he weren’t hiding from the law, Sliptsov would not have had an opportunity to participate in the local elections.
Toretsk is on the list of towns where local elections will not take place on Oct. 25. The Central Election Commission decided not to hold the vote in certain cities and towns that lie on the front line due to security issues.
Sliptsov had served as mayor of Toretsk for 18 years before being detained in 2016. He was suspected of threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the inviolability of its borders, as well as supporting a terrorist organization.
It took prosecutors two years to issue a notice of suspicion for something he allegedly did back in 2014.
The then-mayor supported holding a referendum on breaking away from Ukraine, helped the militants to organize it and personally signed the final decision on “proclaiming independence,” said Artur Kalmakov, a prosecutor at the Donetsk Oblast Prosecutor’s Office.
Sliptsov spent almost 1.5 years in a pre-trial detention facility while his case was being heard by the court. He did not show up in the courtroom and participated via video link because of poor health.
In December 2017, Sliptsov’s name was added to the list for a prisoner swap Ukraine was holding with Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas. The former mayor was meant to be given up in exchange for Ukrainian captives. He agreed to it but, when taken to the site near the occupied Horlivka, he refused to be swapped.
He then reportedly hid in the bus with journalists and asked to be taken back.
The court was supposed to issue new pretrial restrictions to replace the detention that was lifted so Sliptsov could be swapped. However, it never did.
Sliptsov showed up at one court hearing in January 2018, immediately felt sick and was rushed to the hospital. After he was discharged, he disappeared, Kalmakov told the Kyiv Post.
“He’s evading appearing in court,” he said. “His lawyers were filing certificates from different medical institutions to confirm that he was being treated at the Toretsk City Hospital, at the Kramatorsk City Hospital, in Kharkiv, somewhere else… Then they said he had been released but they didn’t know where he was,” the prosecutor concluded.
One of Sliptsov’s lawyers, Andriy Karnaukhov, does communicate with his client. Karnaukhov told the Kyiv Post that Sliptsov did not want to speak to the media because he “had lost hope for a fair trial and does not trust either the judicial system or journalists.”
The lawyer acknowledged, however, that Sliptsov not showing up in court was their defense strategy.
“We saw the jail guards in the court and understood that he would be detained. So, we decided he would not be attending in the future,” Karnaukhov said.
Sliptsov is on Ukraine’s wanted list. According to Kalmakov, Sliptsov might have fled to Russia-annexed Crimea, where he has real estate.
Kazansky believes that the blame for letting officials suspected of aiding Russia in seizing the eastern Donbas escape lies with law enforcement.
“All the blame is on the SBU. Either they don’t have the will or they took money from these people. It does not matter, but it is necessary to investigate this and figure out the truth,” he said.
“This is not negligence, this is deliberate sabotage,” said Serhiy Ivanov, a journalist who worked as a prosecutor in Luhansk before 2008.
“In my opinion, since I have experience working in law enforcement agencies, there is enough evidence to put (many of them) in jail,” he said.
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