May 21, 2014

Who Controls Eastern Ukraine: Oligarchs, Gunmen, or Putin?

Reuters/Scanpix

DONETSK, Ukraine, 21 May—Despite almost 3 months of crisis, eastern Ukraine remains in a state of flux. One fact is explicit after the failure of the Crimea scenario—that is, Russian annexation—of the Donbas region is that none of the local or external “powers” is in control. In fact, there is no one in charge: not the so-called people’s republics, not regional oligarch and power broker Rinat Akhmetov, not the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, and certainly not Russia. The Donbas has become a ball in a ping pong match among multiple teams, while local residents are also divided; some have backed the separatists, some have fought for Ukrainian unity, while a majority remain passive, hoping that some leader will emerge to give them “stability,” a word mentioned in seemingly every political speech or discussion for the past two decades.

DONETSK, Ukraine, 21 May—Despite almost 3 months of crisis, eastern Ukraine remains in a state of flux. One fact is explicit after the failure of the Crimea scenario—that is, Russian annexation—of the Donbas region is that none of the local or external “powers” is in control. In fact, there is no one in charge: not the so-called people’s republics, not regional oligarch and power broker Rinat Akhmetov, not the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, and certainly not Russia. The Donbas has become a ball in a ping pong match among multiple teams, while local residents are also divided; some have backed the separatists, some have fought for Ukrainian unity, while a majority remain passive, hoping that some leader will emerge to give them “stability,” a word mentioned in seemingly every political speech or discussion for the past two decades.

In fact, the relative political passiveness of the Donbas allowed local oligarchs and authorities to prosper during the rule of former President Viktor Yanukovych. The same tendency of so many in this region to seek stability and authority in the wealthiest and powerful led Kyiv to attempt to secure the region within Ukraine’s borders by appointing local oligarchs as key governors after the ouster of Yanukovych. The tactic proved to be successful in Dnipropetrovsk, where after his appointment as regional governor, charismatic local businessman Ihor Kolomoyskyi mobilized the patriotic population and financed the Dnipro Battalion, special volunteer forces aimed at deterring Kremlin-backed separatists.
Yet one strategic point on the map was not secured at that time. The steel magnate Akhmetov had largely sat on the fence. With his blessing, the governorship of Donetsk oblast was handed to the less prominent businessman Serhiy Taruta, whose authority has never reached out of the city of Donetsk into the patchwork collection of smaller communities, such as Slovyansk, that has been seized by the separatists. A mixture of local thugs and criminals guided by Russian military officers brought chaos, vandalism and banditry to the streets, decreasing local support of the “people’s governors”. Internal clashes within the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) led to a change in policy from advocating independence to becoming part of Russia, something that made Akhmetov take action, as his business interests would obviously not benefit from becoming part of Russia’s existing “market of monopolies.” Another threat of competition comes from the Dnipro Battalion and the similar Azov force that appeared in Mariupol—the capital of Akhmetov’s steel empire—and which succeeded in regaining control over the separatists.
But now, Akhmetov has finally made a move here in Donetsk, calling for a general strike against the separatists, and making his own employees go out on the protest. While a mandatory “March for Peace” might seem contradictory, it has served a purpose by sending a message: there is more than just one power in this region. Indeed, on the first day after Akhmetov’s decision, armed separatists sought to seize his business offices while aggressively attacking the Ukrainian flag-waving cars of the peace protesters; gunshots thundered across the city center.
The rationales behind Akhmetov’s decision to call for a strike against the separatists are complex. Yet one is clear, Akhmetov understands that the days of his local power could be numbered. The leader of the separatists’ armed campaign, Igor Girkin (better known by the nom de guerre Strelok, or “shooter”)—a colonel in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service—has declared a “hunting season” on those who refuse to cooperate, as he defines it; including not just pro-Ukrainian activists but also local authorities from the Party of Regions. The cruelty and unpredictability of separatists has definitely made local governors to reconsider their supportive mood. The aspiration that gunmen would bring financial independence to the region on a silver platter is far from reality.
The Donbas appeared to be a more difficult target for Russia. Kremlin-backed gunmen succeeded to bring chaos in the region but have not achieved a total control yet. While the goodwill of oligarchs is not a long-term remedy for strengthening a country’s integrity and institutions, and might be followed by new complications later, the events in recent days have come as the first positive break for Kyiv since the annexation of Crimea.

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