A power struggle has broken out among pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine: They're fighting for control of a country that doesn't exist yet.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award.
No sooner had the leaders of the so-called "People’s Republics" of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Odessa declared the return of "Novorossiya" ("New Russia") earlier this month than they began fighting among themselves. Though they agree that the entire southeastern portion of Ukraine should join their self-proclaimed breakaway nation, they are divided over who should lead this new government. Yet all week, leaders of the pro-Russian movement in Odessa have been bombarded with calls from concerned friends and commanders of the region’s self-defense units asking the same pressing question: Who the hell is Valery Kaurov, and why are Russian news agencies calling him "the president of the People’s Republic of Novorossiya"? ("Novorossiya," is the historical term used by the tsars for the south and east of present-day Ukraine, which was conquered by the Russian empire in the 18th century.)
At an Easter demonstration on Saturday, April 19, on Kulikovo Field Square in Odessa, anti-Kiev rebels voted to embrace the cause of the "Novorossiya Movement." While one of the demonstration’s leaders, a short and stout 26-year-old by the name of Artem Davydchenko, gave a passionate speech from the stage before a few thousand activists, a face covered in a thick beard appeared on a laptop screen set up by a church in a nearby tent. The caller was Valery Kaurov, the Moscow-based leader of the Union of Orthodox Citizens of Ukraine — and a former businessman who is wanted in Ukraine for his calls for separatism. At home in Odessa, his critics accuse him of "being weak" and "selling out."
Addressing a small group of his supporters who had crowded around the computer, Kaurov declared himself to be the president of the recently created Republic of Novorossiya. A few dozen of his supporters applauded and approved his candidacy — but the majority of the protesters learned about their new "president" on the news. Many leaders attended the demonstration in defiance of possible retaliation from Kiev, which threatens jail terms for those who espouse separatism. Kaurov was more cautious: He proclaimed his leadership from Moscow, via Skype.
But Kaurov is not the only one who has attempted to seize command in eastern Ukraine. An officially registered presidential candidate in the central government’s May 25 election, Oleg Tsarev, arrived in Donetsk earlier this month to lead the anti-Kiev protests there, calling for a referendum that would turn Ukraine into a loose federation that would give devolve most of the central government’s powers to the regions. (He has since dropped out of the presidential race.) Tsarev’s campaign platform also emphasizes making Russian an official language — but that’s not enough for many of the southeast protesters, who simply want to see their part of Ukraine split off into an entirely separate entity. As Dmitry Sinegorsky, the head of security in the rebel-occupied Donetsk administration building, said: "We should be constantly on guard to defend ourselves from phony criticism, from self-appointed, commercially interested leaders climbing to grab power." Another powerful leader, the self-appointed mayor of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, has made headlines by kidnapping journalists and politicians –including a group of OSCE observers. Pushilin’s People’s Republic of Donetsk supported the mayor’s actions, saying it suspected that the OSCE observers were "NATO spies." (In the photo above, a pro-Russian activist guards a barricade in front of the flag of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk.)
Last Wednesday, most of the pro-Russian protesters I spoke with in Odessa were concerned about how groups like the Novorossiya Movement are scrambling for power in the country’s new political structures. "We’re constantly on guard so that no more ‘generals’ can claim leadership over us," Davydchenko told me. Most protesters on Kulikovo Field either mocked or cursed the self-appointed president Kaurov: "Kaurov can self-appoint himself as an Emperor or a king — our reaction would be the same: We’d laugh at him," one of the leaders of the Kulikovo field protesters, Yegor Kvasnyuk, told me.
In fact, as Kvasnyuk explained, a completely different man inspired the Novorossiya Movement. A tall man in gray suit, Kvasnyuk looked worn-down, his face covered in sweat. That day, a prosecutor had called him in for questioning; he could very well be facing a 15-year prison term for separatism. Walking to a kiosk to buy himself an energy drink, Kvasnyuk explained to me that the "holy" idea of Novorossiya needed "honest and uncompromising leaders." Apparently, Putin was not the first one to propose the return of Novorossiya; the first one to propose it was the key thinker of the Eurasianist conservative revolution, Alexander Dugin: "As early as last September, during a meeting in Russia, Dugin told us that Novorossiya, a sovereign republic, should have devoted, honest Russians to lead it to revive our Russian roots." Kvasnyuk spoke of Dugin highly, calling him "the greatest predictor of Russia’s future."
Dugin’s followers in Odessa and Donetsk knew little about series of his articles published in 1992-2006 defining his "neo-Eurasianist" theories, which describe the birth of "pure, radically revolutionary, and consistently fascist fascism." As a member of the modern Russian establishment, regularly appearing on Russian state channels, Dugin avoided radical statements in recent years, but some of his quotes and articles can still be found on the Internet, according to the Moscow-based Gumilev Center, a community of Eurasianists. "Russian fascism is a combination of naturally national conservatism and the passionate desire for true change," said one of the Center’s representatives.
Earlier this month, Dugin told his followers that, in the future, journalists working for the Russian independent media — including Echo of Moscow, Dozhd, and Novaya Gazeta — should not be allowed to enter the territory of Novorossiya, because Dugin believes they’ve betrayed Russia: "Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkov republics will be a holy place for renaissance of Russian culture, Russian spirit, Russian identity." In Dugin’s view, Novorossiya should be governed by "absolutely different people — real, brave, clever, [and] able to fight for their freedom." According to Kvasnyuk, Dugin also predicted that everybody in the movement would betray Novorossiya — that is, "everybody but Putin."
In the end, the rebels’ struggle to find leaders might not even matter, because Dugin’s notions of a pure Russian revival are proving to be potent enough on their own, with or without leaders.