The region is under constant shelling. Its borders change daily. It's not even clear what powers this new government will have. But darn it, the Donetsk People’s Republic is holding an election on Sunday.
- By Lily HydeLily Hyde is a British writer and freelance journalist who covers Ukraine.
DONETSK, Ukraine — The sounds of artillery fire boomed from the northwest suburbs of Donetsk, but in the glittering foyer of what was once a downtown conference center, camouflage-clad militants toting Kalashnikovs sat in leather armchairs, paying no heed to the noise. They were keeping guard over those engaged in the important work upstairs: In the luxurious penthouse, trapped in stifling heat but cut off from the sound of shelling, Roman Lyagin worked to turn a fantasy republic into reality.
Lyagin, as head of the Central Election Committee of this unrecognized nation, is writing the rules that will govern the first parliamentary elections of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, scheduled for Nov. 2.
"I and some like-minded people are making a new state," he said. "We are building the state of our dreams."
It’s been six months since Russian-backed rebels in Donbass, an industrial region in Ukraine’s east, declared themselves independent states: the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR). But the intervening period has brought few of the trappings of statehood, and an abundance of chaos. Armed insurgents took over government buildings; in response, Kiev sent in troops. The region has now collapsed into an undeclared war and legal disarray.
Amid the turmoil, DNR leaders say the vote to elect a leader and a parliament — still slated to take place despite the ever-present shelling — will provide some sense of order, and give the self-proclaimed republic new legitimacy in the eyes of the world.
These elections — which come a week after voters in Ukraine proper elected the most pro-European parliament in the country’s history — will serve as a demonstration, Lyagin said, that "DNR citizens can choose their leaders and parliament through a free and fair ballot" — just like in any democracy.
Just three candidates are running for the position of prime minister of this new would-be state. Aleksandr Zakharchenko, acting head of the DNR and the front-runner in this race by far, kicked off his election campaign on Oct. 19 at a DNR "flag day" celebration held in central Donetsk, where children performed Russian dances, young people paraded with a gigantic DNR flag, and a brass band temporarily drowned out the sound of artillery.
A former electrician now only seen in battle dress adorned with the Cross of St. George — a mark of the Russian military — Zakharchenko took over leadership of the DNR in August when Russian citizen Alexander Borodai stepped down. Zakharchenko’s premiership was meant to signal that the DNR was a new state with local, grassroots support — he’s a Donetsk native and the leader of the armed militant organization Oplot — and in his campaign, he’s emphasized a sort of populist local pride: He catered to the crowd in his first stump speech, announcing that any debts to Kiev (including for the electricity and gas presently heating Donetsk’s buildings) are canceled, while all future taxes and profits from local industry will stay in the region, providing new workplaces and higher salaries.
Such promises may not rescue Zakharchenko’s approval ratings, however: There are no poll numbers, such as they are, but his decision to sign the September Minsk agreement with Ukraine — supposed to initiate a cease-fire in return for three years of regional self-rule — has been unpopular here. Since the shelling has hardly stopped, many of the DNR’s most hard-core supporters believe the so-called ceasefire has mainly given the Ukrainian army a chance to regroup.
But even if Zakharchenko isn’t as popular as he once was, he faces little in the way of competition. Svetlana Matveyeva, a mother of five from the Petrovka suburb of Donetsk, said she won’t support Zakharchenko, because his signature of the Minsk agreement was a betrayal. "I won’t vote for him, because if you want to be president, you shouldn’t be a liar," she said. But Matveyeva could not name either of the other two candidates in the running, nor could anyone else I spoke to.
Former martial arts school director Yuriy Sivokonenko and businessman Aleksandr Kofman have not even managed to muster up any campaign posters around Donetsk. Just two "civil movements" — those involved in the election never refer to them as parties — are competing for 100 seats in parliament: Free Donbass and Donetsk Republic. Lyagin’s brand-new election law has excluded the Communist Party from running because it "made too many mistakes" in its submitted documents, he said, while other parties, including Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov’s Russian Unity party, seem to have disappeared from the scene. Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the powerful Vostok battalion, said they’d disappeared because they failed to follow the example of Zakharchenko’s Oplot, and move from social-political movements to fighting brigades — an explanation that does not seem to bode well for a peaceful future for the DNR.
The form and powers of this incoming new government remain unclear. Lyagin, surrounded by chandeliers and walnut furniture in his penthouse office, admitted that the republic has no defined political philosophy other than being a "just republic for simple people"; nor has the division of powers between branches of the government been decided. Several ministries, including one responsible for tax collection, are supposedly in operation, but the staff and their contact telephone numbers come and go. The DNR’s allegiances, too, are hazy; Lyagin told me the DNR would perhaps join Russia after taking control of four more Ukrainian regions, while Khodakovsky called this larger territory, Novorossiya, a "populist concept," and seemed to largely dismiss the idea of civilian government for now.
"Although you can see signs of people forming a government here, those aren’t the comrades who define policy," he told me. "The military does that."
Elections are Lyagin’s specialty. He organized the May referendum in which the region voted to approve the "declaration of the Donetsk People’s Republic." (It passed, but was only recognized by South Ossetia, itself an unrecognized republic.) As he did last time, Lyagin plans to print over 3 million ballots for the November elections, a number he based on the Ukrainian government’s voting lists for Donetsk region, even though the DNR controls less than half of the territory. The borders of the DNR are defined by a set of checkpoints that move daily, and even some of the areas it theoretically controls are actually the fiefdoms of various militia leaders who, says Khodakovsky, are only "nominally DNR."
There is also the matter of the ongoing, though still undeclared, war, which according to U.N. figures has claimed nearly 4,000 lives and seems likely to hinder turnout. The UNHCR puts the overall number who have left Donbass for other areas of Ukraine at nearly 400,000, while thousands more have moved to Russia. Many Donetsk residents are living in bomb shelters, dependent on humanitarian aid; salaries, pensions, and benefits are at a standstill, and the territory is living under de facto martial law.
In Petrovka, a suburb of Donetsk on the front lines of the war, one bomb shelter houses dozens of people who have fled from nearby Mariinka, now back under Ukrainian control. It’s not clear where they and the many others who have been displaced would register to vote.
Close by, the cellar of the Petrovka Palace of Culture is home to up to 150 people from the neighborhood who have gone through heavy shelling that left dead bodies on the streets. These people do not allow their children to play in the park outside, for fear of unexploded mortars or another attack like the one in July that peppered the playground with shrapnel and destroyed the roof of the school opposite.
"I’m much too scared to go out for any election," said 30-year-old Yelena Novikova, who has been living in the cellars with her 10-year-old son for two months. "And anyway, who would I vote for?"
Some residents here hope that the vote, by electing leaders to replace those who proclaimed themselves in charge — or, in Lyagin’s words, "came to power on a revolutionary wave" — could restore some stability and a sense of normalcy to the region. Most of all, it is legitimacy that everyone from the DNR leadership to casual supporters craves.
"We want recognition that we are legitimate, that we are a normal, separate country, a normal separate state with our own government, all our own," said Matveyeva, the mother of five, who is living in the Palace of Culture’s cellars. "Someone has to finally take responsibility. Because at the moment there is no one for us to appeal to."
Yet the vote directly undermines the Minsk agreement, which calls for Ukrainian elections to be held in the region in December to elect local governments. The DNR leadership announced its plan for November elections just five days after signing the memorandum, ensuring that neither Ukraine nor the West will recognize them. Russia apparently supported the Minsk agreement and European leaders directly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to condemn the November vote. But on Oct. 28, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Izvestia newspaper that the vote should go ahead and that "we will of course recognize the results."
Even with the coup of Russian recognition, the looming vote is very far removed from the daily lives of many now living in the reality of the DNR. Election promises of a great new territory, economic self-sufficiency, new workplaces, and vast markets in Russia don’t seem to carry much resonance with a population that has lost all income and security. Under constant threat of shelling, many greet election talk with apathy.
"I don’t know who is fighting for what," said Lyubov Damenova, a former mine employee from Petrovka. "We have no faith at all in Kyiv anymore, and we even doubt the DNR." Damenova now lives with her daughter in the dark, dank Palace of Culture cellar. From here the gunfire is inaudible, but when a mortar falls nearby, the metal door to the yard outside blows open and clangs shut.
"Please, just end the war," added Damenova’s daughter, Svetlana Gerasina. "I’m scared to go out, but I’ll go to any elections if they would just end this pointless war."