Just two months ago, there were no plans to hold elections in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, even though the four-year terms of the Donbas officials were coming to an end. The republics had said they didn’t have sufficient funding to hold elections, and that they feared a Ukrainian offensive. Then, the assassination of Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko in late August forced everyone into an about-turn. It was decided that elections in the Donbas were necessary in order to fill a power vacuum and avoid destabilization, and they will take place on November 11.

The recently published lists of candidates confirmed that the election winners were selected far ahead of time in Moscow, but the campaigns and candidates—including those who didn’t make the final list—say a lot about the ideological differences within the self-proclaimed republics and about the Kremlin’s vision for their future.

Zakharchenko’s assassination may have introduced some political uncertainty in Donetsk, but in Luhansk there was never any question about what the future holds. The list of challengers to incumbent Leonid Pasechnik reveals that there is only one real candidate, a valiant defender of the people, who will crush his competitors: chairmen of the railways and education trade unions. 

Pasechnik seized power in November 2017 from his unpopular predecessor, Igor Plotnitsky. Pasechnik, a former minister of state security of the breakaway region and previously a department head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), has done quite well in his new role: at least, there have been no serious incidents during the year that he has been in power.

The election campaign in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) has been much more turbulent. Both the low popularity of the main candidate (Denis Pushilin, the former speaker of the region’s parliament) and the Kremlin’s attempts to restore his reputation during the brief remaining period have made things more interesting.

Replacing Zakharchenko wasn’t easy, as he was the epitome of Donbas separatism. Not a poor man, Zakharchenko could have fled to Rostov or Kyiv at the beginning of the conflict, the way dozens of his peers did. Instead, he stayed and became the commander of a military division, risking his life many times. He was a man of the people and spoke his mind, and many in the Donbas genuinely respected him for his principles.  

Pushilin, on the other hand, is the butt of many jokes and the scapegoat for many failures. How else could the workers of the Donbas see the former functionary of an infamous financial pyramid that conned millions of Soviet people, who claims that this experience taught him how to be an “effective manager”? 

The people of the Donbas associate Pushilin, not Zakharchenko, with the Minsk agreements on ending fighting in the region, which contradict the romantic ideas of the Russian Spring of 2014. They also look down on him for always wearing a suit and tie in public, never donning a military uniform, even though he talks about the war frequently (as an excuse for various failures in running the republic).

Pushilin and his handlers in Moscow understand that an influential field commander would be too strong a challenger for a man in a suit, and did not let any strong military figures enter the running, though some tried. 

Igor Strelkov, one of the field commanders from 2014 (whose return to the Donbas many still hope for) did not make the cut for a formal reason: he is a Russian citizen.

Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Vostok battalion—who, like Luhansk head Pasechnik, hails from the Ukrainian special forces—had said he would run, and if the elections were being held fairly, would have stood a real chance. But with some contrived reason cited, Khodakovsky wasn’t allowed to cross the border from the Rostov region into the Donetsk republic on the day he needed to submit documents to register as a candidate.

Two other military men—Igor Khakimzyanov, the first commander of the Donetsk forces, and soldier Vyacheslav Dyakov—campaigned, but the local election commission refused to register them as candidates, claiming that they had not submitted their signature lists on time.

Pavel Gubarev, one of the first political leaders of the Russian Spring, also threw his hat in the ring. Like Pushilin, until 2014 Gubarev was a wealthy businessman, and from the very start of the conflict he has provided financial support for the separatist movement. Gubarev owns the Novorossiya television channel and radio station, as well as the DNR-Live online portal, and has repeatedly questioned the use of the Minsk agreements. Gubarev didn’t make it onto the ballot, either: the election commission said he had not collected enough valid signatures. 

There will therefore be only four relatively unknown candidates challenging Pushilin, none of whom is likely to get more than a few percent of the vote. These challengers are Roman Khromenkov (the former mayor of the cities of Yenakiieve and Horlivka as part of the DPR), Elena Shishkina (chairwoman of the Ukrainian People’s Tribunal for the Government of Ukraine), Roman Yevstifeyev (head of the Museum of Afghan Veterans), and Vladimir Medvedev (deputy education minister of the DPR). 

All of these candidates are so far removed from the “patriotic” opposition movement in the DPR that even Strelkov has called for “a boycott of this imbecilic spectacle,” even though he had previously said that voters should go to the polls—and vote for anyone other than Pushilin. 

Despite the fastidious weeding of the political playing field, Pushilin’s PR team is trying to make the civilian candidate at least vaguely attractive to voters, including by positioning him as continuing the mission of Zakharchenko. He is also talking more about Russia, saying that “integration with Russia is the main and immutable vector that the Donbas chose back in 2014.”

Pushilin’s key PR achievement was his interview with a real Western newspaper, Poland’s Rzeczpospolita. In Poland, many criticized the interview for a lack of tough questions, and Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland wrote a letter of complaint to the paper’s editor. Nevertheless, it had the effect of legitimizing Pushilin as a decisionmaker.

There are no objective opinion polls in the Donbas that could be used to assess the results of the PR efforts. However, even accounting for the highly conditional nature of online voting on social networks, Pushilin does not appear to be popular. In the latest surveys, Gubarev was firmly in the lead. In earlier surveys, Strelkov was ahead. Journalist Sergei Belous shared different figures on his Telegram channel: citing a closed survey, he wrote that Pushilin is in the lead, though with only 32.1 percent, while 46.6 percent of respondents found the question difficult to answer.  

Moscow is overtly changing its approach to its relationship with Donetsk. Russia’s Federal Security Service investigators openly traveled to Donetsk to look into Zakharchenko’s murder, and on October 10, Pushilin met just as openly in Moscow with Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s point man on Ukraine. Pushilin, who is more manageable and less impulsive than his predecessor, even invited Surkov to visit Donetsk before the end of the year. In other words, Moscow does not feel obliged to conceal the fact that it is pulling the strings in the election campaign in the Donbas.

The romantic spirit of 2014 that supporters of the unrecognized republics remember so fondly has completely dissipated. Today, the poster child of the Donbas isn’t a tough guy in fatigues, but an “effective manager” in a suit and tie who is ready to take unpopular decisions as directed from above and relay the bad news to the people. 

Before Pushilin’s new mandate becomes completely clear, however, another unknown in the equation must be found: who will become president of Ukraine in March 2019? 

  • Kirill Krivosheev