On August 31 in Donetsk in the cafe “Separ”, the head of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko was mortally wounded. Russia accused the Ukrainian authorities of the attempt. Who could benefit from Zakharchenko’s murder and what it could lead to?
In the Donbass famous people are killed more and more often. The murder of Zakharchenko is the continuation of this wave?
Recently, the political situation in the Donbass was stable. The peak of terror against local politicians and the military fell on 2015. Then in the self-proclaimed NDP and LNR the formation of army corps was going on, where groups and so-called battalions of field commanders, many of whom were known in the media solely by callsign, were forced into the force. The centralized commanders who perished perished in the same way – in the deep rear as a result of the attack of a group of professional killers. So the famous commanders Mozgovoy, Ishchenko, Dremov, “Batman” were killed. Later, in 2016 and 2017, the lagandary commanders “Motorola” and “Givi” were killed. Since then, there have been no high-profile murders in Donetsk and Lugansk.
Why did they kill Zakharchenko? What are the main versions?
There are three main versions of Zakharchenko’s murder. The official Russian (actually supported by the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry) version says that the head of the Democratic People’s Republic was eliminated by Ukrainian saboteurs. However, in Donetsk and Lugansk on saboteurs it is customary to write off any loud murder in general, although there was no conclusive evidence of Kiev’s involvement in any case. It is known that in the case of “Motorola” and “Givi”, the investigation of the DNR relied on the confessions of several people who called themselves members of the nationalist organization Misanthropic Division. The organization itself denied the connection with the murders. Later in the DNR they stated that “Givi” and “Motorola” were killed by order of the head of the counterintelligence department of the SBU Alexei Petrov.
The second version is economic. According to her, Zakharchenko could become a victim of a business conflict, in which the structures of the Ukrainian billionaire Sergey Kurchenko, who settled in Russia in 2014, take part. During the years of his reign in Donetsk, Zakharchenko, along with his deputy and closest partner, Alexander “Tashkent” Timofeev, gained control over all the profitable assets of the region. Among them were coal mines, supermarkets, pharmacies and refuellings. The most money was brought by cigarettes and especially coal, which was exported to Russia, and then, under the guise of Russian raw materials, returned back to Ukraine (it refused to trade directly with the separatists in 2017, announcing to them a complete economic blockade).
The re-export scheme of supplies, as well as the restoration of the Ukrainian economy (this year the GDP is expected to grow by 3%) increased the cost of Donbass coal and the demand for it from Russian intermediaries, the structures of the same Kurchenko, who enjoyed the protection of Russian siloviki. Zakharchenko and Timofeyev were responsible for the extraction of raw materials and were interested in increasing their share of income.
Finally, the third version is political, which does not deny the economic version. Alexander Zakharchenko never took fateful decisions regarding war and peace (these decisions were made in Moscow), only doing business in the People’s Democratic Republic. At the same time, his figure was always associated with the war and was a symbol of irreconcilable separatism. In 2015, he signed the Minsk agreements and was formally responsible for their compliance, but none of the clauses of those agreements are still fully observed. Zakharchenko irritated not only the authorities of Ukraine, but also the EU and the US, where he was persona non grata. The removal of figures associated with the war can provide an incentive for the resumption of negotiations on the future of the Donbass and ultimately lead to the abolition of sectoral sanctions against Russia, which directly depend on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. The second and third versions are supported by the Ukrainian authorities.
What will happen now? The murder of Zakharchenko can be the beginning of a new aggravation of the military conflict?
Immediately after the assassination of Zakharchenko, his companions raised the army by alarm, saying that they expect the resumption of active hostilities on the part of Ukraine, as evidenced by the “nomination of Ukrainian armored vehicles in the direction of Volnovaha-Dokuchaevsk.” However, hardly an aggravation will happen in reality. Slow position war has been going on in the Donbass for three years now, with no breakthroughs taking place. The aggravation or expansion of the front is not beneficial to Russia, since it will threaten it with new sanctions, nor Ukraine, which has only recovered after the defeats of 2014 and 2015.
Will the struggle for power begin in the Dniester? It is unlikely that serious political upheavals will begin in the Donbas. Both the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the People’s Republic of Lugansk are quasi-states: foreign policy and foreign economic decisions are taken for them in the administration of the Russian president, but economic issues and “internal politics” remain the responsibility of the republic. The political space inside the DNR is so clean that there can be no talk of any opposition . Formally, a two-party system operates in the republic – the public movement “Free Donbass” and the party “Donetsk republic” are represented in the parliament. But in reality they differ little from each other. Zakharchenko’s deputy Dmitry Trapeznikov became the acting head of the DNR. In the past, he worked for the Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, including his football club Shakhtar. With the outbreak of the war, he supported the separatists and liked the new leaders of the territory. It is not clear whether Trapeznikov will continue to lead the unrecognized republic. It can not be unequivocally attributed to any influential clan. His old ties with Akhmetov are no longer important: the billionaire practically lost influence in Donetsk. Probably, the siloviki will want to get control over the region, as it was in Lugansk. Trepeeznikov clearly will suit Ukraine more than Zakharchenko. But Kiev is ready to discuss the future of the Donbass only with those who did not participate in the war and had no relation to crimes against the integrity of Ukraine. Trapeznikov does not correspond exactly to the last point – as he was one of the leaders of the DNR, which in Ukraine is considered a criminal occupation administration. On the neighboring unrecognized LNR events in Donetsk are traditionally influenced little. Both republics are managed by the same curators in Moscow, but they remain independent of each other. The theme of uniting separatists in a single structure now and then arises in Donetsk and Lugansk, but each time it is extinguished by Moscow, which is more convenient to manage the territories separately. Four years of existence, the separatist republics practically did not interfere in each other’s affairs. The exception was Zakharchenko’s help by the Lugansk law enforcers, who in autumn 2017 overthrew the then head of the LNR, Igor Plotnitsky. It turned out that both the siloviki and Zakharchenko acted without permission from the Kremlin, where their initiative provoked a strong irritation. Was Zakharchenko really popular in Donetsk? They say that tens of thousands of people came to his funeral. Zakharchenko’s funeral, according to official figures, came to more than 100 thousand people. Such popularity is not surprising, especially in the conditions of the cleared information field. In local media there are no critical materials about the activities of the separatist leadership, and the sites of the largest Ukrainian publications are blocked by order of the authorities. In the republic, 30-day arrests of Zakharchenko are widely practiced without charge. Often they are applied to businessmen, as well as bloggers and commentators on the Internet. So, in 2017, the authorities of the People’s Democratic Republic arrested for 30 days a blogger Roman Manekin. According to him, the reason for the arrest was a post in Facebook, in which he reported on the possible arrest of the head of the Interior Ministry of the Democratic People’s Republic Alexei Dikoy.