'Power struggle' in Donetsk prompts flurry of speculation in Kyiv and beyond

According to Euan MacDonald of Kyiv Post, 

An apparent power struggle among Russia’s proxy authorities in separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast has left experts speculating about its causes, and what the Kremlin’s future intentions for the region now might be.

Reports came on the evening of Sept. 4 that Denis Pushilin, the vice-speaker of the pseudo parliament in the part of Donetsk Oblast controlled by Russian-backed separatists, had ousted the body’s speaker, Andrey Purgin at an extraordinary meeting of the so-called “People’s Council,” and taken the role of speaker for himself.

The Kremlin-controlled information mouthpiece Sputnik said an anonymous source had told it Pushilin was now the interim head of the body. The Kremlin-controlled TASS information agency said that deputies in the pseudo parliament had voted for the move by a narrow margin of 73 for, to 70 against.

Explaining the ouster of Purgin, Pushilin said the former had tried “to disrupt (the Sept. 4) meeting of the People’s Council, when the deputies had to listen to false declarations made with the aim of increasing tensions and destabilizing the situation,” the separatist Donetsk News Agency information source reported. In his first decision as a newly appointed head of the people’s council, Pushilin dismissed the chief of staff of the People’s Council,” Aleksey Aleksandrov, who is a close ally of Purgin.

There were unconfirmed reports from other separatist information sources that Purgin and his wife were now under arrest, and that heavily-armed Russian troops had surrounded the “parliament” building in Donetsk during the vote on Purgin’s ouster.

Meanwhile, experts tried to make sense of what was going on. New York University Professor Mark Galeotti, writing overnight in his “In Moscow’s Shadows” blog, said that there was “an inevitable Kremlin dimension” to the affair.

“There have been on-and-off indications that Moscow is concerned about tightening its grip on the region (witness the greater integration of military units, under regular Russian officers), and if … a ‘soft annexation’ is increasingly the least-worst option the Kremlin is having to adopt, maybe it is time to ensure (there is) a compliant man at the top.”

Galeotti said the overall impression he had from the affair was that the Kremlin was indeed taking another step towards turning the Donbas into a Transdniester-style frozen conflict, referring to the breakaway region of Moldova that the Kremlin carved off that country in the early 1990s.

There has also recently been speculation over the whereabouts of Alexander Zakharchenko, another separatist leader and the “prime minister” of the pseudo authorities in separatist-held parts of Donetsk Oblast. There were unconfirmed reports from separatist sources that Zakharchenko had been absent from the separatist areas, and had possibly been in Moscow.

Writing in an opinion piece on the Euromaidan Press website, Russian journalist Kirill Mikhalilov said there were also claims from separatist sources that Zakharchenko had initiated the session of the “parliament” that led to Purgin’s ouster and his replacement with Pushilin. But other separatist sources said Zakharchenko could also face Purgin’s fate if he didn’t “adapt to the new political reality” in Russian-occupied Donetsk Oblast, Mikhalilov wrote.

One indication that Zakharchenko might indeed be adapting to new realities came early on Sept. 5, when an “official” news agency for the separatist-held part of Donetsk Oblast reported that Zakharchenko had said there was “no alternative to the Minsk agreement” on achieving peace in eastern Ukraine.

Previously, Zakharchenko has been one of the most belligerent of the separatist leaders, repeatedly saying that the forces under his command intended to attack Ukrainian forces and take over more territory “up to the borders of Donetsk Oblast,” which would show clear disregard for the peace deal reached in Minsk on Feb. 12 this year.

The separatists control about one third of the combined area of Donetsk Oblast and neighboring Luhansk Oblast.

There were also suggestions that the “power struggle” in Donetsk might have a more mundane aspect – money and criminality.

Pushilin is reported to have been connected to the MMM “Ponzi” scheme that robbed millions of Russian and Ukrainian citizens of their savings in the 1990s. According to Mark Lawrence Schrad, writing in the Moscow Times on June 23 last year, “without question, the (separatist-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast) is a criminal enterprise, and the chairman of its ruling council – Denis Pushilin – is little different.”

Zakharchenko, a former mine technician and poultry trader, is now in control of many businesses in the separatist-held parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast, and is known for his love of expensive cars, according to Mikhalilov.

Denys Kazansky, a well-known Ukrainian journalist who is originally from Donetsk, points out financial and personal causes of conflict between so-called Donetsk republic leaders. “The conflict between him (Purgin) and Pushilin has existed for a long time. They cannot share power and financial flows. Each of them has a curator in Russia, so the conflict probably goes deeper than the squabbles in DNR,” Kazansky wrote on his Facebook page on Sept. 4.

Galeotti also saw the struggle for power and money as being one of the main reasons for the political upheaval in the separatist-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast.

“… This was as much a struggle over economic as political assets (though the point is, of course, that ultimately they are really one and the same,” Galeotti wrote in his blog.

“The politics of the (separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts) have all the well-mannered and collegial constitutionality of a Brazilian prison riot,” he wrote.

  Ukraine, Russian separatists, DNR