Following the fall of President Yanukovych on 22 February 2014, and the occupation of the Crimea four days later, pro-Russian demonstrations erupted across eastern and southern Ukraine. They all read from President Putin’s script that the new government of Ukraine was anti-Russian and illegitimate, and called for following Crimea into Russia. The success or failure of the “Russian Spring” in Ukraine will be largely determined by what happens in Donetsk Oblast, as it is Ukraine’s most important industrial and populated region.
For Donetsk oligarchs, especially for Ukraine’s richest person, Rinat Akhmetov, the world must seem to have turned upside down after their political leader, Yanukovych, fled the president’s office for Russia. They were left behind fearing not only for their money but also for their lives. It is not surprising that opponents have accused them of playing a double loyalty game, in public they support the new government but in private they promote rebellion against it. It is this context that could explain the appearance of “Commander Pavel Gubaryov”, the “people’s governor of Donetsk”. The 31 year old Gubaryov is father of three children, owner of a billboard advertising company from 2007, and has been politically active in Russian nationalist organisations, including the extreme Russian National Unity, the Pan-Slav Party, the Russian Block, and Nataliya Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party, and lately in the Party of Regions. As he craves publicity, Gubaryov’s political views can be found on VK, a Facebook-like social network popular in the former Soviet Union, and on dozens of videos from YouTube.
When the three-month confrontation was taking place in the capital Kyiv, Gubaryov shared Putin’s view that the clash was a life and death battle between the pro and anti-Russian worlds. Like most observers, he expected the protesters to be crushed. When the opposite happened, he vowed not to have anything more to do with Ukraine, and to copy the Crimean scenario to make Donetsk part of Russia. Within a week after Yanukovych’s government disappeared, he claims to have created in Donetsk a 7,000-strong “Donbas People’s Militia” (Donbas refers to Donetsk’s coal mining basin) with himself as commander to oppose the new government and make Donetsk part of Russia. The claim of seven thousand members has to be questioned, as Gubaryov has more than once exaggerated his support.
His first public appearance as a militia commander took place on 28 February at a meeting of the Donetsk city council. At first the councillors denied him his request to present a statement. They rescinded following the intervention of the leading member of the Party of Regions and member of Ukraine’s parliament, Mykola Levchenko, who highly recommended him. Many of the councillors, who were members of the Party of Regions, didn’t like his speech as he began by blaming their party for the revolution in Kyiv: “You climbed the greasy pole and forgot about those who elected you.” He chided them by saying that the Party of Regions couldn’t organise a political event without paying for people to attend. By the time he came to reading his “ultimatum” to the Donetsk city council not to recognise the new Ukrainian government, the uproar was too loud for him to be heard. He finished by threatening the councillors with unspecified violence if they failed to carry out his “ultimatum”.
Later that day on social media, he announced that he would attend the next day’s 1 March public meeting organised by the Party of Regions to discuss the political situation in Ukraine. He asked his supporters to use physical force if necessary to get him the microphone to present his “ultimatum”.
About 10,000 people according to a newspaper, but 50,000 according to Gubaryov, attended the 1 March rally. The audience was packed with supporters from pro-Russian organisations, like the Russian Block and Southern Front. As the meeting got underway one of the leaders of the Party of Regions, the secretary of the Donetsk city council, Serhei Bogachev, attempted to speak. The crowd booed him and began shouting Russia, as a protest for supporting the Ukrainian government. In response to an attempt for a minute’s silence for those who were killed on the streets of Kyiv, the crowd shouted “Berkut” in praise for the paramilitary police that carried out most of the violence against the protesters. A half hour into the meeting, a contingent of Gubaryov supporters physically removed the security around the stage and gave Gubaryov the all-important microphone.
Standing in front of a large Russian flag, Gubaryov presented himself as the commander of the “Donbas People’s Militia” and presented his ultimatum for all government institutions not to recognise the new government and to hold a referendum to join Russia. Only Gubaryov spoke, as the thugs guarding the stage did not allow anyone else to express their views, even from competing pro-Russian groups, some like the Southern Front who wanted an armed struggle, which Gubaryov told the crowd he opposed. The commander took the opportunity to announce the immediate creation of a new government for the Donetsk region. He handed the microphone to an unidentified person who recommended him as governor. The crowd roared with approval. He then announced he was taking charge of all state organs in the region, including the police and state security. Now Donetsk had two governors, the one appointed by the President of Ukraine, and Gubaryov, approved by pro-Russia supporters. For all his talk of the government-appointed governor being illegitimate, the crowning of Gubaryov by a crowd of 10,000, or even 50,000 as he claims, was surrealistic. It had no legitimacy for a region with a population of five million.
Over the three days, his “militia” seized key government buildings to replace the Ukrainian flag with the Russian. The significant aspect of the replacement of the flags was that the police literally stood aside as the “militia” numbering up to 2,000 people seized buildings, including the Donetsk regional administration, the town hall, and the state treasury. It even briefly took the company building of the Industrial Union of Donbas, owned by the oligarch Serhei Taruta, and from 2 March, the government-appointed governor. Russian TV gave the occupations and flag changing the maximum propaganda coverage. It became clear that the Donetsk police, under its chief Roman Romanov, had orders not to interfere with the crowds changing the flags. The police position was inflicting political damage on the authority of the central government, especially in the light of the Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
On 3 March, the fourth day of Gubaryov’s governorship, the “people’s militia” stormed the session of the Donetsk regional parliament (the Donetsk Oblast Rada), forced the delegates to leave and occupied the meeting hall. This was in retaliation for not allowing Gubaryov to present his ultimatum to them. The police again stood aside.
From 5 March, the police after a change in leadership began to take measures against the “people’s militia”. In the morning, under the pretext that a bomb was in the conference hall of the Donetsk regional administration building, the building was evacuated. After the Russian flag was replaced with the Ukrainian, the rebels realised the police had tricked them. In retaliation, Gubaryov promised to mobilise 50,000 people to retake the building. In the late afternoon, up to 7,000 pro-Russian protesters appeared and reoccupied the building as the police once again stood aside.
Who were these demonstrators? Rumours can not be verified that many were Russians from across the nearby border. Gubaryov denied in interviews that there were any Russians in his “militia”. However, at this event, a journalist witnessed Gubaryov talking to Alexey Khudyakov, a former leader of the “Shield of Moscow”, who had been recently freed from a Russian prison for taking part in an armed attack on migrant workers.
Just before retaking the building, Gubaryov made what turned out to be his last public speech. He again presented himself and his programme, and made the extraordinary claim that he had refused to sell out for $40 million “because I don’t sell out my Motherland”. He announced that the authorities were trying to intimidate him, so he had evacuated his family. The crowd surged forward with militant groups attacking the police. In response, the police withdrew and the regional administration building was retaken again, and the Russian flag was once again hoisted over the building. Gubaryov from stage of the conference hall asked the demonstration to follow him to the state treasury building to stop the transfer of money from the Donetsk region to the “fascist” government in Kyiv. In the confusion, a few hundred followed Gubaryov. Others refused to leave and decided continued to occupy the building. The more militant activists decided to go to the pro-Ukraine rally which was taking place nearby to violently attack their opponents.
After an hour of walking in the town centre, Gubaryov and his dwindling band of a hundred finally found the Donetsk state treasury building after getting lost. They seized it without any opposition from the police, who remained sitting in a bus outside the building. Gubaryov and his closest associates walked into the office of the director and the “people’s governor” ordered him to stop transferring revenues to the central government, and hand over money to his control. The director explained that they had come to the wrong place, as the treasury didn’t keep any money, but directed banks to pay pensions, benefits and wages in the region. Nevertheless, Gubaryov ordered his followers occupy the building to prevent the treasury from functioning while Gubaryov left the building for an undisclosed apartment as he feared being arrested.
The next day, 6 March, the last day of the Gubaryov governorship came to a sudden end. The State Security Service (SBU) arrested Gubaryov and transferred him to Kyiv where he appeared in court charged with inciting mass unrest and separatism and was imprisoned for two months.
However, his puppet masters have not been detained, complained the observer and resident of Donetsk, the journalist Volodymyr Boyko. He accused Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Renat Akhmetov, of staging a show of pro-Russianism in Donetsk, as revenge for the overthrowing the president he put into power. Boyko presented no evidence for this assertion against Akhmetov, except that the richest oligarch has been and is the most powerful person in Donetsk. In contrast, the government-appointed governor, Taruta, has said that Akhmetov and the business elite in Donetsk supports him: “We must understand that Akhmetov has no magic wand to change everything at once.“
All the evidence against Akhmetov is indirect. For example, Gubaryov’s militia didn’t occupy Akhmetov’s grand palace in Donetsk, but occupied the office of Taruta’s company, Industrial Union of Donbas. It was Akmetov’s close political ally, Mykola Levchenko, and now the leader of the Donetsk Party of Regions, who had launched Gubaryov’s political career by giving him his first public platform at the meeting of the Donetsk city council on 28 February.
After Gubaryov’s arrest the pro-Russian demonstrations continued, though less numerous but more violent. On 13 March thugs once again attacked a pro-Ukraine rally; this time they trapped about 50 pro-Ukraine supporters and assaulted them with steel rods, paving stones and knives. One of them, the 22 year old Donetsk resident Dmytro Chernyavsky, was murdered, and the others seriously wounded. The police literally watched the violence. As an added injustice to the victims, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement blaming the incident on “Ukrainian far-right radicals”.
On 17 March Gubaryov’s wife Yekaterina, mother of three children, who had taken refuge in Russia, issued a public statement. She disassociated her husband’s organisation from the acts of murder and violence: “Taking advantage of Pavlo’s absence, many radical elements, many provocateurs, hiding behind his name, are trying to take the protest over and direct it towards pogroms and destruction.” “Pavel never gave us such aims. We are not Nazis, we are not fascists, we do not destroy our city, we do not kill people.” “I got in touch with the organiser (of the demonstrations) Robert Donya (Gubaryov’s deputy). He told me that he had left the ranks of our ‘Donbas People’s militia’. He now has his own organisation.”
Cynics would say she was protecting her husband and his organisation from being charged not only with separatism but also with violence and murder. She probably issued the statement because articles appeared in the mass media accusing Gubaryov of being a former member of Russia’s ultra-nationalist paramilitary movement, the now banned Organisation of Russian National Unity, and being in league with ultra-nationalists from Russia like the already mentioned former leader of the “Shield of Moscow”, Khudyakov. A photograph also appeared showing him, just before his arrest, with Rostislav Zhuravlev from “Second Russia”, another ultra-nationalist movement that advocates the superiority of the Russian nation. For someone who accused his opponents of being fascist, Gubaryov seemed to have many close ties to people of that type.
At the moment it is not possible to say if “Commander Gubaryov” was just a one-off phenomenon. What could be said is that the Russian minority in Donetsk that wants to be part of Russia is not one-off, with or without Russian and homegrown ultra-nationalists. The government will have to find a common understanding with it if it is to avoid civil war.
JV Koshiw’s latest book is Abuse of Power: Corruption in the Office of the President (Artemia Press, 2013), and is available in paperback and e-book formats http://www.jvkoshiw.com/