Elections Staged in Ukraine’s East Under Russian Control

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 164

November 11 "election" in Donetsk (Source: Daily Sabah)

Kremlin-orchestrated, internationally unrecognized “elections” were held on November 11 in the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (DPR, LPR), Russian-controlled territories in Ukraine’s east. The final returns, made public on November 14, serve to confirm and prolong the authority of the “head of the republic” (“glava respubliki,” would-be president) and the “people’s council” (would-be legislature) in each of the two territories.

The DPR’s “interim acting head,” Denis Pushilin, is credited with 61 percent of the votes cast (the remainder being shared by four also-rans). Pushilin’s political organization, Donetsk Republic, is attributed 72 percent of the votes cast in the “parliamentary” election, versus 26 percent to the Free Donbas group. The former has a nomenklatura flavor, the latter a populist flavor; and both are billed as movements, rather than parties.

In a parallel exercise, the LPR’s “interim acting head,” Leonid Pasechnik, is credited with 68 percent of the votes cast (three also-rans share the rest). Pasechnik’s organization, “Peace to the Luhansk Region,” is allotted 74 percent of the votes cast in the election for “parliament,” versus 25 percent to the Luhansk Economic Union. Again, both organizations are labeled as movements rather than parties; the former displaying a populist style, the latter being cast as pro-business. (Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostei, Lugansk Infotsentr, November 14).

Both “republics” claim implausible and unverifiable voter turnouts: 1.6 million votes cast (80 percent of eligible voters) in the DPR, and 873,000 votes cast (77 percent of eligible voters) in the LPR, according to the respective “electoral commissions.” No international organization observed the voting. Several dozen Western European individuals with pro-Russia attitudes observed and blessed the voting in a personal capacity (Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostei, Lugansk Infotsentr, November 11–14).

Pushilin, born in 1981 in Donetsk province, held various posts at or near the top of the DPR’s leadership from its inception, in 2014, to date. His career was an agitated one, marked by local factional infighting and punctuated by involuntary time-outs in Moscow. More recently, Pushilin served as the DPR’s chief representative to the Minsk Contact Group (where the implementation of the Minsk armistice is being discussed). Following “head of the republic” Aleksandr Zakharchenko’s assassination on August 31, 2018 (the latest chapter in local factional struggles), the Kremlin selected Pushilin as interim acting head of the DPR in September and scheduled the “election” to confirm him (see EDM, September 12).

Pasechnik, born in 1970 in Luhansk city, was a colonel in Ukraine’s State Security Service in that same province but defected to the Russian side from the outset of Russia’s intervention in 2014. Promoted to general, he served as LPR “state security minister” from 2014 to 2018. In that capacity, Pasechnik led the overthrow of the “head of the republic,” Igor Plotnitsky, in an armed putsch in November 2017 (Luhansk rivalries were even bloodier than those in Donetsk, but this putsch was a bloodless professional job). In this case, too, the Kremlin picked Pasechnik as interim acting head of the LPR, to be confirmed subsequently through an “election” (see EDM, September 12).

The post-election statements of both leaders straddle the line between celebrating their own “statehood” and anticipating the ultimate unification with Russia. This dialectical combination replicates the pattern of the protracted conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, allowing Russia and its proxies to enjoy flexibility in negotiations while firmly controlling the territory, and often confusing Western counterparts through these ambiguities.

According to Pushilin, “We have now crossed a historic threshold: we are a state, one that must be taken into account by the world. We have proven that we can build a state, based on democratic principles.” Yet, “We have confirmed our 2014 choice, namely, integration with Russia. We are going to pursue an integration policy together with the brother people of Russia.” Similarly, according to Pasechnik, “In 2014 we defined our path, chose our fate, to build our Republic in the Russian world, with Russia in our hearts. Today we have voted for our independence, for peace, for our Republic” (Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostei, Lugansk Infotsentr, November 11).

The violent removal of Plotnitsky and Zakharchenko was a contributory factor, but not the determining factor to the holding of the November 11 “elections.” These were predictable and almost foreordained by the quadrennial “electoral” cycle that the Kremlin and the DPR-LPR need to perpetuate in the occupied territory. The “republics” should at least pretend to observe some formal electoral procedures, and generate for their leaders at regular intervals the semblance of a popular mandate. This could strengthen their claim for acceptance de facto as negotiating parties (even short of formal recognition) and make it possible for Russia on the international level to portray its hand-picked proxies as emanations of the local population.

The DPR and LPR were proclaimed in May 2014, and the quadrennial “electoral” cycle started in November 2014 with the voting for “heads of the republic” and “people’s councils.” No government anywhere, not even Russia (see below) recognized those results and those authorities. Nevertheless, DPR and LPR heads Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky were internationally accepted as signatories to the Minsk One and Minsk Two armistice agreements, predominantly political documents (and formally still in force). The general expectation at that time was for a relatively quick political settlement in Russia’s favor, with Donetsk-Luhansk entitled to a “special status” under Russia’s protection and wide scope for influencing Ukraine’s internal politics at the same time.

The Minsk Two armistice in February 2015 reinforced the anticipation of such a settlement, stipulating a deadline for it by December 2015. Ukraine’s Western partners adopted a line of minimal resistance and partial cooperation with Russia in the diplomatic process. Yet, the Ukrainian government (as well as patriotic public opinion and the army in the field) succeeded in stalling and, ultimately, blocking those negotiation processes that would have led to that outcome. This situation has now compelled the Kremlin to re-“legitimize” its proxies through a new quadrennial cycle of “elections” in the DPR and LPR.