The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic has been thrown into chaos for the last two weeks after its president was assassinated in a bomb blast in a café in the center of Donetsk. On August 31 Alexander Zakharchenko died after a bomb was detonated at the „Separ“café during a gathering on the occasion of the death of the famous Russian singer Joseph Kobzon. He was killed along with his bodyguard. Twelve other people remain injured. Russia’s Foreign Ministry was quick to put the blame on the Ukrainian government and president Putin expressed his condolences to the relatives of Zakharchenko describing the attack as “choosing the path of terror”. The officials from Kiyv however, denied any involvement, saying the attack was the result of a conflict between the ruling elites in Donetsk and their “Russian sponsors”.
Among the injured was also Zakharchenko’s right hand, Alexander Timofeev – the Minister of Finance of DPR. A week after the assassination he was dismissed from duty and after that he fled to Russia. Meanwhile, different reports about him surfaced pointing to malfeasance in office and misappropriation of 850 million rubles (some 10 million euro) from one of the biggest agro-industrial enterprises in Donetsk – Kolos-D.
Bomb attacks and assassinations are not something new in Donbass. The death of Zakharchenko is just the latest of series of assassinations of high profile figures among the separatist elite. In the beginning of 2015 Alexander Bednov was killed in Luhansk by fellow separatists after resisting arrest. In October 2016 another separatist commander Arsen “Motorola” Pavlov was assassinated by an explosive device in his apartment’s elevator. The next one was the popular commander Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh who died in his office, blown up by RPG rocket. We can add to these assassinations also the death of Alexey Mozgovoy, who died in 2015 in an ambush near a village in Luhansk.
Who was Alexander Zakharchenko?
Born and raised in Donetsk, he started his career as a technician in the mining industry and after that he started his own private business. In 2010 Zakharchenko became the head of the Donetsk department of the “Oplot” non-governmental organization. The NGO itself quickly built a solid base in Eastern Ukraine by doing social work among the Russian speaking people, as well as other various cultural and historical activities, related mostly to caring for monuments of the Red Army or searching for remnants of dead soldiers. There was also a MMA sports club , which quickly evolved into an armed militia in the context of the crisis in 2014. It was Zakharchenko who was chosen to be the commander of battalion “Oplot”.
In the next few months he played major role in the war, seizing the power from the government forces in Donetsk. This led to his promotion to the rank of major-general. During the military operation in Donbass he was wounded twice and had a title “Hero of DPR” along with other orders of the self-proclaimed republic. In August 2014, supported by Russia, he was elected by the newly established parliament as president of DPR. Until his death Zakharchenko remained in this post. In 2015 he participated in the negotiations and the signing of the Minsk agreements.
What are the theories?
According to the Russian journalist from Novaya Gazeta Pavel Kanygin, there are three main theories. The first one is of course the official Russian version, according to which the Ukrainian secret services are responsible for the assassination.
The second possibility is related with money and business relations with billionaire Serhiy Kurchenko, who left in exile in Rusia in 2014 and currently runs enterprises in Crimea and Donbass. While in power, Zakharchenko, along with his close partner Timofeev, both imposed control over profitable businesses in the mining industry and the trade of fuel and pharmaceutical products. According to unconfirmed information, the most profitable was the coal, which was exported to Russia and then imported back to Donbass, labelled as Russian import. This re-export scheme leads to raise of the price and the demand of coal in Donbass and necessitates the inclusion on intermediaries , which happened to be close to Kurchenko. According to Kanygin, Zakharchenko and Timofeev wanted to expand their share of the profits, something that might have forced Kurchenko to search for a way to get rid of his partners.
The third theory is political. Alexander Zakharchenko has never been responsible for taking important decisions about the war or the foreign policy of DPR. These decisions are taken in Moscow and people like Zaharchenko are just pawns in a much bigger game. Nonetheless, he was still a face and one of the symbols of the separatists. In 2015 he signed the Minsk agreements on behalf of DPR and at least formally he was responsible for their implementation. Until this moment however, intentionally or not, none of the clauses have been completed. Something that annoys Kiyv, EU and the USA. Removing a figure like Zakharchenko, closely associated with the fail of the agreements, might be a sign which would give an opportunity for a restart of the negotiations about the future of Donbass and possible sanctions relief.
What is next?
Immediately after Zakharchenko’s death, the military forces of DPR were put on high alert. However, an escalation of hostilities is unlikely possible. The front line remains largely calm with small but permanent violations of the truce. Something that has been normal for that last four years. At this point, neither Russia, nor Ukraine can have benefit from renewed military actions.
Now the acting president is Denis Pushilin, who also holds the position of parliament speaker. It is likely that Pushilin will remain in office after the elections scheduled for November. He looks like an acceptable option and a person Kiyv might negotiate with. Without military past and a role in the violation of the Ukrainian territorial integrity. It all depends on what decision will be taken in Moscow. From their choice of president of DPR, it will become clear what the future relations with Ukraine will be like.