The anti-government movement in eastern Ukraine has led to the emergence of three important men, whose names and backgrounds are crucial to the understanding of current events. The first two, whose titles and responsibilities seem to overlap, are Vyacheslav Ponomaryov and Denis Pushilin. The last is Alexander Mozhaev, who is currently under investigation by the Ukrainian government due to alleged links to Russian special forces.
Following the March 6 arrest of apparent separatist leader Pavel Gubarev in Donetsk after pro-Russian forces attempted an overtake of City Hall, Pushilin stepped in to fill his role. While City Hall is back under Kiev’s control, 11 small towns in Donetsk’s eastern region have been at least partly taken over by anti-government militants.
The recent focus has been in Slavyansk, a town of 120,000 people just 55 miles north of Donetsk. Denis Pushilin was appointed “people’s chairman” after the removal of Gubarev. How Pushilin came to assume this position is debated. Some reports say he was elected by the people’s council, the group calling the shots from inside a regional government office in Slavyansk. Others say he appointed himself, after the confidence gained from his 77 votes for a parliamentary position a few months ago.
The 32-year-old served for a number of years in the Ukraine national military service, until leaving to begin work as a security guard. He left the job he called “boring” after only a month. Pushilin moved on, working for a local confectionery distributor and eventually ended up at MMM in the famed Ponzi scheme that duped Russian investors out of 10 million dollars.
Beyond his history with MMM and the Ukrainian army, little is known about Pushilin. He has interviewed with a small number of media outlets only to give a confusing portrayal of a possible referendum in Donetsk. The vote is reportedly planned for May 11, 2014, just two weeks before the presidential election for Ukraine. When asked how the vote would take place, he said, “There could be a vote of the people’s council [or] a public vote. It hasn’t been decided.”
Additionally, Pushilin said the vote would not be whether to join Russia, but rather to vote yes or no to the sovereignty of Donetsk. “It could mean federation or confederation with Russia…Ukraine, or even another country,” said Pushilin. “It could [also] mean full independence.” Among the names to know in eastern Ukraine’s separatist movement, Pushilin has become an important figure, but his leadership does not seem to be focused or widely supported.
Pushilin hoped to model the Donetsk referendum after the vote in Ukraine’s Crimea region which effectively joined it with the Russian Federation last month. While Crimea’s move is still widely unrecognized by Western officials and the interim government of Ukraine, the protesters in Slavyansk see it as successful.
The picture in Slavyansk is quite different than that of Crimea. Ukraine’s interim government has accused Russia of supporting Pushilin, but if this accusation is true Russia is showing no visible signs. In Crimea, Russian military forces invaded and oversaw a popular vote, while in Slavyansk ,Pushilin’s aides have sought Russian help with little to no avail.
Pushilin’s mysterious authority role has recently been questioned, especially after his meeting with Sergei Taruta, the regional governor who offered amnesty for the removal of troops from occupied buildings. After returning from the meeting, Pushilin was met with anger from the council because he had agreed to some of Taruta’s plan. The request to evacuate government buildings, however, was firmly rejected.
Denis Pushilin is a name to know and recognize as the eastern Ukraine crisis continues to increase tensions within the troubled country. His leadership, while questionable, is still quite real in Slavyansk.
By Erin P. Friar