November 13, 2015 –
Translated for Fort Russ by J. Arnoldski
In an exclusive interview with Aif.ru’s Ekaterina Larinina, the leader of the DPR Alexander Zakharchenko discussed why Donbass does not want to be part of the “Ukrainian chaos,” economic prospects of the republic, how the Donetsk People’s Republic began, and why the ceasefire is not respected and what is necessary for fulfilling the Minsk agreements.
Ekaterina Larinina: For you personally, what did the Donetsk People’s Republc start with?
Alexander Zakharchenko: A dream. I always dreamed of an independent, prosperous Donetsk state part of the Russian World. I think that many residents of our region also dreamed about this.
Ukrainian politicians understood what the people want, and they constantly promised us, in their election programs and populist slogans, integration with the Russian Federation, a state status for the Russian language, and increased self-government. They promised but always deceived.
The events of 2013-2014 served as a catalyst for the creation of the DPR. The coup in Kiev, the ascent of radical nationalists to power, the repression of all dissent, and the Odessa “Katyn” – all of these events clearly showed that it was impossible to keep on waiting for another deceitful politician to fulfill their promise and listen to the voice of Donbass. If we do not act against brown tyranny today, then it will destroy us tomorrow. This realization came to many, the first resistance groups were formed, and we took administrative buildings under our control. But the main thing, of course, is that we held a referendum. The May 11 referendum made it clear that the people of Donbass are against fascism. We refuse to live in a country where radical nationalists rule, where our history is bashed, where our heroes are proclaimed traitors, and where dissenters are burned (and where this is something to be proud of). Thus, the Donetsk People’s Republic was founded.
EL: Did you ever think that it would turn out this way?
AZ: I never thought that it would turn out this way. You understand, I was far from political issues, and I never planned on climbing into politics. Do you know why this all happened? We are different. We are not Ukraine. And the feeling of not being Ukrainian has been here for centuries. I’ll say even more: we believe ourselves to be part of the Russian World in all of its diversity, and we are not European. Unfortunately, we didn’t only become part of the Russian World, but it’s frontline. Of course, this is scary.
EL: During a recent press conference in Debaltsevo, you said the whole territory of the Donetsk region is the territory of the DPR temporarily occupied by the UAF. But after Minsk-2 a demarcation line was defined and its violation can be regarded as a violation of previous agreements.
AZ: Let’s break down what this demarkation zone was. This was a territory where, at that moment, our units were located. After that, it changed two times with the Debaltsevo boiler plus the changes in Lugansk. Therefore, this is not a dogma and not a pyramid which is impossible to prove. This is simply a fixed location of certain parts and units at a particular time.
EL: Proceeding from this, should a special status also have been granted to the entire territory of the Donetsk region, and not only the DPR?
AZ: Special status is an uncertain concept. We interpret Minsk-2 in a completely different way than Ukraine. I’ll say even more: the European understanding of Minsk accords more with ours than the Ukrainian interpretation. A special status, in the understanding of Kiev, is a territory which is controlled by the Ukrainian government and which lives and exists according to the laws of Ukraine. In our interpretation, it is a territory which is controlled by the residents of the DPR and lives according to the laws of our republic, while Ukraine remains an economic partner and neighbor with whom it is necessary to communicate and build relations. Until we learn to speak the same language, there will be no changes in the provision of a special status.
EL: What about the exchange of prisoners?
AZ: Unfortunately, this issue still remains a problem. The exchange of prisoners is uneven. The “all for all” mechanism of exchange stipulated in the Minsk agreements is not working yet.
EL: What chances are there that the Minsk agreements will be realized sooner or later?
AZ: We understand that the only bloodless way to resolve the conflict is through Minsk. But these agreements must be fulfilled only in accordance with our wishes. Ukraine must find in itself the strength to change. The Ukrainian people should eradicate fascism, the parliament should adopt amendments to the constitution which take into account our recommendations, and Donbass should be given the right to self-determination. We do not want to be and we will not be part of the chaos which the country now represents. Minsk offers chances to secure negotiations to this end. But today, it is Kiev’s move. Kiev should show its readiness to fulfill the agreements.
If we did not 100% believe that the Minsk agreements could be fulfilled, then we would not have made so many concessions and compromises and long ago we would have solved the problem on our own, strictly and adequately in line with the situation. But, at the request of our Russian partners, we moved local elections in the DPR back to the spring of next year, and we’ve given Ukraine time to resolve internal problems and move on to really fulfilling the agreements. We hope that Kiev will have enough wisdom to abandon risky plans to take Donbass by force, and that they will make efforts to fulfill the Minsk agreements. Ukrainian parliamentarians still have time to enact appropriate laws. If deadlines are missed, then we will decide to solve the problem in accordance with the situation.
EL: After the last “Normandy Quartet” meeting, has the situation changed? Many say that Merkel and Hollande have put pressure on Poroshenko.
AZ: They can and are capable of putting pressure on the Kiev government and on Poroshenko, but they can’t force him to fulfill the Minsk agreements. It should be noted that the main supervisor, sponsor, and, by and large, the boss of Poroshenko is neither Hollande nor Merkel. Yes, they are very influential politicians, and it’s necessary to listen to them, but direct orders to Poroshenko come from Washington. The US has its own interest in this conflict. Against the background of nearing presidential elections in the United States, an escalation of the conflict in Donbass remains highly probable. Whether or not Paris and Berlin have enough influence to prevent the resumption of a hot phase is not known.
Additionally, Poroshenko is in a difficult situation. This is not only a political situation, but also one largely connected with economic consequences. Ukraine is in default. Winter is now beginning, and Ukraine hasn’t been able to fill its reservoirs with coal and gas. And they are in no condition to do so. That is, winter in Ukraine will be terrible. Against a background of rising social tension, political processes are brewing and radicals demand a continuation of the war, but the main part of the armed forces in the ATO don’t perceive this war as a liberation war. They already recognize that it is punitive, and the military men in the trenches are beginning to realize what they are doing. Poroshenko cannot explain to soldiers why they are fighting, and he also can’t stop the radicals. As a result, he has only one way out – war. If war begins, then Poroshenko’s government will be unshakeable only for the short time that it lasts.
On this note, let’s pay attention to the fact that in those areas where the UAF is in position, the ceasefire is being strictly observed. On our side, we also observe it everywhere. At Zaitsevo, Novotroitskoe, the airport district – Peski and Spartak – punitive battalions which are subject neither to Kiev, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, nor the Ministry of Defense are positioned, and they live their lives as they wish and at any moment they can begin active combat operations in any sector. And here is another problem for Poroshenko. A disruption of the Minsk agreements by the beginning of hostilities will invoke a response by his subordinates so strong that even those in Lvov will wake up.
EL: On the other side of the coin, is the fulfillment of the Minsk agreements a threat to Poroshenko?
AZ: Look what kind of situation there would be. A rebellion is brewing internally, and he who has become president is incapable of defending the independence of his state. In the spirit of the Minsk agreements, we should consistently act in all positions for a special status and for changes to the constitution. If he fulfills these, then he will become a traitor to his own. And then he would be swept away. Therefore, he doesn’t need Minsk-2. The moment at which he gave permission to sign the agreements was a moment of fear after huge losses in the Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo boilers. Amid these defeats and the military’s inability to hold the front line, he started running to all countries and shouted: ”Help, stop!” Only at that moment was he ready to sign everything.
EL: The [Donetsk] region was part of the country [Ukraine]. If it declares independence, it’s necessary to learn to be independent, build a taxation system, a banking system, and industry. In such a situation, what links remain to Kiev?
AZ: Coal and electricity.
EL: Do they regularly pay for coal or is it the same as with Russian gas?
AZ: It’s the same: “We don’t even have a penny!”
EL: Ukrainian and narrow sections of Russian media call Donbass a territory occupied by Russian soldiers.
AZ: You know, earlier I treated this with annoyance, but now I treat it with a large dose of humor. It is very interesting to observe the thoughts of the “experts,” including military ones, from liberal Russian media who have never been to Donbass even once. Well, let them come and see. Here you are in my office. Do you see a single Russian occupant here?
EL: On that note, in your office you have two flags: the DPR and Russian ones. Why?
AZ: We believe ourselves to be part of Russia and a part of the Russian World. We have never hidden this. When we held the referendum, we went out with flags of the Russian Federation because we believe that this is our native country. You understand, it’s the Homeland. In Russia, there’s also the flag of the Chechen, North Ossetian, and Tatarstan republics, and they also have their own flags. Why can’t we also believe ourselves to be part of Russia? It is our desire. In my office can stand those flags which I consider necessary to put up: on the right, the official flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and on the left: the flag of Russia. And the left one is my heart.
EL: Why do you think that the Crimean scenario was not realized in Donbass?
AZ: You know, there are several opinions. But in my opinion, Ukraine never considered Crimea a territory necessary to fight for. This is due to several reasons.
Firstly, Crimea was not a region from which Ukraine received money. Secondly, the location of the peninsula itself is conducive to “saying no” to Ukraine.
With Donbass, the situation is different. Here, there’s coal, metal, and the port in Mariupol, the energy security of the state. The Donetsk region was always one of the few donor regions. For a year and half, we have destroyed the myth of the unprofitability of the coal industry. For us, it has been profitable for some reason. The coal industry of Donbass, under Ukraine, served one purpose: fattening their pockets with public money. Even with the destruction and closing of facilities as a result of hostilities, we have obtained more coal than during the same period in 2013.
EL: That is to say that the DPR can become a self-sufficient and independent republic?
AZ: 70% of arable fields have been mined. Plus, we have a large shortage of equipment. Unfortunately, during the fighting, many people left the territory and these people were working hands and highly trained specialists in certain industries. We are experiencing a large staff shortage. If there had been no fighting and we wouldn’t have suffered so much damage, then the Donetsk People’s Republic, in a very short period of time, would have become self-sufficient. This is true. But we inherited ruined enterprises, already mined fields, and an economy which was especially prepared for destruction over 20 years. So recovery will take some time.
EL: You said that Ukraine is economically interested in Donbass in contrast to Crimea. But people with whom I had a chance to talk absolutely don’t see themselves in Ukraine, and they don’t want to associate themselves with it. What future in such a situation do you see for Donbass? Is the Transnistria scenario possible?
AZ: We won’t get some kind of Transnistria scenario, and we have a common border with Russia which allows us to live and work with a friendly state. Transnistria doesn’t have this. It is a closed space, a piece of the Russian World which has been under siege. There are, in fact, many possibilities for development. And you know that it’s not even a question of what I would like to see. The development of the situation will show the way which we can go. But I can say one thing for sure: I will never let us come under the European values which Ukraine propagandizes. We have not shed our blood, our children were not killed, and our people have not suffered only to let this happen.
EL: On what grounds are relations between the DPR and Russia being built? What’s the deal with the the economic integration about which so many speak today?
AZ: Integration is not achieved in a day. It is continuing, but it is already clear that this is not just a matter of dreams and plans, but a reality. Ukraine itself pushed us down this path when it organized a brutal economic blockade.
Today, the main currency of the DPR is the ruble. Our main trade is with the Russian Federation. Our resource bases are also being re-oriented towards Russia. As for industry, Donbass has always, to a large extent, been oriented towards Russia. Economic and industrial ties have been preserved here since the times of the USSR, and given that the Ukrainian government has not built or created anything new, these ties remain relevant today. It has been relatively easy for all heavy industries to adjust to Russia.
EL: Donetsk has started to use Russian textbooks. How was this received by teachers, students, and parents?
AZ: Of course, this was received very well. Now, parents don’t need to tell their children after every history lesson at school that Bandera was actually not a hero, but a traitor, and that the USSR did not attack fascist Germany, but liberated a large part of Europe from Nazi occupation. Now we can study our native literature to the extent that we believe is necessary and in not in the framework of several classes on foreign literature. And this is so for a number of subjects. However, we do not belittle the significance of Ukrainian literature. In the constitution of the DPR, two state languages are prescribed – Russian and Ukrainian. And training programs are also taken into account.
EL: Now, the active reconstruction of destroyed buildings and infrastructure is ongoing in order to prepare them for winter. Where does the strength for this come from?
AZ: Part of the building materials comes with humanitarian convoys from the Russian Federation, and many thanks are due for this. On the territory of Donetsk, there were glass factories, but now they are not under our control. We can produce cement, cinder block, and slate ourselves. Now there are two fronts: the military and the construction fronts, and we have moved on from warfare to the reconstruction of our homes. When you drive around, you can see that a house not long ago had no roof, but now it’s already standing, and you understand that a family will live there after a week. And this is an indescribable feeling. There is a sense of pride in the fact that Ukraine didn’t do this – we did.