This week there was a failed coup in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), and one of the alleged coup leaders has committed suicide in a Lugansk jail. As I have said before, a key issue in determining the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine will be the extent to which the governments in Kiev and the rebel republics are able to turn the areas they control into models of good governance and prosperity. With the events in Lugansk in mind, how are they are getting on?
The picture in the government-controlled parts of Ukraine is mixed. On the plus side, total economic collapse has been averted. The economy is beginning to grow again, albeit extremely slowly – it will take many years before the country again reaches the level of GDP it enjoyed before the Maidan revolution. And politically, the country is managing to muddle through. The fall of the Yatseniuk government earlier this year did not lead to the dissolution of parliament or to political chaos. The system barely has its head above water, but it is nevertheless managing to keep on swimming.
However, massive hikes in the price of gas are lowering the standard of living of ordinary Ukrainians still further. And, as the arson attack a couple of weeks ago on the Inter TV station in Kiev showed, militia groups continue to operate outside the law with relative impunity. In an article in today’s Guardian, opposition MP Vadim Novinsky complains about an ‘increasingly bold witch-hunt by the government’ against its opponents. According to Thomas Theiner, a vocal supporter of Euromaidan with business experience in Ukraine, ‘By now it is clear that the corrupt and thieving government-mafia clans are still in charge’.
How about the situation on the rebel side?
Of the two rebel republics, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) has always seemed like the better governed, and its leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, has a charisma that the LPR’s leader, Igor Plotnitsky, entirely lacks. Recent reports from Donetsk suggest that the DPR is doing about as well as could realistically be expected for a small region in which the state entirely disintegrated two years ago, and which is cut off from the most of the world and forced to spend its limited resources on fighting a war. In a recent report for Meduza, a media outlet not by inclination favourable to the Donbass rebels, journalist Nigina Boroeva wrote the following about a trip she made to Donetsk:
The streets are quiet, cozy, and clean: the locals say the city has never been so well-kept, not even before the war. … The main boulevard is packed with glamorous coffee shops. … A private entrepreneur named Roman … says that some residents have even regained their cars, which were seized two years ago. ‘The courts are overloaded with cases, but rulings are being made and implemented,’ Roman says. … The businessman complains, however, that a stronger presence of the law has a downside, too: ‘In Russia, if you break the rules, you bribe the traffic cop and drive on. As for our inspectors, they are afraid to take bribes now.’
By contrast, the LPR appears to be bedevilled by corruption and political scandals. In 2014, self-styled Cossacks (some local, others from Russia), played an important part in the rebellion in the LPR. The regions under their control became notorious for banditry, and the Cossack leaders zealously defended their autonomy against any attempts to centralize power. The result was a series of violent power struggles, which resulted in the assassination of several prominent rebel leaders. Eventually, with Moscow’s support, Plotnitsky got the upper hand, but it would appear that attempts to concentrate power in the hands of the state authorities have been much less successful in Lugansk than in Donetsk. Various militia leaders remain resentful of Plotnitsky and his Russian backers, and perhaps also feel that their revolution has been betrayed and that one corrupt system has merely been replaced with another. The upshot was a failed attempt to assassinate Plotnitsky in August of this year, followed by the coup attempt this week. Apparently, the DPR had to come to Plotnitsky’s rescue by sending to Lugansk.
This does not bode well for the rebellion’s prospects. Unfortunately for Kiev, its less than inspiring example means that it is not in a position to take advantage.