News just in that Denis Pushilin has just been elected interim speaker of the parliament (People’s Council) of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), replacing Andrei Purgin. Pushilin, who had held that role May-July 2014, used language fit for the 1930s, when he explained Purgin’s ouster as following an attempt by him
“to disrupt the meeting of the People’s Council, when the deputies had to listen to false declarations made with the aim of increasing tensions and destabilizing the situation.”
Maybe. Meanwhile there is all kinds of excitement in the area. There were suggestions that Russian paratroopers were seizing key locations in Donetsk (which is possible, but given the interpenetration these days of Russian and militia units, as well as the use of Russian kit by the latter, hard to confirm). Indeed, according to some reports, Purgin and his wife are under arrest. Alexei Alexandrov, the People’s Council’s chief of staff, has also been sacked (Pushilin presented him as some kind of Rasputin figure leading Purgin astray, so there may be a scapegoat in the making, if politics requires an eventual kiss and make up moment). Zakharchenko, the overall DNR supremo, was apparently not present, so a key question will be his fate and how he responds.
The anti-Purgin vote was a pretty definitive 70 votes out of a possible 73 according to TASS, “almost unanimous” in RIA’s words. However, this is unlikely to have been either a purely local initiative — in other words, without Moscow’s OK or initiation — or something determined by anything as bourgeois as votes in an anyway-illegitimate parliament.
So what might this mean? The politics of the DNR (and LNR, for that matter) have all the well-mannered and collegial constitutionality of a Brazilian prison riot), but the core leitmotif is the tension between local relationships and the local/Moscow relations. We should not assume that Moscow calls all the shots all the time. Indeed, often the very issue is that it finds itself manipulated, exploited, misled or ignored by its notional agents (as is always the way with empires). The knack, after all, is to get Moscow’s backing, but also be sufficiently autonomous to accrue power and money from the position. Pushilin’s track record is, if anything, more avaricious than Purgin’s, so this was as much a struggle over economic as political assets (though the point is, of course, that ultimately they really are one and the same).
The Purgin-Pushilin tensions and personal ambitions aside, though, there is an inevitable Kremlin dimension. There have been on-and-off indications that Moscow is concerned about tightening its grip on the region (witness the greater integration of military units, under regular Russian officers), and if what Brian Whitmore calls a “soft annexation” is increasingly the least-worst option the Kremlin is having to adopt, maybe it is time to ensure a compliant man at the top. Persistent rumours have linked Pushilin to once-and-future dramaturge-in-chief Vladislav Surkov, while Purgin is presumably more of a Vyacheslav Volodin man. This may also thus signal not just a change in policy but also another swing of the pendulum as authority for the “Donbas adventure” is exchanged between the more straightforward and bullish Volodin and the more subtle, if sometimes too smart for his own good Surkov.
Alternatively, Purgin was just returning to Donetsk after meetings with Volodin, so it could be that this was a local elite and their metropolitan allies seeking to resist such a move. If so, I wonder how well those local legislators will fare, as Moscow — even if forced for the moment to accept the facts on the ground — will not forget this.
Overall, though, I suspect we are seeing another step towards the “Transniestrianisation” of the Donbas, something that conforms with the underlying mood I felt in Moscow this summer, a sense of resignation, that there were no magical solutions to the various problems now challenging Russia — economic, political, geopolitical — and they just had to be weathered.
[apologies, incidentally, for the premature publication of just half this post, and also for the undue number of typos in the first drafts]