Moscow’s “Voice of the People” in Slovyansk
“You should shut up, Obama” is the title given to an extraordinary interview which Gazeta.ru took of Viacheslav Ponomarev, self-styled “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk. As of Friday evening, his armed pro-Russian militants are holding OSCE military observers, and InfoResist reports Ponomarev as calling them “prisoners of war”. The exact whereabouts of at least 3 journalists and some others taken hostage earlier remain unknown. Unknown and of immense concern, given that two people who were almost certainly taken hostage by pro-Russian forces have been found murdered. Volodymyr Rybak, a Horlivka City Council deputy was abducted after a confrontation with militants when he tried to take down a flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. His body was found in a river near Slovyansk together with that of 19-year-old student, Yury Popravko. Both men seem to have been tortured before being thrown unconscious into the water.
With Russian president Vladimir Putin asserting that the Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation against the Slovyansk militants constitutes “using the army against the population inside the country” and is a “serious crime” which could require Russian military intervention, the interview sheds interesting light on Ponomarev’s attitude to the population.
Ponomarev is confident that no attempts to infiltrate his ranks and sow dissent from within will work. In Slovyansk they’ve made it quite clear to everybody that “if you’re with us, it’s good. For those who are against us, well that’s understood. “
Asked what he means by that, he spells it out: “They’ll be destroyed”.
The interview points out that among civilians, even if only one in a hundred, there’ll be people with different views. What about them? Ponomarev replies that there are at most 40, and when asked if they should be destroyed, says that they’ll be like monkeys that you go to the zoo to look at. “They’ll be a separate coalition here, but they’ll be under control.” He explains that with operational work, it’s like shining a torch for moths to fly to. “So that these moths don’t fly away far, there’s sticky tape. Or they’re simply squashed with a fly swat”.
It seems likely that Ponomarev has become accustomed to piling on gory details to wind an uncritical audience up. “Is it not terrible when our lads have their stomachs ripped open and are tortured, then their bodies are found in the river! And I then go around morgues and look: ours - not ours. I see that it seems to be ours, but I can’t make a definite identification.” Seconds later he acknowledges that in fact this body he can’t definitely identify is the Horlivka deputy, Vodymyr Rybak from Horlivka.
A crowd would get stirred up and probably not notice that the only victim named died a hideous death after being abducted by pro-Russian militants. The Gazeta.ru interviewer shows no interest in extracting credible evidence from Ponomarev to back his words about “their” victims.
Ponomarev goes on to assure the interviewer that no elections will be held on May 25 anywhere. “We’ll take all necessary measures so that elections don’t take place in the South-East”.
“Going as far as what?” he is asked, and replies: “We’ll take somebody hostage and hang them up by the balls. It’s real, you understand?”
Ponomarev returns later to the subject of hostages, in response to a question about difficulties Russian journalists are having getting into Ukraine. Are the militants planning any equivalent response?
Ponomarev mentions Vice News correspondent, Simon Ostrovsky, and claims that they need prisoners like bargaining tools to get “their” people released.
The militants’ leader claims that ally relations with Russia are reflected in moral support, and that they have not received a penny or weapons. This assertion is very widely dismissed, including by the US. The similarity was noted from the outside between the armed men in masks in Slovyansk and those “little green men” in the Crimea, now effectively acknowledged to have been Russian military.
The way that he suggests they are getting financial support makes one shudder at the thought of one would happen if the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” gained full control.
“We make do with our own sources, draw in businessmen”. He adds that many businesspeople give them support, and then adds that he has already had a conversation with bankers, for example, from the city of Kramatorsk. He went there, he explains, with a pistol.
Asked about his calls to Putin to bring in “peace-keeping forces, weapons, food”, he answers that he hopes they will be heard.
Asked what he would say to the inhabitants of Western Ukraine, he replies “Surrender” and laughs.
The state language of the Donetsk People’s Republic, he says, will be Russian. No, it’s not that Ukrainian won’t exist – “people will speak it, sing songs”. Those who continue to feel allegiance to Kyiv can stay, but they’d better keep their heads low.
In response to accusations that the militants are acting on Moscow’s instructions, he would tell US president Barack Obama to keep his mouth shut. He is then asked what he would say to Putin. Now that’s another matter:
“Vladimir Vladimirovich, I’m grateful for your moral support. I can’t hear your words, but from a distance I understand that you are with us in spirit. You don’t have to say much to us. We’ll succeed with everything.”
If this interview had appeared in a Ukrainian publication, you would suspect it of being a fake, designed to discredit Russia. In fact, though, if he wasn’t so determinedly vocal and inclined to make public utterances, one could imagine that Ponomarev had been invented to give Russia a bad name.
He certainly does.