war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

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Four years of Kremlin’s ‘Donbas republics’ and their far-right and left-wing friends

Halya Coynash

It is surely appropriate that the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [DPR, LPR] date their ‘statehood’ from a fake referendum that even Russia eventually decided not to recognize.  This is not the way the so-called ’11 May referendum’ is presented in the militant-controlled media and a new ‘history textbook’, and it is certainly not the impression that a small number of European politicians, usually from the far-right or extreme left, give when they appear for their all-expenses-paid visits, via Russia, to Donbas.  

By marking May 11 as ‘Republic Day’, the Kremlin’s proxies are perpetuating a myth as impossible to believe as Russia’s constant claim that its military personnel are not engaged in the war in Donbas. 

The pseudo-referendum was held on May 11, 2014, one month after heavily-armed militants, led by Russian Igor Girkin, seized control of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, with a number of other areas also falling to the militants. 

School heads who tried to refuse to allow the militants to use school premises as ‘polling stations’ were threatened and the event took place at a time when numerous journalists, members of the Prayer Marathon and others were abducted, tortured and even killed.  The ‘referendum’ was pure farce with people being allowed to ‘vote’ for others; not needing a passport or to live in the area; and reporting seeing people vote several times.

None of this prevented Russian channels from claiming that “according to the CEC 89.7% of the voters voted for the independence of the Donetsk region”, and that the turnout was over 74%.  All of those media spoke of the Central Election Commission in headlines and only occasionally mentioned that the body in question was that of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ cited Mikhail Polyakov,  described as the federal coordinator of the observer corps ‘For fair elections’, that “the high turnout demonstrates the huge interest to the given referendum and the lack of coercion”.  

As mentioned, Russia did not in the end ‘recognize’ this absurd event, nor even the ‘vegetable’-linked ‘elections in November 2014.  It has, however, continued to control, arm and fund the so-called ‘republics’, and uses its friends, mostly from far-right and extreme left parties, to ‘observe’ – and invariably praise – electoral stunts and ‘anniversaries’.

Visits by foreigners are usually presented as ‘fact-finding’ and almost always as ‘delegations’, in order to present the erroneous impression that there is western ‘recognition’ of these Kremlin-backed entities.

A full list of those visiting ‘DPR’ can be found here.  The presence (by no means for the first time) of people like Frank Creyelman, member of the Belgian extreme right Vlaams Belang and Manuel Ochsenreiter, the editor of the German neo-Nazi paper Zuerst, might seem strange visitors to festivities around 9 May, marking victory against Nazi Germany.  Ideological discrepancies are never noted, however, and nobody seems perturbed when members of Vlaams Belang, the far-right Bulgarian Ataka party, Marine Le Pen’s National Front and others parrot the Kremlin’s propaganda about ‘Ukrainian fascists’.

In June 2016, DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko congratulated Britons on voting to leave the European Union, and claimed that “Britain has done what we did two years ago. We also held a referendum, voted and also left Ukraine”. 

All of this can seem amusing to those who receive their information from reliable sources.  Unfortunately the so-called ‘republics’ immediately cut off Ukrainian media, and the information available in ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’, like in Russian-occupied Crimea is heavily restricted.  The normal diet is of lies and propaganda. 

In a recent monitoring study of printed press and television channels in areas under militant control, the Donetsk Institute for Information found that information coloured by hate speech made up around 20% of the content of television channels, and 26% of printed publications under ‘DPR’ control.  It is largely government-controlled Ukraine that is permanently presented in a negative light.  An earlier analysis by the Institute for Mass Information of Internet media in both ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ found that 10% of the news items contained hate speech against Ukrainians, while 11% were fake news.   The principle was simple:  there was essentially nothing but praise for themselves, and for Russia, and nothing positive to be said about Ukraine, with terms like ‘Kyiv junta’, ‘Nazis’, ‘butchers’, etc. frequent.

There are also other worrying developments, especially those indoctrinating children and young people.  News of Donbas reports that the so-called ‘republics’ have largely been using Russian textbooks over the last three years.

There is no such subject as Ukrainian History, and the number of hours devoted to Ukrainian language and literature have been significantly reduced.   The material that remains may be in Ukrainian, but it asserts the ‘statehood’ of the so-called republics and their Donbas identity.

Older periods of history are taught according to Russian textbooks, or maybe old Ukrainian, but a ‘textbook’ purportedly setting out the history of Donbas has been prepared by Oleksandr Rogozhin and Oleksandr Kofman. The latter was the so-called ‘DPR minister of foreign affairs’ from 2014 to 2016.

Rogozhnin is head of the faculty of state and international law at the so-called ‘Donbas Law Academy’ based on the site of the Donetsk Law Institute which moved after Donetsk was seized by Kremlin-backed militants.  Since his ‘textbook’ has thus far had only a very limited print run, it is for the moment being used in this Donbas Law Academy.  This is supposed to provide the enforcement corps who are to serve the so-called DPR, as well as those who will be sent to fight.

This ‘History of the Fatherland’ has a section on recent ‘history’ from 2014 to 2017.  The content is full of extremely imprecise wording and highly contentious assertions regarding the events of those years.  The formulations most often correspond to those used by Russia, with Euromaidan and ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight referred to as “a violent coup” and the conflict talked about as being in “the South-East of the country”.   This term essentially encompassed those oblasts of Ukraine which Putin called ‘Novorossiya’ in a sinister and disturbing address on 17 April 2014.  There are strong grounds for believing that Russia hoped to create the same kind of puppet ‘republics’ in, at the very least, the Odesa and Kharkiv oblasts.  It failed, but the misleading term ‘South-East’ is still used in Russia, and by the ‘DPR’ authors who claim that this ‘South-East of the county’ was gripped “by mass socio-political protests in defence of the status of the Russian language under anti-Nazi, federalist, pro-Russian slogans”.

It should be remembered that Ukrainian journalist Stanyslav Aseyev is still imprisoned by the ‘DPR’ militants and a number of other bloggers, civic activists and others have ended up imprisoned, often after torture, for writing the truth about what is happening in the Kremlin’s ‘republics’.

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