Original by Aleksandr Kots and Dmitriy Steshin published by Komsomolskaya Pravda; Translation by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
There was nothing hard to understand in that obscure story. Officials’ efforts to explain themselves to the skeptical citizens only added clouds to the already overcast Lugansk Republic autumn. In September, Igor Plotnitskiy astounded officials during a cabinet of ministers meeting: “There was another coup attempt. Or, to be more precise, an attempt to establish a precedent of the supposed outrage by the Ukrainian people, which would be followed by the Ukrainian army’s entry.” While the ministers were trying to digest his words, Plotnitskiy hastened to reassure them, which only added to the confusion: “We worked preemptively. We know everything that’s happening. We know who the internal enemies are, and who their sponsors are, possibly even in the Russian Federation.”
At this point anyone following Donbass events ought to start wondering why this is “yet another” attempt–has Lugansk long been in the “era of palace coups”? And who are these influential foes in Russia, which is the only reason LPR is staying afloat? But then the leader of the neighboring republic provided another puzzle. By way of clarifying details, Aleksandr Zakharchenko said that “In order to deal with the aftermath of the coup attempt, the Sparta Battalion has been sent to Lugansk.” He said that the mission of Motorola’s separate reconnaissance battalion (one of the best units on the Donbass) included…protecting LPR borders. Apparently so that Ukrainian forces would not enter “answering the workers’ summons.” Then the phantasmagorical confusion baton passed again to Plotnitskiy who explained that the role of the “workers” was to be played by local youth, swayed by the plotters. Why they would summon the Ukrainian army to Lugansk is yet another mystery. After all, the individuals arrested include LPR People’s Militia Deputy Corps Commander Vitaliy Kiselyov and the former prime minister Gennadiy Tsypkalov. Arrest warrants have been issued for the former LPR People’s Council head Aleksey Karyakin. The public was shown a pile of weapons which belonged to the plotters. Then suddenly Tsypkalov was found hanged in his cell. “Apparently having realized that the case information he provided represents a danger to his life because there would be attempts to physically liquidate him by the plotters still at large, he committed suicide by hanging,”–that was the LPR Prosecutor’s grotesque explanation. He was afraid for his life, so he hanged himself…
Carrying a baggage of inconvenient questions, we crossed the DPR-LPR border, heading for Lugansk from Donetsk. There is a customs post between the two republics which underscores the independence of the two unrecognized republics. Although it looks extremely odd. Why separate in such a difficult time?
As soon as we passed the post, our average speed dropped sharply due to the quality of the road which turned into an endless washboard. When we entered DPR from Russia, we were astounded: the smashed to bits road between the border and Donetsk is now an excellent quality road, in some parts practically a superhighway. Unlike in the LPR, where potholes have to be dodged in a veritable slalom. Lugansk was quite different from the rich and bohemian Donetsk even before the war. Now that contrast is even more stark. One leaves a sunny, optimistic realm with sky-scrapers, boutiques, and coffee shops to suddenly enter literally a twilight zone saturated by a heavy dose of depression (though with a few bright spots).
The first thing we see when entering Lugansk is a destroyed car dealership of a Korean auto brand. While in Donetsk, to the contrary, dealerships are being opened, and they sell brand-new VAZ cars. After the dealership there is a detour–road is closed because the overpass over the train station is being repaired. We will remember the cave-like potholes on that bridge forever. As will our car. The city is still fairly empty, dark, and empty by 7pm. Even in the center itself, along the “golden mile,” there are still shops and buildings with direct hits–they have not been touched since the August 2014 fighting. While the Spar chain supermarkets boast a selection of products similar to their Moscow counterparts, with prices about 30% lower and produce of higher quality. There is a frightening diversity of sausages and dairy products, all of local Lugansk origin.
–Our people are very tired, –a local journalist admits to us.–Go outside and ask about that coup – nobody gives a damn. There are no jobs, no money. A surgeon I know works three shifts and gets 6,000 rubles a month. He doesn’t even have time for sleep. There are very many people who harbor a sense of grievance, including at Russia. But not to the point of wanting to return to Ukraine.
“Seizure of power for personal benefit”
We received the official commentary on the coup with comparable ease.
–We received intelligence information, our secret services and investigative groups were on the job–LPR Prosecutor General Zaur Ismailov carefully avoided revealing details and protected the secrets of the investigation. –A number of people were arrested, they were subjected to interrogations, we acted on their statements. In the meantime, Ukraine was moving troops to the line of separation. You know that the head of the republic was not here at the time. God only knows how it would have ended.
Igor Plotnitskiy actually was in Russia at that time, he went to the funeral of his parents. According to unofficial information they died due to poisoning by mushrooms. His understandable desire not to reveal the details of a family tragedy instantly gave birth to a wave of conspiracy theories which saw a connection to the coup and the summer assassination attempt on Plotnitskiy.
–We are receiving new information, we are verifying, interrogating. There is a large group of people who knew something. The main suspects are Tsypkalov, Karyakin, Kiselyov.
–What was their motive?
–The investigation’s main theory is that it was an attempt to seize power in order to, how to put it plainly…It had to do with providing cover for smuggling of cigarettes, illegal alcohol distillation, illegal coal mines–everything that the Donbass has to offer. The border is over 400km long. I can say one thing–a smuggler’s logistics are very complicated. And we cut all of these trails. The budget is supposed to receive tax revenue. It was unbelievable! There was enough gasoline brought in to suffice even for DPR. But not a kopeck of tax revenue! Now the overall system is transparent, as it should be.
A trail which did not exist
Curiously, the prosecutor said nothing about the Ukrainian trail. And it would have been odd if any of the main suspects had ties to Ukraine. We remember Tsypkalov and Karyakin since 2014–the assault on the SBU building, the referendum preparations…Just recently the three of them, with Plotnitskiy, were on the same election posters. They both supported the future head…What happened between them, so that the former comrades were accused of the worst possible crime–collaboration with Kiev? That question could be posed only to Plotnitskiy himself. But, having learned what the topic of the interview would be, he refused to meet. Like all the other Lugansk officials with whom we wanted to discuss this topic.
Karyakin, now a plotter-at-large, on the other hand, willingly contacted with the KP journalists. We talked through the social media.
–Why did you leave LPR? The prosecutor’s office told us about a case concerning assaulting law officers discharging their duties…
–That was the excuse for dismissing me. In reality, an attempt was made on me. But then the case was stood on its head and I was the one who got blamed.
–Did you have contact with those who are accused of the coup attempt? They knew that they are about to be arrested?
–I kept company with everyone, at all times. No, they didn’t think about that. They were sure of themselves. They could have left, but they had no reason to. They were not guilty of anything.
–One can draw a conclusion from several of Plotnitskiy’s statements that the plotters contacted Ukraine. You, as someone I know personally, can you conceive of something like that? What attitude did Tsypkalov and Kiselyov have toward Ukrainian military and intelligence?
–What kind of attitude could they have had toward those who were shooting at them? They viewed them as enemies. There is simply no way.
–So what actually happened, in your view? I read your opinion: well, it’s a purge. But why?
–Apparently Plotnitskiy is ridding himself of possible competition…
–Many people here say that the plotters (and you are listed as one of them) were running smuggling operations. But then smuggling was cut. Well, so you rebelled…
–What smuggling? If you talk to those who actually smuggle, you’ll hear the opposite. Plotnitskiy’s personal security force is the one which provides cover for smuggling. And they’re not even hiding it.
–So why all this noise? One could have rid oneself of competition using a lesser excuse. For example, that very same smuggling.
–It’s paranoia. The thinks he’s Erdogan. Everything he says is what was in the news already. But in other countries.
“Those who did not understand, will”
Toward the end of our visit we realized that no other official will comment on the infamous “coup. We hit a wall. Blockade, as PR people call it. At the same time, we kept nagging various officials: “Please tell us some good news!” But they wilted. We heard something about the “100 homes” program which was used to actually restore houses in villages which suffered from border fighting.
We visited one of them, Khryashchevatoye, in the fall of 2014. So we’d have a point of comparison. But getting there turned out to be not so easy. Suddenly all the Utilities Ministry officials turned out to be on sick leave. We were then passed on to the Emergency Response Ministry press service. Its head is also a deputy prime minister who is responsible for the restoration. His assistant Anna did not speak, but rather spat out words as if from a machine-gun:
–All the officials left for the weekend to Russia, there’s nobody. No, you can’t simply go there, you do plan to film, right? For that you have to get approval a week in advance.
We cursed at all the bureaucracy, spat on the ground, got into our car, and 8 minutes later were in Khryashchevatoye. We entered the first restored house we saw. Nikolai Ponomaryov, a retiree, interrupted his siesta for our sake. He was very grateful to the republic for help, the officials were worrying unnecessarily. And he didn’t hear anything about a “coup.”
–We moved in on December 25 of last year, we spent the winter in our home. Heating by a two-stage boiler, both hot and cold water, a full bathroom-Nikolai Serafimovich kept praising his home
–How did you get into the program?
–We have 82 people who were burned out. All were assembled at the city council, where a drawing was held. There were tears but also joy. I drew a piece of paper with the word “house.” It’s impossible to please everyone or solve all the problems. But at least we have a roof over our heads. Though we’re still outraged that we were charged 6754 rubles for having the gas connected.
Whatever money we had, it all burned up too. Where are we to get this kind of money? We get a bit over 2,000 in retirement benefits. Ukraine is blocking payments. I just returned from there. One has to go through seven rings of hell to reapply. They are practically mocking us. Now I get 1130 hryvnya, wife–1300, from over there. Because I can still walk. But what about those in the eighties? They go there, they try to register, they lose consciousness while standing in lines. They still haven’t issued the house certificate, by the way. Will it be the same story as with the gas?
Instead of afterword
By some miracle, DPR avoided being parceled out into fiefdoms. LPR that process got out of hand: as soon as fighting in Debaltsevo ended, field commanders managed to “stake out their claims. Claims to land with people and businesses, and they could care less that LPR began to build government institutions and the army. Smart people realized that only a state could oppose Ukraine, not a “field commander shura.” Likewise the army has to be supplied using a centralized system, rather than through shady business dealings. Naturally, many did not like that…Back in the day, Ramzan Kadyrov who survived a similar process of centralizing a clan- and teip-based society, had it carved in stone: “Those who did not understand, will.” In DPR, those who were slow to understand were treated to a short-term stay “in the cellar,” a talk, or a one-way trip to Russia. In LPR, unfortunately, it all spilled into a bloody carousel reminiscent of the 1990s. And one really does not want to delve into who did what to whom, who stole from whom, and who provided cover for what kinds of activities. One has to overcome this, like one overcomes all the civil wars. In the meantime, the civil war on the Donbass continues, and the authorities are operating under martial law. The war is not yet over, in case anyone has forgotten…