The results of the election in the rebel-held areas of Ukraine’s Donbas were not a huge surprise. Igor Plotnitsky, the President of the self-proclaimed Luhansk Republic, won by 63% of the vote while Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the President of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, won by 75% of the vote.
In both cases, it is worth noting the high voter turnout which exceeded 60% in both regions, in contrast to the low voter turnout (in the 30% range) across the border in the portions of the Donbas still held by Kiev. Therefore, the regional electorate illustrates a preference for the rebel leadership.
Notably, when the first steps were taken toward declaring republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in April, much of the population, though pro-Russian, was indifferent to the rebel cause. What changed popular opinion was the violent “anti-terrorist operation” launched by Kiev and the start of the Donbas war, in which thousands of people perished and over a million became refugees. The conflict included numerous human rights violations and war crimes. These were committed by both sides, but especially by Kiev and the notorious far-right volunteer battalions serving under its watch, such as the feared Azov Battalion. Civilian areas were shelled constantly by Kiev’s forces and, according to Human Rights Watch, Kiev also used cluster munitions. Buildings and infrastructure lay in ruins as do people’s livelihoods. The people of the Donbas are angry, and popular support has now been galvanized in favor of the rebels.
Something else changed too. Though the proclamation of the rebel republics was primarily driven by locals, its leadership was largely under the influence of Russian nationalists from across the border in Russia. However, over time, the leadership of the rebel regions has become increasingly more local, as clearly seen in the cases of both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky. The revolt itself has also become more local and more Donbas-centric. The rebels have even adopted a “national anthem” called “Вставай, Донбасс!” or “Arise, Donbass!”
Zakharchenko, a former coal mine electrician from Donetsk, has an especially “local” character about him which may partially explain why he won by such a large margin. At a press conference on 24 August, he and his defense minister Vladimir Kononov (another Donbas native) disavowed any association between the rebels and the historic “Makhnovtsy.” This was a reference to a history that the Donbas locals would known best, that of the anarchist Nestor Makhno whose “Free Territory” during the Ukrainian Civil War of 1917-21 included portions of the present-day Donetsk oblast. Zakharchenko also seemed to distinguish the Donbas as a region from the rest of Ukraine including even the rest of the Southeast, making statements such as “We didn’t come to you in Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, or Zaporozhia. Leave us [the Donbas] alone. Let us live free and in peace.” He likewise emphasized the hard-working and working-class character of the Donbas people, an amalgam of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, ethnic Russians, and mixed Russo-Ukrainians.
It also worth noting the specific time in which both Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky assumed office. This was in early August, around the same time that Moscow decided to definitively give the rebels military aid to turn the tide against Kiev. Putin was under pressure from the hardliners in the Kremlin to help the rebels for some time. When he finally decided to do so in August, it is likely that one of the conditions for Moscow’s support was that the leadership of the rebel movement had to become more “local.” This would explain the rise of more local figures, such as Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky, to leadership positions in early August.
Overall, it is clear that the only realistic solution for the protracted conflict in the region can be peace. The rebels are ready for talks with Kiev. However, with the strengthened position of “war parties” in Ukraine’s Rada, such a prospect may be diminished or even lost, drowned out by calls from nationalists in Kiev to continue the war. If this does happen, the Donbas rebels are unlikely to back down.