Faced with ongoing labour unrest over unpaid wages, the Kremlin has apparently decided to hand over big factories from the troubled Vneshtorgservis holding to new owners. It was not yet clear who they will be, however. Meanwhile, the COVID-pandemic eased only slightly while Russian-sponsored vaccinations remained largely suspended. And the case of arrested journalist Roman Protasevich threatened to draw the separatist statelets into the Belarus crisis.
Pushilin confirms exit of Vneshtorgservis
In potentially momentous economic news, “DNR” leader Pushilin announced on 7 June that Vneshtorgservis would gradually give up its assets in local industry.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Russian News Front website, Pushilin argued that Vneshtorgservis had “outlived itself” and proven financially unviable: “The trigger were the unacceptable wage arrears,” he told the Russian News Front news site. He added that the “DNR” government would have to fundamentally change the situation.
The secretive holding appeared in 2017 as a shell company for large plants that were seized from private Ukrainian owners in the “People’s Republics” following the economic blockade with Ukraine proper. Registered in South Ossetia and thought to be run by a former Ukrainian Oligarch now based in Russia, Vneshtorgservis has been increasingly unable to pay workers in both “republics”, which apparently caused a rethinking in Moscow.
The “DNR” has already handed over some plants to new operators. Thus, the Russian Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper on 31 May published an interview with an unnamed worker of the Donetsk Metals Factory, who said that the factory’s new owner, local dairy magnate Igor Andreev, pays wages in full and on time, but that the arrears accumulated under Vneshtorgservis remain unpaid.
In the “LNR”, growing wage arrears have caused a long strike in the Alchevsk Metals Factory, whose workers complain that they have not been paid for four or five months. Known by its Russian acronym AMK, the huge factory with some 10,000 workers has been standing still since April. However, a picket in pouring rain outside the factory on 1 June apparently had only ten participants.
On 27 May, Russian media published a letter, in which desperate AMK workers threaten a general strike in order to replace the “LNR” leadership with a workers council. The “LNR” last year successfully suppressed labour unrest in two coalmines by partially shutting down the internet and negotiating payments while detaining and threatening strike leaders (see Newsletter 77).
While pulling the plug under the Vneshtorgservis saga might end the lingering financial misery of factories and workers in the metals sector, it remains to be seen who will pay for the local economy’s re-structurization. Vneshtorgservis was a scheme to trade with coal and metals from the “People’s Republics” without hurting the Russian economy or triggering fresh sanctions. It was obviously unable to make enough profits to even pay basic wages.
Notably but not surprisingly, no separatists appeared at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum this year. The annual showcase event for foreign investors in Russia had been cancelled last year because of the pandemic. In 2019, “DNR” leader Pushilin and other leading Donetsk separatists attended the Forum in search of “foreign partners” (see Newsletter 58). The Forum has not been mentioned by the official DAN news site since 2019.
Coronavirus: More infections, no vaccinations
As of 7 June (Monday), the “DNR” reported a total of 39,963 cases and 3,034 deaths since the pandemic began. Assuming a real population of 1.1 million (see Newsletter 83), the cumulative death toll per million inhabitants in the “DNR” stands at 2,758 total—verging close to Czechia’s 2,816—the worst-hit of all sizeable European countries.
However, the numbers do show a downward trend on a week-by-week comparison. In the week up to 7 June, the “DNR” reported 1,112 cases and 107 deaths, markedly less than in the week before, when it reported 1,534 cases and 140 deaths. The downward trend has continued since the week between 10 and 17 May, when the Donetsk separatists recorded a record 3,136 cases and 180 deaths—probably a result of the 9 May victory celebrations.
In a clear sign that there is a massive shortage of tests and that real figures are much higher, the positive rate stood at a high 43.6 per cent on 5 June—the WHO recommends that rate to be below 5 per cent in order to obtain realistic case numbers.
As before, the “LNR” continued to release numbers that seem far removed from reality. As of 7 June, the Luhansk separatists claimed to have just 4,828 cases and 443 deaths—just a fraction of the “DNR” figures. Ironically, not even the “DNR” seems to trust in the “LNR” figures. Donetsk separatist leader Pushilin reiterated in his 7 June interview, that the border between both “republics” remains closed because of the high infection risk.
Moreover, there were no signs that the separatists could fulfil their promises of achieving herd immunity by the end of the year thanks to a Russian-sponsored vaccination programme. Pushilin suggested on 7 June that a third party of Sputnik V would arrive before the end of the month. He did not say how many doses that will be.
Both the “DNR” and the “LNR” have not released any information about substantial vaccinations since they announced in April that all members of their military formations had been inoculated with the Russian Sputnik V (without saying how many doses were administered). The “LNR” did say, however, that it was vaccinating soldiers’ family members—but only some 700 persons had been vaccinated twice by 4 June.
The “republics” received two parties with Sputnik V so far—the first in late January, the second in late February. They did not reveal the exact number of doses, but Donetsk separatist leader Pushilin said that the first contained “a few thousand” and the second some 25,000. Assuming that the “DNR” got 50,000, they could have fully vaccinated just 25,000 out of more than one million people as Sputnik V requires two shots.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian health officials in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions said that they would open vaccination centres for people from non-government-controlled areas. However, as of 3 June no one had asked for vaccination in the three centres in the Donetsk region because most of the crossing points between the “DNR” and government-controlled areas remain closed. A fourth vaccination centre in the Luhansk region has yet to open.
Ukraine has rejected Sputnik V and is using Chinese, Indian and other vaccines to immunize its population. However, progress has been extremely slow and as of 6 June less than 3 per cent of Ukrainians had received a single shot. In Russia, that figure was at 12 per cent.
Protasevich case draws “Republics” into Belarus standoff
The “People’s Republics” were for the first time drawn into the bitter standoff between the opposition and the regime in Belarus, after pro-government media in both Belarus and Russia accused Belarusian journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich of having fought in 2014 with the ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion in eastern Ukraine. Protasevich, who ran the influential NEXTA Telegram channel from exile, was detained on 23 May after Belarusian authorities forced the Ryanair jet, in which he was flying with his girlfriend from Athens to Vilnius, to land in Minsk, causing an international outcry.
The “LNR” prosecutor general’s office said on 27 May that it had opened a criminal case against Protasevich, among other things because Azov is classified as a terrorist organization in the “LNR”. Days later, billboards with “Protasevich’ photo and “killer” written on them went up in Luhansk. On 5 June two anonymous Telegram channels reported that “LNR” prosecutor Inna Semyonova would travel to Minsk to question Protasevich there. That information was not immediately confirmed by Belarusian sources, but Semyonova had days earlier called on authorities in Minsk to allow the “LNR” to investigate Protasevich, possibly by handing him over.
It was unclear why the case was opened in the “LNR” rather than in the “DNR”, where Azov is also banned and classified as an extremist organization. In 2014, the volunteer formation’s units were predominantly located in the southern districts of the Donetsk region, especially in and around the port city of Mariupol.
Protasevich himself has said that he was in eastern Ukraine in 2014, but as a journalist. In a highly controversial appearance on Belarusian state TV on 3 June, which prompted widespread accusations of pressure and even torture, he claimed that had been training as a foreigner with Azov for 1.5 months at the time but that that he joined as a photographer and did not participate in any combat.
The case puts another strain on relations between Ukraine and Belarus, already highly troubled by the violent crackdown on opposition protests which has been ongoing since last summer. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba on 4 June threatened Minsk with unspecified sanctions should Belarus allow “LNR” representatives to question Protasevich, because this would amount to a de-facto recognition of the “People’s Republic”.
It also throws further doubt about the future location of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), which has been meeting in Minsk until the pandemic began in March 2020. Ukrainian TCG spokesman Oleksiy Arestovych has said that the location should be moved because Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is no longer a neutral arbiter—which the Donetsk separatists refuted by arguing that the Protasevich case should be linked to the TCG.
Meanwhile media reports suggested that Belarus is refusing entry to Ukrainian citizens on grounds of having fought in Donbass on the government’s side.
Meanwhile, a “DNR” court apparently sentenced Donetsk-based blogger and analyst Roman Manekin to 2.5 years in prison. However, the 1 June court case was shrouded in secrecy and the only information about it was leaked on an anonymous Telegram channel. On 8 June, a photocopy of the court decision was published and later deleted on a vkontakte page, according to which Manekin has been sentenced for “justifying terrorism” and was banned from publishing or public discussions online for 3 years.
Manekin, a prominent pro-Russian commentator and critic of the separatist leadership, was arrested and accused of espionage by the infamous State Security “Ministry” in December—see Newsletter 86. Former separatist official Andrei Purgin called the case Pushilin’s personal revenge against Manekin.