“Donetsk People’s Governor – Commander Pavel Gubarev”
Following the fall of President Yanukovych on Feb. 22, 2014, and the occupation of the Crimea four days later, pro-Russian demonstrations erupted across eastern and southern Ukraine. They all read from President Putin’s script that the new government of Ukraine was anti-Russian and illegitimate, and called for their regions to follow Crimea into Russia.
The success or failure of the “Russian Spring” in Ukraine will be largely determined by what happens in Donetsk Oblast, as it is Ukraine’s most important industrial and populated region.
For Donetsk oligarchs, especially for Ukraine’s richest person Rinat Akhmetov, the world must have seem to have turn upside down after their political leader, Yanukovych, fled the president’s office for Russia. They were left behind fearing not only for their money but also for their lives as they gained the most from Yanukovych’s dictatorship.
Since Yanukovych departure, it is not surprising that opponents have accused them of playing a double loyalty game. In public they supported the new government, but in private they promoted rebellion against it. It is this context that could explain the appearance of “Commander Pavel Gubarev”, the “people’s governor of Donbas”. He claimed to be the militia commander of Donbas – which refers to the two administrative regions Donetsk and Luhansk who have a combined population of seven million.
The 31-year-old Gubarev, father of three children, was co-owner of a billboard advertising company. He has been also accused of being involved in a series of businesses that went bankrupt with unpaid loans (http://www.theinsider.ua/politics/5373ff600b7ae/).
Prior to proclaiming himself as a militia commander of a non-existing militia, Gubarev was active in Russian ultra-nationalist organizations, like Russian National Unity, the Pan-Slav Party, the Russian Block, and Natalia Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party. His last political involvement was in the Party of Regions. As he craved publicity, Gubarev political views can be found on VK, a Facebook like social network popular in the former Soviet Union, and on dozens of videos from YouTube.
When the three-month confrontation was taking place in the capital Kyiv, between November 2013 and February 2014, Gubarev shared Putin’s view that the clash was a life and death battle between the pro and anti-Russian worlds. Like most observers, he expected the protesters to be crushed. When the opposite happened, he vowed not to have anything more to do with Ukraine, and to copy the Crimean scenario to make Donetsk part of Russia.
Within a week after Yanukovych’s government disappeared, on February 28, he claimed to have created a 7,000 strong “Donbas People’s Militia” with himself as commander to oppose the new government and make the regions part of Russia. He bluffed himself to the public with the figure of seven thousand. Later he revealed that the only three people had supported him at the start.
Gubarev and his militia of three might have disappeared into the footnotes of history, if Mykola Levchenko, the right hand man of Ukraine’s super-oligarch Akhmetov didn’t decided to launch him on the public.
Levchenko shared Gubarev ultra-nationalist view about the superiority of Russian over Ukrainian language and culture. Gubarev offered a way out to save the politically bankrupt Donetsk oligarchs by having Donbas along with other regions with large Russian populations become part of Russia. Levchenko admired Gubarev’s audacity to name himself as the commander of the Donbas People’s Militia.
His first public appearance as a militia commander took place on February 28, 2014, at a meeting of the Donetsk city council. At first the councilors denied him his request to present a statement. They rescinded following the intervention of the leading member of the Party of Regions and member of Ukraine’s parliament, Mykola Levchenko, who highly recommended him.
Many of the councilors, who were members of the Party of Regions, didn’t like his speech as he began by blamed their party for the revolution in Kyiv: “you climbed the greasy pole and forgot about those who elected you”. He chided them by saying that the Party of Region couldn’t organize a political event without paying for people to attend. By the time he came to reading his “ultimatum” to the Donetsk city council not to recognize the new Ukrainian government, the uproar was too loud for him to be heard. He finished by threatening the councilors with unspecified violence if they failed to carry out his orders. (Donetsk city council meeting, February 28, 2014, http://www.62.ua/news/485572).
Later that day in the social media, he announced that he would attend the next day’s March 1 public meeting organized by the Party of Regions to discuss the political situation in Ukraine. He asked his supporters to use physical force if necessary to get him the microphone to present his “ultimatum”.
About 10,000 people attended the March 1 rally according to a newspaper, but 50,000 according to Gubarev. The audience was packed with supporters from pro-Russian organizations, like the Russian Block and the Southern Front. As the meeting got underway, one of the leaders of the Party of Regions, the secretary of the Donetsk city council, Serhiy Bogachev, attempted to speak. The crowd booed him and began shouting Russia, as a protest for supporting the Ukrainian government. In response to an attempt for a minute silence for those who were killed on the streets of Kyiv, the crowd shouted “Berkut” in praise for the paramilitary police that carried out most of the violence against the protesters.
After a half hour into the meeting, a contingent of unidentified heavies, the kind of gangsters the Party of Regions employed, physically removed the security around the stage and gave Gubarev the all-important microphone. Standing in front of a large Russian flag, Gubarev presented himself as the commander of the “Donbas People’s Militia” and presented his ultimatum for all government institutions not to recognize the new government and to hold a referendum to join Russia.
Only Gubarev spoke, as the thugs guarding the stage did not allow anyone else to express their views, even from competing pro-Russian groups, some like the Southern Front who wanted an armed struggle, which Gubarev told the crowd he opposed.
The commander took the opportunity to announce the immediate creation of a new government for the Donetsk region. He handed the microphone to an unidentified person who recommended him as governor. The crowd roared with approval. He then announced he was taking charge of all state organs in the region, including the police and state security.
Now the Donetsk region had two governors, the one appointed by the President of Ukraine, and Gubarev approved by a crowd of pro-Russia supporters. For all his talk of the government appointed governor being illegitimate, the crowning of Gubarev was surrealistic. It had no legitimacy for the Donetsk region with a population of five million.
Over the three days, his “militia” seized key government buildings to replace the Ukrainian flag with the Russian. The significant aspect of the replacement of the flags was that the police literally stood aside as the “militia” numbering up to 2,000 people seized the Donetsk regional administration, the town hall, and the state treasury. It even briefly took the company building of the Industrial Union of Donbas, owned by the oligarch Serhiy Taruta, and from March 2, the government appointed governor. Russian TV gave the occupations and flag changing the maximum propaganda coverage. To the public watching the events on TV it looked like a revolt by the Russian people, while in practice it was managed by Akhmetov’s men.
It became clear that the Donetsk police would not seriously interfere with the crowds changing the flags. The events were inflicting political damage on the authority of the central government, especially in the light of the Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
On March 3, the fourth day of Gubarev’s governorship, the “people’s militia” stormed the session of the Donetsk regional parliament (the Donetsk Oblast Rada), forced the delegates to leave and he and his posse of supporters occupied the meeting hall. This was Gubarev’s retaliation for not allowing him to present his ultimatum to the regional parliament. The police again stood aside. Since Gubarev’s occupation of the Donetsk regional council, it has not met or functioned except for on the Internet.
On March 5, the police took a mild action against the “people’s militia”. In the morning, under the pretext that a bomb was in the conference hall of the Donetsk regional administration building, it had the building evacuated. After the Russian flag was replaced with the Ukrainian, the rebels realized the police had tricked them. In retaliation, Gubarev promised to mobilize 50,000 people to retake the building. In the late afternoon, up to seven thousand pro-Russian protesters appeared and reoccupied the building as the police once again stood aside. The event showed that the kind of rent-a-crowd resources that were invested in him, as he didn’t have the organization and means to organize such a crowd in such a brief amount of time.
Who were these demonstrators? Rumors flew that many were Russians arrived from near-by Rostov-on-the Don. Gubarev denied in interviews that there were any Russians in his “militia”. In the crowd there certainly were ultra-nationalists from Russia, like Alexey Khudyakov, a former leader of the “Shield of Moscow”, who had been recently freed from a Russian prison for taking part in an armed attack on migrant workers. Also present was Rostislav Zhuravlev from “Second Russia”, another ultra-nationalist movement that advocates the superiority of the Russian nation.
Just before retaking the building, Gubarev made what turned out to be his last public speech. He again presented himself and his program, and made the extraordinary claim that he had refused to sell out for $40 million “because I don’t sell out my Motherland”. He didn’t say who offered him the money and announced that the authorities were trying to intimidate him, so he had evacuated his family.
The crowd surged forward with militant groups attacking the police. In response, the police withdrew and the regional administration building was retaken again, and the Russian flag was once again hoisted over the building.
Gubarev didn’t stay long in the occupied regional administrative building. From the stage of the conference hall, he asked the occupiers to follow him to the state treasury building to stop the transfer of money from the Donetsk region to the “fascist” government in Kyiv. In the ensuing confusion, a few hundred followed. Others refused to leave and decided continued to occupy the building. The more militant activists went to the pro-Ukraine rally that was taking place near-by to violently attack their political opponents. This was the first of many violent attacks on pro-Ukraine supporters.
Gubarev and his dwindling band numbering about a hundred roamed Donetsk looking for the Donetsk state treasury building. After an hour of searching for it, they seized it without any opposition from the police, though a busload of riot troops was parked outside the building. Gubarev and his closest associates walked into the office of the director and the “people’s governor” ordered him to stop transferring revenues to the central government, and hand over money to his control. The director explained that they had come to the wrong place, as the treasury didn’t keep any money, but directed banks to pay pensions, benefits and wages in the region. Never the less, Gubarev ordered his followers occupy the building to stop the treasury from functioning. Gubarev left the building for an undisclosed apartment, as he feared being arrested.
Gubarev’s arrest came the next morning, on March 6. The State Security Service (SBU) detained and transferred him to Kyiv, where he appeared in court charged with inciting mass unrest and separatism, and sentenced to two months.
However, his puppet masters have not been detained, complained the observer and resident of Donetsk, the journalist Volodymyr Boiko. He accused the oligarch Akhmetov of staging a show of pro-Russian feelings in Donetsk, as revenge for the replacement of President Yanukovych, who he had put into power.
After Gubarev’s arrest, the pro-Russian demonstrations continued, though less numerous but more violent. On March 13, thugs once again violently attacked a pro-Ukraine rally. They trapped about fifty pro-Ukraine supporters and assaulted them with steel rods, paving stones and knives. One of them, the 22-year-old Donetsk resident, Dmytro Chernyavsky, died from his wounds. The police literally watched the violence. As an added injustice to the victims, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement blaming the incident on “Ukrainian far-right radicals”.
April 28 saw the last pro-Ukraine demonstration in Donetsk. Organized thugs in coordination with the police violently attacked it. “Nikolai Solntsev, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed ‘People's Republic of Donetsk’, blamed the violence on ‘emotions’, and accused the pro-Ukrainian protesters of provocation,” (Reuters news agency, April 28, 2014).
On March 17, 2014, Gubarev’s wife Ekaterina, mother of three children, who had taken refuge in Russia, issued a public statement. She disassociated her husband’s organization from the acts of murder and violence: "Taking advantage of Pavlo’s absence, many radical elements, many provocateurs, hiding behind his name, are trying to take the protest over and direct it towards pogroms and destruction."
"Pavel never gave us such aims. We are not Nazis, we are not fascists, we do not destroy our city, and we do not kill people." The reality is different.
"I got in touch with the organizer (of the demonstrations) Robert Donya (Gubarev’s deputy). He told me that he had left the ranks of our ‘Donbas People's militia’. He now has his own organization.”
Cynics would say she was protecting her husband and his organization from being charged not only with separatism but also with violence and murder.
She probably issued the statement because articles appeared in the mass media accusing Gubarev of being a former member of Russia’s ultra-nationalist paramilitary movement; the now banned Organization of Russian National Unity, and being in league with ultra-nationalists from Russia, like the already mentioned former leader of the “Shield of Moscow”, Khudyakov, and Rostislav Zhuravlev from “Second Russia”. For someone who accused his opponents of being fascist, Gubarev seemed to have many close ties to organizations and people of that type.
With his arrest, the career of “Commander Gubarev” had ended. On May 7, Gubarev and two other pro-Russian activists were freed in exchange for three SBU officers captured by Russian Spetsnatzi battalion in Slovyansk led by Igor Girkin better known as Strelkov.
His first interview since being released received a huge amount of attention and forced the oligarch Akhmetov to reply. Gubarev accused Akhmetov of funding the separatists in Donetsk (Yuri Snegirev, “Naryad mychenka primeryat ne khochu,” Rossiyskaya gazete, May 12, 2014, http://www.rg.ru/2014/05/12/gubarev.html). Akmetov’s vehemently denied the accusation (Interfax). Meanwhile Mykola Levchenko, who had launched Gubarev’s career, had denounced him as “an impostor and fraudster”, and that he his group will end up in a madhouse."