What happened to the separatist leader who called himself the ‘voice of the people’?
From the beginning of the separatist revolt on 12 April, Viacheslav Ponomarev pronounced himself the ‘people’s mayor’ of Sloviansk. He immediately became one of the most prominent leaders in the Donetsk oblast. Then on 16 June he was suddenly arrested by the commander of the separatist armed forces Igor Girkin (who goes by the name Strelkov).
Ponomarev gave several scandalous press interviews. In one of them, to the Russian news agency Gazeta.ru., he described the Western election observers in his custody as ‘prisoners of war’ and proposed treating those who disagreed with his rule like zoo animals
His armed pro-Russian militants were at the time holding not only OSCE military observers (whom he called ‘prisoners of war’) but also at least three journalists and several other people whose exact whereabouts still remains unknown. Already two people taken hostage earlier by pro-Russian forces have been found murdered. Volodymyr Rybak, a member of the Horlivka City Council was abducted by militants when he tried to take down a flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. His body was found in a river near Sloviansk together with that of a 19-year-old student, Yurii Popravko. Both men seem to have been tortured before being thrown unconscious into the water.
In the interview with Gazeta.ru, Ponomarev speaks of American involvement in the Donetsk and of enemies that have to be destroyed. He states that attempts to infiltrate his ranks and sow dissent from within will not be successful and adds that in Sloviansk everybody knows that ‘if you’re with us, that’s good. Those who are against us, well that’s clear […] They’ll be destroyed.’
He says there are at most forty dissenters. When asked whether they too should be destroyed, he says that they will be kept like monkeys in a zoo: ‘They’ll be a separate coalition here, but they’ll be under control.” He explains that operational work is like shining a torch to attract moths: “Sticky tape prevents these moths from flying away far. Or they are simply squashed with a fly swatter.’
He continues: ‘Is it not terrible that our lads have their stomachs ripped open and are tortured, then have their bodies found in the river! I then go around morgues and look: that one of ours – that one’s not. That one seems to be ours, but I can’t make a definite identification.’ However, seconds later he acknowledges that in fact the body he is describing is that of the Horlivka deputy, Vodymyr Rybak.
Halyna Coynash, a reporter with the Kharkiv’s Human Rights Protection Group, has written that Ponomarev is used to describing gory details in order to incite uncritical listeners. The purpose is to shock the audience emotionally. In that condition many probably do not notice that the only victim actually named ‘died a hideous death after being abducted by pro-Russian militants.’ Coynash indicates that the Gazeta.ru interviewer posed no follow-up questions and showed no interest in extracting credible evidence from Ponomarev to back up his words about ‘their’ victims (Halya Coynash, Moscow’s ‘Voice of the People,’ 26 April 2014 <http://khpg.org.ua./index.php?id=1398472991>)
During the interview Ponomarev insisted that on May 25 during the presidential election no voting would be allowed in his region: ‘We’ll take all necessary measures so that elections don’t take place in the South-East.’ When asked how far he was prepared to go, he replied: ‘We’ll take somebody hostage and hang them up by the balls. This is real, you understand?’
With reference to the Vice News correspondent, Simon Ostrovsky, Ponomarev stated that the Sloviansk militants needed prisoners to exchange for ‘their’ people. Ostrovsky has since been released. Ponomarev also describes how his militants raise financial support: ‘We make do with our own sources, drawing in businessmen.’ Many business people provide support, he says. There have been ‘conversations’ with bankers, in the city of Kramatorsk, for example. He went there, he explains, ‘with a gun.’
He insists in the interview that the state language of the Donetsk People’s Republic will be Russian. No, this does not mean that Ukrainian will cease to exist: ‘people will speak it, sing songs.’ Those who continue to feel allegiance to Kyiv can stay, but they had better keep their heads down.
And when asked about US accusations that the militants are acting on Moscow’s instructions, he responds that Barack Obama should keep his mouth shut.
‘If this interview had appeared in a Ukrainian publication,’ Coynash comments, ‘you would suspect it of being a fake, designed to discredit Russia. In fact, though, if he wasn’t so determinedly vocal and inclined to make public utterances, one could imagine that Ponomarev had been invented to give Russia a bad name.’
Interviews like this one appear to have been Ponomarev’s undoing. He is a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and served in a ‘special operations unit’ of the Arctic-based Northern Fleet. Most recently he was employed as boss of a soap-manufacturing factory. When he suddenly appeared in Sloviansk last April, at the beginning of the disturbances, he immediately arrested the elected mayor of Sloviansk, and told reporters that he had replaced her. Local citizens had never heard of him. When they asked who he was, he told them to shut up.
Ponomarev then gained notoriety by parading eight captured observers at a press conference in the Sloviansk town hall: four Germans, a Pole, a Dane, a Swede, and a Czech. The observers, who said they came to the region under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), were accused of being “NATO spies.” He also described the government in Kyiv as “oligarchs,” “faggots,” “a junta,” and stated that he would kill Ukraine’s defence minister Arsen Avakov, if given the opportunity. The eight observers were later released, but over 40 hostages seized by Ponomarev’s gunmen are still being held captive. Overall, the number of people being held hostage in the Donests area has been calculated at 300.
Ponomarev is on record as making several other outlandish statements. He announced that Sloviansk had been renamed Putinsk and offered to do the same with other towns. Donests, he suggested, should become Putino (it had earlier been called Stalino), Luhansk (earlier called Voroshilovgrad) should be called Putingrad, and Gorlivka should be Vladimirovka. (Inforesist, 4 June 2014
Then on 10 June came the unexpected news that Ponomarev had been arrested by Igor Girkin (Strelkov), the military commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. He informed that Ponomarev had been removed from his post ‘for engaging in activities incompatible with the goals and tasks of the civil administration.’ It was implied that municipal funds had been misused. Shortly afterwards numerous reports began circulating that Ponomarev had been executed ‘in connection with the altered political situation.’
Speculation shifted to the view that Ponomarev had become an embarrassment for the Russian controlled separatist leaders, and that his removal had been ordered by Moscow. Strelkov is widely rumoured to be a Russian military intelligence agent who acts on the Kremlin’s instructions.
However, on 16 June the website of the Russian TV station Dozhd (Rain) reported that Ponomarev was alive and still under arrest. It mentioned rumours about his drug addictions and the fact that the separatists were about to be driven out of Sloviansk. It appears that Ponomarev’s personal behaviour and his political incompetence might have driven Moscow to remove him. It is worth noting that Strelkov at this time appealed to Putin for tanks and a full military intervention. Without these, he said, the separatist forces would be driven out of Ukraine within a month.
It has also been reported that Strelkov arrested Ponomarev because the latter ‘was unable rise above his habits.’ This could be an allusion both to his addictions and his outrageous political statements. Some reports state that Ponomarev’s armed followers refused to subordinate themselves to Strelkov. This necessitated Ponomarev’s removal along with his followers.
The website of the independent Russian TV station Dozhd (Rain) informs that anyone in Sloviansk who asks too many questions can be punished. The deputy mayor of the city, for example, asked to see lists of individuals killed in action during military operations. This led to the accusation that he was a spy for the Kyiv government and, Dozhd says, in all likelihood was sent to the punitive brigades that are forced to dig trenches (See: http://tvrain.ru/articles/vjacheslav_ponomarev_skoree_zhiv_chem_mertv_chto_sluchilos_s_samoprovozglashennym_merom_slavjanska-370031/)
On 16 June the Russian website Russkaia vesna also reported that Ponomarev was alive and under house arrest and is rumoured to have troubles with alcohol. The report confirms that those who abuse alcohol are sentenced to trench digging
It has also been suggested that Strelkov is deciding what to do with Ponomarev. Ever since 12 April, when masked gunmen seized security services, police, and government buildings in Sloviansk, Ponomarev has been the uprising’s public face. His name has been added to the EU blacklist of Russians and Ukrainians with entry bans and asset freezes. Now Moscow and Girkin-Strelkov must decide how to handle the problem.
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- Coynash, Halya. Moscow’s ‘Voice of the People’ in Slovyansk. Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, 26 April 2014 <http://khpg.org.ua./index.php?id=1398472991>)
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