DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - On a campaign trip, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic lit candles at a Russian Orthodox Church and kissed icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary before dashing off to meet about 100 voters in a local factory.
There, the barrel-chested 38-year-old former mine electrician Alexander Zakharchenko assured voters that he wanted pensions to be “higher than in Poland”. The elderly should have enough money to “travel to Australia at least once a year to shoot a dozen kangaroos on Safari”, he said.
Politics are nothing if not colorful in the two rebel statelets in eastern Ukraine, built on territory secured by what the West says was an incursion by Russian troops.
Soviet-era nostalgia and promises of a better life with support from Russia are being invoked to whip up enthusiasm as the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together call themselves Novorossiya or “New Russia”, hold elections on Sunday to give their leaders new legitimacy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that despite Western sanctions over Moscow’s role in Ukraine he will not leave the industrial region behind.
Looking straight into the camera in a carefully staged appearance at a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow last month, Putin said he lit candles there for “those who suffered and who gave their lives defending the people in Novorossiya”.
A ceasefire in place since last month has brought a semblance of normalcy after fighting that killed more than 3,700 people, and some refugees have returned to Donetsk, a city that had a million people before the war.
The city is plastered with campaign billboards of Zakharchenko in the green military fatigues that have become his trademark. Other elections posters show white doves or pictures of children, with the exhortation: “Vote for life!”
The election is being held with the backing of Moscow and over the objections of Kiev and its Western allies.
Although two other little-known candidates are running against him, there is little doubt of victory for Zakharchenko, one of the few rebel militia commanders who is from Donetsk rather than Russia. He took over from a Russian as the top separatist leader in August.
With the ceasefire largely holding, normalcy is the theme. At a campaign meeting in the town of Novoazovsk, Zakharchenko promised to build “a normal state, a good one, a just one. Our boys died for this, civilians are still being killed for this until now.”
The new leaders in Donetsk are doing what other Russian-backed regions have done before in breaking away from a former Soviet republic. Like parts of Georgia and Moldova now entering their third decades as self-proclaimed statelets in frozen conflicts, Novorossiya is unlikely to appear on world maps any time soon. Zakharchenko himself acknowledges as much.
“Ninety-nine percent, we will not be recognized right away. We will live as an unrecognized (region) for a while,” he told the meeting in Novoazovsk.
But part of the playbook is ensuring the rebel authorities assume the full trappings of state power, regardless of their eventual legal status.
Earlier this month the separatist authorities announced the creation of their own central bank and tax office, obliging residents to register under their Donetsk People’s Republic and pay taxes into its coffers rather than Kiev‘s.
Local entrepreneurs queued on a recent Wednesday to register their businesses, either out of loyalty to the separatist cause or from fear of punishment for refusing.
“I decided to register because it will be forbidden to operate without it and I need to go back to work,” Yelena, the owner of a house renovation company that employs 10 people, said as she filled in new tax forms.
Some refuse to register, fearing Ukrainian troops will drive the separatists out and they may be labeled collaborators. A manager of one Donetsk-based chain of stores said he convinced rebels that registration would stop supplies from central and western Ukraine and threaten his sales and his staff’s jobs.
Those running the election describe the vote itself as part of the legitimisation process.
“Our job is to legitimize the Donetsk People’s Republic,” said Roman Lyagin, the election commission chief who is running Sunday’s vote from an office in a glitzy tower in central Donetsk, surrounded by armed guards.
“When we lost our homeland, I mean the Soviet Union, I was 11 years old. Today we are correcting the mistakes of the past.”
The separatists took a symbolic step closer to Moscow by cancelling the winter change of clocks on Oct. 26, putting them in Moscow’s time zone rather than on Kiev time.
Other symbols are in the works: the Culture Ministry is holding a song contest to select a new national anthem.
Free concerts are being held, including one this week by enormously popular Soviet-era crooner Joseph Kobzon, a Donetsk region native and now member of Russia’s parliament.
Not everyone is convinced. Nikolai Silimonchuk, 48, an electrical engineer at a local mine, called such events “circus displays” to distract people from the region’s problems.
“Now we have more flags. So what? Let’s see them build an economy, a country,” he said, walking in central Donetsk.
Residents seem mainly concerned with survival in a region traumatized by violence and suffering from the damage fighting has done to the economy. Many banks and other businesses are shut and people are often left without social benefits payments. Long lines form at soup kitchens.
With winter approaching, residents are worried about fuel. A new Fuel Ministry has been set up which regularly assures them that natural gas and coal supplies will last through east Ukraine’s cold winter. Moscow’s financial support is promised, though details are far from clear.
“We have the Russian Federation’s agreement in principle on granting us special conditions on gas (deliveries),” Zakharchenko told a meeting with his rebel militia unit, Oplot. “And, finally, we managed to link up with the financial and banking structure of the Russian Federation.”
Asked about details, a source close to Zakharchenko said only: “Money likes silence.”
Sunday’s election comes a week after Ukraine held a parliamentary vote, won overwhelmingly by parties that support President Petro Poroshenko’s drive for closer ties with Europe. Parties traditionally closer to Russia were almost wiped out, a sign that outside the areas held by rebels Ukraine’s East-West dilemma has been resolved largely for the West.
Western governments and Kiev say the election in Donetsk and Luhansk is illegal and will make it harder to end the conflict. Moscow says it will honor the result.
Lyagin’s commission is preparing 3.2 million ballots, but there are no voter lists. Lyagin said mobile polling stations would be used to enable rebel fighters, including Russians and other foreigners in their ranks, to vote.
He also hopes voting will be possible in Russian regions bordering east Ukraine among people who have sought shelter from the fighting there. Voting over the Internet has already started, giving a chance for those who live outside rebel regions to cast their ballot.
Even among those supporting the separatists, who have sometimes suffered from violent infighting, not everyone is behind Zakharchenko.
Speaking near a collection of used artillery shells and spent rockets, rebel fighter Nikolai, 31, said the most pressing problem for the DNR was a lack of leadership.
“I don’t see a single leader who can unite the rebels. Disagreements will continue. I’ll vote for Zakharchenko, but only because there is no one else to vote for,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lina Kushch; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff