After we crossed the second checkpoint in Marinka, the taxi driver told me the clocks had gone forward. Donetsk time is Moscow time. It isn’t far from the frontline, but Donetsk city centre is calm at the moment. You could almost forget there’s a war going on.
The self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk both held leadership elections on 11 November; they weren’t recognised by Kyiv or the European Union. A few days before the vote, on the morning of 7 November, a group of old communists stood in Lenin Square, waving red flags in front of the big statue of Lenin to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution. ‘Only the socialist model takes us forward!’ Vladimir Taras shouted at the front of the small crowd.
‘These are elections without a choice,’ Taras told me later. ‘The candidate that members of the Communist Party chose wasn’t allowed to run. The head of the republic is appointed by Russia, via Surkov, the Russian curator of the republic. They’re trying to get rid of the left, once again. Here, too, a bourgeois oligarchy will take over.’
Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) since 2014, was assassinated on 31 August. The entrance of the café where the bomb exploded is now sealed by a large poster showing various portraits of him. People leave chocolate bars and flowers on a little table. On the day he was buried, or so one of his supporters told me, the florists ran out of flowers.
Who killed Zakharchenko? Everyone has a different theory. According to Aleksandr Afendikov, a former fighter and now the mayor of Debaltsevo, it was the Ukrainian secret service. Rachit Romanov, a TV news presenter on the DNR channel Oplot, blames Ukrainian oligarchs. Sergei, the taxi driver who drove me through suburbs badly affected by the war, said it was the Russians. ‘They wanted to change the course of politics in the republic, have a leader who would be more pliable than Zakharchenko was.’ Sergei said he had supported Maidan at first but now doesn’t see what it has brought. We stopped on the bridge leading to the airport, which can’t be crossed because it was damaged during the war.
On the Friday afternoon before the elections, the centre of Donetsk was closed to traffic for a concert and rally. Three students who had been bussed in from Gorlovka by their university told me they weren’t forced to come, ‘but we were told it’d be better if we did. Before the concert there’s a meeting and they give you flags to hold. Sometimes the poles have splinters, and that hurts your hands.’ The previous Saturday, they had all taken part in a 'subbotnik', cleaning the city, a revival of an old Soviet practice of 'voluntary' community service. 'We didn’t have to join, but it’s better if you do, and you can always stop working when no one is watching you,' one of the students laughed.
On Sunday journalists were invited on a press tour of polling stations. It started at 8 a.m. at the Shakhtar Plaza, a four-star hotel opposite the huge stadium that opened in 2009. It was used for Euro 2012 – England played there twice – and closed in 2014 after suffering bomb damage in the war. ‘Change of plan! We’re going to school number 64!’ our guide announced. Denis Pushilin, the former speaker of parliament, became acting leader of the republic after Zakharchenko’s death. For security reasons, the location where Pushilin was casting his ballot had been changed at the last minute. ‘We are voting for our future,’ he told the cameras.
Along with international observers invited by the DNR authorities, we were taken by bus past slag heaps, through residential and industrial districts to polling stations throughout Donetsk. They were all full of people voting. A folk ensemble in full costume danced in front of the first one. Young people played games in front of the second one. ‘No one told us to do this, we’re just a people that likes rejoicing!’ a teenage girl lifting a heavy kettlebell told me, beaming.
French politicians were well represented among the observers, with three former Républicains MPs, including the former minister Thierry Mariani, and the former head of the Front National youth section Julien Rochedy. The former Italian senator Antonio Razzi told me he often goes to North Korea to try to contribute to the reconciliation between the two Koreas. ‘Maybe you could go to North Korea with the senator one day?’ his colleague Eliseo Bertolasi said. ‘I am told democracy was born in Greece,’ the former Greek defence minister Costas Isychos declared at the press conference, ‘but I can say it was reborn in Donbass today.’
After lunch I went into a polling station on my own and asked if I could interview the woman running it. She offered me a chair and we waited for ten minutes, making small talk in a polling station where a few people were voting, before being told that authorisation had been refused.
It was soon announced that Pushilin had won. A former fixer from Donetsk told me there was hope that this ‘white collar politician’, who, unlike Zakharchenko, had never fought, and had represented DNR in talks about Donbass in Minsk, could negotiate with Kyiv. At his first press conference after the election, Pushilin said he planned to further the integration of the republic with Russia.
A few days after the elections I went to Michurina, a village close to the frontline. The factories and mines where people used to work have been destroyed. A lot of people have left; most of those who remain are pensioners. Every two months, if they’re physically able to, they queue at checkpoints to cross to the other side and receive their Ukrainian pensions. There’s still shelling at unpredictable times, and minefields nearby. A crowd of people had gathered at a shop in the middle of the village where the Red Cross were distributing chicken feed (they distributed chickens a few years ago).
‘It’s a miracle we survived,’ a woman called Alexandra told me. She was wrapped in a white woollen shawl. ‘We live on hope. We live and we don’t know who we are.’ She added: ‘The other day, on TV, Chornovil, this Ukrainian politician, said: “Those who left Donbass we need to help. Those who stayed are enemies.”’ That isn’t exactly what Taras Chornovil said, though it’s close: he compared DNR rule to the Third Reich and said all inhabitants were responsible. ‘Why do they say that in Ukraine?’ Alexandra asked. ‘It isn’t true. Why did this war happen? Here we didn’t ask for this. We want peace.’