Earlier this month in a small village in western Ukraine, a group of political pranksters met to declare self-government and to fly the country’s yellow-and-blue national flag upside down as their new symbol. The tiny group of misfits, led by a former plumber named Anatoly Balakhnin, was ignored by most Ukrainians; only Radio Liberty reported on the meeting, noting 10 people had shown up to it. Yet across the border, in Russian media, the new group was declared an “alternative state” and held up as an example of how Ukraine was supposedly facing “issues of separatism” in its western regions.
It’s been almost seven years since Ukraine’s Maidan revolution ran out its pro-Russian president, and since breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine declared themselves to be independent of Kyiv’s governance in a bloody war that continues to this day. More than 13,000 people have died, and nearly 1.5 million people have lost their homes since 2014. Russia has waged a propaganda campaign alongside its military one, to bolster its power inside the former Soviet republic and foment dissent against those who would see Ukraine reunified with stronger ties to the West.
Part of that effort involves latching onto any hint of separatism and going for broke. As such, Balakhnin and his group of misfits in Verkhnya Rozhanka are the latest to be anointed as threats to Kyiv by pro-Kremlin media.
The impression from Russian media of the group, said Yevgeny Kiselev, a television commentator in Kyiv, was of a full-scale separatist movement. It seemed “to create a picture of Ukraine that is bursting at the seams, where everything is bad, where people want autonomy and federalization not only in [the breakaway regions of] Donetsk and Luhansk but in other regions too,” Kiselev told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
For his part, the plumber Balakhnin told Strana.ua, an online news outlet with a reputation for pro-Russian views, that he declared himself “the president of the new Republic of Ukraine.” Though he denies he is a separatist, he admits he does not recognize any of the current state institutions. “We intend to develop our state, not ruin it,” Balakhnin told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Tuesday. He claims his Russian is not great but speaks it fluently; he says he still works as a plumber, shares “Republican views” and does not believe Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has a legal right to lead the country. “I am not pro-Putin, I consider Putin a war criminal; I am glad Russian media spread the word about me, at least people become interested to find out more about me and my supporters,” he said, before noting that while he does not recognize the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), he has met with its investigators, who have approached him over his activities.
Ukrainian political observers and press consider Balakhnin’s ideas—he seeks to “return the sense of statehood” to Ukrainian landowners, among other things—weird and irrelevant. But the reaction of pro-Kremlin media to the minuscule movement is a vivid example of the challenges Ukraine faces while trying to push through its post-revolution overhaul of government. Granting local governments more autonomy is one such reform. Russian media have seized on the absurdist political theater of Balakhnin to cast it as a risk of the country disintegrating due to the reforms. “Ukraine’s Public Administration reform was one of the most successful and most challenging for the state,” the founder of Graty media, Anton Naumliuk, told The Daily Beast.
A young democracy, Ukraine has an endless number of issues, and some of them became more obvious during the recent months of the pandemic. Inevitably, Ukraine’s economy has shrunk, and the popularity of the country’s leader, the former comedian Zelensky, has been shrinking along with it.
Last year Zelensky won the election with 73.2 percent of the vote, after promising people that he’d fight corruption and end the war with pro-Russian forces in the east. By the end of this year fewer than 35 percent of Ukrainians trust Zelensky but corruption fighters believe that the president still has a chance to recover his popularity.
Ukrainian society is politically active, and people have been criticizing the authorities in every region. Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, did not manage to win even one mayoral race in a single big city in local elections this fall. Still, “what matters is that the process of local elections was totally transparent and fair and this is what people should understand about Ukraine,” Egor Sobolev, author of Ukraine’s anti-corruption legislation, told The Daily Beast.
Today, Ukraine is more dependent on the help from the West than before the COVID-19 pandemic. “President Joe Biden has to understand that Ukraine is a developing democracy. If back in 2014 I knew every activist in Kyiv, today there are thousands of outspoken civic leaders struggling to improve the state,” Sobolev told The Daily Beast. Together with a group of corruption fighters and IT specialists, Sobolev has created a database for the banking system of all politically exposed persons and their property abroad.
Earlier this month Sobolev and his supporters joined a street protest against state corruption involving the deputy head of presidential staff, Oleg Tatarov. “Thanks to the public movement, the court now looks into the $3 million corruption around [a] National Guards property,” Sobolev said, citing the example to illustrate the real challenges for Ukraine. “Thanks to the public reaction, Ukrainian court now looks into the case.”
Also earlier this month Kyiv, Moscow, and Russia-backed separatists resumed talks on prisoner swaps and military withdrawal in the wartorn east. (The four-way Normandy-format peace talks between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine began in 2014.) Ukrainian leadership hopes Biden’s administration could play a role in the peace talks. Kyiv’s goal is to restore control over Ukraine’s border, while Russia wants more autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk—but so far the negotiation process has been stuck.
Russian propagandists constantly mock President Zelensky and the hopelessness of the peace talks, referring to Ukrainian negotiators as “madmen” on Vesti, one of the most-viewed talk shows. The news about new movement of Ukrainian “separatists” gave some in Russian media a reason to gloat: “It is time for Zelensky to start one more Anti-Terrorist Operation,” Versia.ru said in the article about “the new state” in Western Ukraine.