Inside eastern Ukraine’s make-believe republics

The Daily Beast reports: Two months ago a band of chanting pro-Russian separatists marched past commuter traffic into the state treasury building in Donetsk—the east Ukrainian city they now say they rule following Sunday’s flawed secession referendum. Their first order of business: instructing startled officials to stop transferring the region’s tax money to Kiev and to give it to them instead.

Twelve days before, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had fled Kiev, ousted after months-long protests by pro-European agitators. Revolution was in the air and now a bunch of pro-Russian protesters faced the state treasurer of Donetsk oblast, a province with 4.3 million people—10 percent of Ukraine’s population—and much of the country’s heavy industry. At first nervous, the portly state treasurer’s confidence grew as he realized the emphatic would-be revolutionaries were ignorant of the complexity of state finance and didn’t even realize revenues were not physically stored in the treasury but were deposited in various commercial bank accounts.

What started out as a confrontation turned swiftly into a noisy class on the intricacies of taxes and pensions, with the state treasurer switching from sitting defensively in his chair to standing up, smoking a cigarette and teaching.

“Would there be enough revenue to cover all the obligations in Donetsk without Kiev’s contribution?” the state treasurer asked them. And in a Saturday Night Live moment, the revolutionaries protested they were sure there would be.

Well, “pretty sure,” they amended.

The leader of the group, Pavel Gubarev, a man who declared himself the “people’s governor” of Donetsk oblast at a rally four days before, can be spotted in an online video of the confrontation student-like scribbling notes as the state treasurer lectures. The would-be revolutionaries are finally advised to open bank accounts and to set up a country before they can demand tax.

That surreal moment of revolutionary play-acting by a motley group of Moscow-backed insurrectionists is now being performed every day in what feels to increasingly frustrated locals like a make-believe state. [Continue reading…]

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