Miner's son, Lenin fan set to win separatist Ukraine votes

Nicolas Miletitch
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Pro-Russian gunmen guard Alexander Zakharchenko (C), Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic and presidential candidate, is seen on October 31, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine

Pro-Russian gunmen guard Alexander Zakharchenko (C), Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic and presidential candidate, is seen on October 31, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Two pro-Russian separatists were confirmed as leaders in controversial elections in eastern Ukraine on Sunday -- one a rebel chief who highlights his status as a miner's son and the other a fan of Communist icon Vladimir Lenin.

Alexander Zakharchenko, who commands rebels fighting Ukrainian government forces in the mining and industrial town of Donetsk, faced no real opposition, taking 81 percent of the vote according to rebel election officials.

He becomes the first president of the unrecognised Donetsk People's Republic. His ambition, he said in a pre-vote meeting with students, "is to build a new state that will become legitimate after elections and get back the territories in the east (of Ukraine) that are now under control of the Ukrainians."

The 38-year-old businessman turned warlord says he sold his business to finance the rebels and took part in the storming of the regional administration building in Donetsk on April 16.

The mini statelet then declared its independence, as did nearby Lugansk, where Igor Plotnitsky was confirmed as president with 63 percent of the vote.

The conflict in the region has now killed more than 4,000 people according to UN figures.

Zakharchenko emphasises his local roots, with his official biography highlighting that his father worked as a miner for 30 years.

Although he is not as renowned in the fighting as rebel chiefs such as "Motorola" and "Givi" -- currently leading the fight at the key battleground of Donetsk airport -- Zakharchenko was one of the leaders in Slavyansk, a separatist bastion captured by Ukrainian forces after two months of fighting in July.

He became rebel prime minister of Donetsk in August after a succession of Russians had held the post -- a shift in policy apparently designed to support Kremlin claims that the rebellion is purely a local affair.

Zakharchenko -- like Moscow -- denies claims from Kiev that Russian troops are taking part in the fighting, despite the large amounts of sophisticated weaponry at the rebels' disposal.

"If Russia sent its troops here, we'd be talking about fighting in the outskirts of (the capital) Kiev or the capture of Lviv," he said, referring to the city near Poland's border.

However, he does welcome "thousands of volunteers" coming from Russia. "The Russian volunteers are always the first to help other people for freedom and independence," he said.

Zakharchenko was one of the signatories to a September 5 ceasefire accord that he says his fighters are respecting, although both sides continue to bombard each other daily.

He adds that the separatists plan to capture several more towns in Ukraine's southeast, including the Black Sea port of Mariupol, which would create a direct link between Russia and the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which Russia invaded in March and then annexed.

"We must get back all the territories that belong to us, through negotiation or other ways," he said, warning of "very intense fighting" ahead.

But he is quick to put the blame on Kiev, saying shortly after his election was confirmed that the Ukrainian government "does not want peace, as it claims. Obviously it is playing a double game."

Although his new title of president is intended to add to his legitimacy, Zakharchenko says he knows that few will recognise the Donetsk People's Republic.

"Very likely we will not be recognised. On one side that is bad, on the other it's very good because it means we will have no international obligations," he said.

- Former Soviet officer -

A similar picture unfolded in the self-declared Lugansk People's Republic, where Plotnitsky was confirmed as president.

The burly, 50-year-old former Soviet army officer rose to the top of the separatist ranks after the former Lugansk chief, Valery Bolotov, was wounded.

Like many rebel leaders, he is known for his admiration for the Soviet past, calling the toppling of a huge statue of Lenin in the eastern city of Kharkiv "moral genocide."

Plotnitsky became a consumer protection agency employee after the end of the Cold War.

He is accused by Kiev of transferring a captured Ukrainian pilot, Nadia Savtchenko, to Russian custody where she is charged with involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists.