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Meet the self-proclaimed 'people’s mayor' of Ukraine's Slaviansk

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-04

With his colourful language, imperious directives and bizarre press events, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, self-styled “people’s mayor” of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, would be funny – if he were not so deadly serious.

He first appeared in the international spotlight last month, wearing a black cap and telling reporters that the legitimate mayor of Slaviansk had “f***-ed off” and that he, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, was now “the people’s mayor”.

Weeks later, Ponomarev put up a somewhat bizarre show for foreign correspondents when he – this time dressed in a hoodie but minus his cap – paraded around a group of abducted OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observers at a “press conference” in a Slaviansk administrative building. The military observers – who included German, Czech, Danish and Polish nationals – had been captured on April 25 at a checkpoint outside Slaviansk, where they were held as Ponomarev’s “guests”.

At one point during the April 27 press conference, Ponomarev abruptly cut short the session and ordered journalists to leave the room, threateningly counting down, “One! Two!” as if he were addressing a class of unruly school children.

On May 3, when the OSCE observers were finally released after eight days in captivity, Ponomarev announced their liberation by magnanimously proclaiming, "As I promised them, we celebrated my birthday yesterday and they left. As I said, they were my guests."

As Slaviansk’s self-declared mayor and his band of pro-Russia militiamen have captured and questioned diplomats and journalists – including US reporter Simon Ostrovsky – the world has been subjected to Ponomarev’s peculiar semantics that could be funny if they were not so deadly serious. Ponomarev captures “guests” and warns his people of attacks by “Nazis”. To this self-styled “people’s mayor,” the interim authorities in Kiev are “oligarchs”, “faggots”, and even a “junta”.

When asked what would he do if Ukraine’s transitional Interior Minister Arsen Avakov came to Slaviansk, Ponomarev warned, “If he comes here, I’ll shoot him with my own hands,” before adding, “I don’t shake hands with faggots.”

Ponomarev denies links to Moscow – and vice versa

Macho, homophobic and foul-mouthed: it’s hardly surprising that some of his critics in Kiev, who are no fans of Vladimir Putin, have compared Ponomarev to the Russian president.

But Ponomarev has been careful to reiterate that he does not take his orders from Putin – nor, he maintains, does Putin listen to him.

On April 20, following a mysterious shooting incident at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russian militia outside Slaviansk, which killed three people, Ponomarev publicly called on Putin to send peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine.

Putin disregarded the call – proof Ponomarev noted, that he had no links to Moscow.

The Kremlin has strenuously denied allegations that it is fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militias have seized a number of government buildings in about a dozen cities and towns.

But Russia appeared to have some influence on the pro-Russian, de facto authorities in Slaviansk – as evidenced by the release of the OSCE observers shortly after Russian special envoy Vladimir Lukin arrived in the region.

Reporting from eastern Ukraine, FRANCE 24’s Douglas Herbert noted that the observers’ release underscored the influence Moscow had on Ukrainian separatists.

“In less than a day, whatever he [Lukin] did and whatever he said behind the scenes has apparently worked in securing the release of these men that no one else seemed to be able to get released,” explained Herbert.

A loving father and soap manufacturer

Very little is known about the man who seemingly emerged from nowhere to turn this nondescript east Ukrainian town into a diehard separatist stronghold that has grabbed international headlines in recent weeks.

Born in Slaviansk in 1965, Ponomarev described himself as a “very loving father,” during a press conference in early April, when he revealed that he has a son.

He also told the press gathering that he had “served in the Soviet army” and had “participated in special operations. Then, in 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, I handed in my resignation.”

But Ponomarev has been very cagey about divulging details of his life to journalists.

Ponomarev told a Reuters reporter that, following his service in the Russian military, he “ran a factory” before starting “my own company. Now I own another company," he added, "It produces soap."

For a small-scale soap manufacturer, Ponomarev appears to command the respect of the armed men in Slaviansk, a rustbelt town with a longstanding criminal reputation.

Ponomarev himself is frequently driven around the town in an unmarked vehicle packed with unsmiling armed men.

In interviews with reporters, he has portrayed himself as a reluctant mayor, chosen by “the people”. But even Ponomarev admits that perhaps not all of Sloviansk’s inhabitants agree with him.

"We don’t have 100 percent [of] people behind us," said Ponomarev, referring to the town’s 110,000 inhabitants. "Some are reluctant, some are afraid…There are traitors. When the time comes, we will deal with them." It’s the sort of threat that ensures Ponomarev’s slot in the spotlight in the weeks and months to come.

Date created : 2014-05-04