Separatist lawmakers in eastern Ukraine on Saturday appointed an interim chief to replace their beleaguered leader in an apparent palace coup. The resignation of the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic Igor Plotnitsky was announced Friday by Leonid Pasechnik, his long-time foe and minister of state security.
The separatist mouthpiece Luhansk Information Center reported on Saturday that the local legislature voted unanimously to accept Plotnitsky’s resignation and make Pasechnik interim chief. Pasechnik announced on Friday that Plotnitsky had resigned on health grounds and that he would be the acting chief until an election is called.
Plotnitsky’s resignation ends a nearly week-long showdown between the separatist leader and the ousted interior minister, who had summoned troops in defiance of his sacking.
More than 10,000 people have been killed and a million displaced since 2014 in a long-simmering conflict between government troops and Russia-backed separatists in the regional capital, Luhansk, and in parts of the neighboring Donetsk region. Luhansk has been plagued with infighting between various armed groups and warlords. Political and military leaders have been unseated and died in suspicious circumstances.
Pressure mounted on Plotnitsky earlier this week after he fired Interior Minister Igor Kornet. The influential minister refused to resign, enlisting help from the separatists in the neighboring Donetsk region to defy Plotnitsky’s order. Dozens of armed people loyal to Kornet blocked access to the main administrative buildings in Luhansk on Tuesday. A convoy of armed vehicles entered the city in the middle of the night in a show of support.
Plotnitsky accused Kornet of trying to unseat him, while Kornet lashed out at Plotnitsky, suggesting in a televised statement that “the republic’s leadership” is under the influence of Ukrainian spies.
Plotnitsky has not appeared in public since Wednesday and has not commented on the reported resignation. The 53-year old former Ukrainian bureaucrat was spotted arriving at a Russian airport on Thursday with a carry-on bag. Plotnitsky was one of the signatories of a 2015 truce between the separatists and Ukraine, brokered by Russia, France and Germany, which helped to reduce the scale of fighting but did not stop it altogether. In comments carried by Luhansk Information Center, Pasechnik said he was committed to the truce.
Several high-profile commanders have been killed in the Luhansk region in suspicious circumstances _ including car bomb attacks _ in recent years in what is widely viewed as a power struggle. In their absence, the leadership of the rebel-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions came to be dominated by bureaucrats with ties to ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The rebels originally sought to join Russia but the Kremlin stopped short of annexing the area or publicizing its military support for the rebels. It is widely assumed that Moscow provides the rebels with weapons and funding.