East Ukraine's separatists: a patchwork of fiefdoms run by rowdy warlords

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They don't call Nikolai Kozitsyn "Daddy" for nothing. In this rebel-held eastern Ukrainian town, the mustachioed Cossack lords it over the locals and pays little heed to the bosses of the breakaway movement.

Patches of Ukraine's depressed industrial basin in the east — in the throes of a pro-Russian separatist insurgency — have fallen under the control of such warlords, who run towns as their personal fiefdoms.

Accountable seemingly to nobody, except perhaps Russia, these domains are a further destabilizing element in a six-month conflict that has left more than 4,000 dead and displaced a million.

Kozitsyn, a stocky 58-year old Russian who says he has fighting experience in Yugoslavia and in several conflicts across the former Soviet Union, rules over the town of Perevalsk with a stern hand. Capital punishment is a necessary deterrent to crime in unruly times, Kozitsyn told The Associated Press in an interview at his headquarters, situated in a gloomy 1950s neo-classical building known as the House of Culture.

"It has had a positive effect," he said. "We have no marauding, no burglaries or car-jacking."

But it's not clear whether such tough talk is mere bravado, for Kozitsyn demurs when pressed on whether any executions have actually been carried out. "People here have a quiet and simple life," he said, when pressed on the matter.

Wooden ammunition crates are stacked up in front of the windows of Kozitsyn's sparse office. Behind him hang portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov — renowned for being the eminence grise of the Moscow leadership.

Outside, four parked tanks carry Russian and rebel flags. Burly Cossacks with wind-burned faces wearing black-and-red astrakhan hats fix Ukrainian military hardware seized in fighting. In the lobby of the House of Culture, an elderly female barber shaves and gives haircuts to a line of Cossacks — members of a semi-military group which traditionally guarded the far-flung outposts of the Russian empire — waiting to pay court to a commander they affectionately call Batya, or Daddy.

Kozitsyn imposed his authority quickly in the area.

As armed pro-Russian separatists were seizing one town after another in eastern Ukraine, groups of Cossacks in early May crossed from southern Russia to occupy territories along the border. They claimed they did so to defend the interests of the native Russian-speaking population.

"I'm fighting for this people and together with this people," said Kozistyn, "defending our rights to own this territory and the riches with which our Lord and forefathers endowed us."

Kozitsyn, who leads a Cossack unit calling itself the Great Don Army, claims to rule over four-fifths of the rebel-controlled section of the Luhansk region, with thousands of men under his command. Rival rebels disagree.

On the other side of the highway running by Perevalsk, in the town of Alchevsk, native son Alexei Mozgovoi runs things in similarly uncompromising and independent fashion. Mozgovoi has attracted controversy for his openness to dialogue with pro-Ukraine unity supporters — and his ruthless stance on law and order.

At the end of October, two alleged rapists stood trial in Alchevsk before a "people's court" presided over by Mozgovoi and two other rebel commanders. Amid cries of "execution," the 300-strong audience — and jury — gave a show of hands that condemned one of the men to death. They spared the other man the death penalty to faint ripples of applause.

Mozgovoi associate Yuri Shevchenko said this was justice in its purest form.

"We gathered and presented the evidence for the people to pass judgment," Shevchenko said. "What we are saying is: 'We are giving you the right to judge.'"

The rebels argue that public trials for heinous crimes — they claimed that one alleged rape victims was 12 years old — would serve as a deterrent. The condemned man remains in custody and it is unclear his jailers plan go through with execution.

In extolling the virtues of the people's court, Mozgovoi condemned Ukrainian courts as "soaked with (corruption) like a cake with syrup."

Nothing quite like this form of crowd justice has been sanctioned anywhere else in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, underscoring the fragmented nature of the rebel command.

The leaders in Perevalsk and Alchevsk try to refrain from excessively harsh criticism of their nominal superiors in Luhansk, but their disdain is transparent.

Mozgovoi said he would rather work with Ukrainian officials, some of whom he said are good at what they do, rather than promote the flag-waving rebel commanders "who shout the loudest."

That's a surprisingly candid statement that flies in the face of the separatist orthodoxy, which has it that Kiev is in the grip of irredeemable fascists.

Top figures in the breakaway governments are a motley group of local men with opaque histories. Many have links to the political party of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who had his support base in the east. Yanukovych was overthrown in February after months of often bloody protests that were sparked by his government's decision to favor ties with Russia over Europe.

The current crisis was ostensibly sparked by fears that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine would be oppressed by a government that Russian state media has cast as extremist nationalists.

Mozgovoi readily concedes the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic has done little to improve the lot of people under their rule, and that the corruption of the previous regime is still going strong.

"In the past six months," he said, "our government has achieved nothing."

Perevalsk and Alchevsk both participated in a contentious vote in early November to elect separatist deputies and leaders, but it is evident the outcome of the poll means little on the ground.

Kozitsyn, in Perevalsk, said his authority came from a higher power.

"We are an independent organization and we don't depend on anyone," he said. "I'm answerable only to President Putin and our Lord."