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Europe's Fringe, New Faces Take Part In Donetsk Forum

  • Tom Balmforth

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. (file photo)

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- One is a Stalinist Finn. Another hails from Greece's radical left. A couple more represent the French far-right.

They might have differing political views, but they have all come together for one thing -- an international forum titled Donbass: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow that is being held in the unrecognized Donetsk People's Republic (DNR).

That members of Europe's pro-Russian political fringe would support a separatist initiative in Ukraine is nothing surprising -- many attending the May 11-12 forum in Donetsk already gave their approval to Moscow's annexation of Crimea and separatist polls by serving as unrecognized foreign election observers.

But this event features some new faces as well, according to Anton Shekhovtsov, a leading researcher of the far-right in Europe.

Shekhovtsov says on Facebook that the guest list includes Evgenia Ouzounidou, a representative from Syriza, the radical left, antiestablishment ruling party in Greece. And there are some more mainstream figures as well, such as Simos Kedikoglou, a member of Greece's main center-right New Democracy party.

Another is Luis Durnwalder, an Italian politician and the long-serving former governor of South Tyrol, a German-speaking autonomous province of northern Italy.

The delegation was well received.

"I am happy to welcome everyone to the capital of the DNR -- all those who aren't indifferent to the fate of the republic, the LNR [Luhansk People's Republic], to Europeans -- I respect you for your bravery in traveling to us," DNR head Aleksandr Zakharchenko told local media.

According to the forum's website, the aim of the event is to hold an "international forum for peace and unity." It is the brainchild of Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, a member of the European Parliament who represents the Marine Blue Gathering, a French political coalition of far-right and right-wing parties created by Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front party.

Schaffhauser is known for his pro-Russian stance. In December, Schaffhauser was revealed to be the point man who secured a multimillion-dollar loan from a Russian bank to Le Pen's National Front party, which stirred controversy in France and Europe.

Schaffhauser was last known to be in the DNR on November 2, when the region elected leaders and drew condemnation from Kyiv. Schaffhauser has said that aside from attending the forum, he hopes to use his trip to eastern Ukraine to monitor the implementation of Minsk II -- the peace accord agreed to in February that appears to be in peril.

The opening of the conference was timed for the anniversary of the DNR's effort to formalize its secession from Ukraine with a vote on independence that was condemned in Ukraine and the West as illegal, and not even recognized by Russia.

The arrival of politicians and journalists from the West was cheered in the unrecognized, Moscow-backed region yearning for international legitimacy.

"A European delegation has arrived in Donbass for the international forum,” ran headlines in mainstream Russian media outlets like Kommersant.

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at