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Mayor with a rifle 

Mykola Hrekov (to the right)
Mayor with a rifle 
Article by: Mark Krutov
Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
Mykola Hrekov has been mayor of Oleksandrivsk, a town located near Luhansk, which is currently occupied by separatists, since 2010. In the fall of the current year Hrekov joined Aydar volunteer battalion. He is now formally a regular serviceman of the Ukrainian army and undergoing service in the town of Shchastya (within just 26 kilometers of Oleksandrivsk and 11 kilometers from Luhansk). In an interview to Radio Liberty Mykola Hrekov spoke about when he had decided to take up arms, whether the ceasefire continues in Luhansk oblast and what he would do if he meets his ‘acquaintances from another life,’ who had supported the separatists. 

The leadership of Aydar volunteer battalion has been accused numerous times of acting without ATO command orders. Human rights organization Amnesty International accused its fighters of kidnapping and cruelty to their hostages, the battalion was supposed to be disbanded, however in the end it was subjugated to the Ministry of Defense, just like the majority of volunteer battalions. Aydar was created in May this year, it participated in the battles for the localities of Rubizhne and Sievierodonetsk, suffered the most losses in the end of July during an operation to unblock Ukrainian units in Luhansk airports, as well as on September 5, when a group of its fighters ended up surrounded by the Russian spetsnaz under the guise of Ukrainian servicemen (over 10 dead). At the moment, Aydar fighters are in the locality of Shchastya. This is where the river of Siversky Donets flows, which corresponds to the informal border between the part of Luhansk oblast occupied by the separatists and the territory under control of the Ukrainian army.

Mykola, how did you come from being a mayor to an Aydar battalion fighter? At what moment did you understand that the attempts to solve the situation politically had exhausted themselves? 

For a very long time, I tried to do something to solve the situation peacefully, held meetings in Kyiv and Luhansk. Only after I saw that civilians were being robbed and killed in the city, did I understand that this problem cannot be solved by means of peace. I went to Staroblisk, came to the military commissariat and became a volunteer in the Ukrainian army. Today I am private of the Ukrainian army Mykola Hrekov, serving in unit number 0624. Now practically all volunteer battalions are part of the armed forces, ours as well, which the people call Aydar. We are a special storm troop battalion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Where are you now, does combat continue in your area, or does the ceasefire last? 

Our battalion is in the town of Shchastya, formally it is part of the Zhovtnevy district of Luhansk city. The Ukrainian army respects the ceasefire, however, unfortunately, our opponents, the people on the other side of Donets river, the so-called ‘LNR-ers,’ practically violate the agreements signed in Belarus every day (on Friday Aydar command Serhiy Melnychuk reported on an attack on the city hospital in Shchastya, which resulted in the death of one and injury of 16 people – ed.).

Oleksandrivsk, whose mayor you formally remain, is under separatist control? 

Yes, the town of Oleksandrivsk is under control of ‘LNR-ers.’ Unfortunately, there is no electricity, pensions are not being paid, there are disruptions in transportation, water supplies. Many people who leave ‘LNR’ territory are appalled by what is happening, and I know that the majority of Ukrainian citizens on occupied territory want to live in united independent Ukraine today.

Unfortunately, the conflict continues, the Russian Federation has a hand in it. It is a mystery to none that the Russian regular troops are participating in the conflict. Well, let’s hope that the President’s peace plan works, that we unite Ukrainian territory, Crimea returns to its womb and peace reigns everywhere.

Am I correct in understanding that the border between the territory which is controlled by the Ukrainian army and the territory under separatist control is in your district, along Siversky Donets river? 

Yes, correct, today the border lies along the river of Donetsk. We are controlling the situation fully in the town of Shchastya, the town lives as usual, the Armed Forces continue serving, kindergartens and schools are functioning, life is practically peaceful.

Can people from one bank of Donets go to the other, come from the separatist-controlled zone to you and return back? 

There is no border as such, there is no border control, the citizens can move from Luhansk and come to the territory under Ukrainian control. There are several such roads, one of them is through Shchastya. Every day people go both ways.

What is your main mission now, as a military unit? Hold on to the positions you occupied? 

Our battalion and other Ukrainian units are here to maintain peace and order on the territory entrusted to us. For the Ukrainian laws, the Constitution to work here, for the people to be able to live calmly and happily – just like the name of our town (Shchastya – happiness in Ukrainian – tr.).

Oleksandrivsk is located within just 26 kilometers of Shchastya, before you could make it within 20-30 minutes by car. Do you believe that you will return to your job as head of the town at some point? 

The town of Oleksandrivsk has the same status as the town of Shchastya, only Oleksandrivsk is in Artemivsky district of Luhansk, and Shchastya is in Zhovtnevy. Today work is underway to change the jurisdiction over Shchastya in order to renew all social payments, payments to state workers. However, I hope that soon both Oleksandrivsk and Luhansk will become territories controlled by the Ukrainian armed forces, where Ukrainian laws start to work, and where peace and order resume.

How do you see it after the Minsk agreements which de-facto divided the zones of influence between the separatists and Kyiv?

Any agreements can be changed for the better. And I think that the citizens of these territories will have their say and will want to be part of a single Ukraine.

They can have their say at the future elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the local elections on December 7, however the separatists will not acknowledge them and plan to hold their own voting. Will the citizens of Luhansk be able to come to Shchastya if they wish and vote? 

Yes, I hope all the necessary amendments are made to allow all citizens of Ukraine to carry out their civil duty and take advantage of their right to vote, regardless of their territory of residence.

What future do you think awaits Donbas after the peace agreement? Will Kyiv be able to return control over the occupied territories? Will the separatists advance again? Will the current status quo remain, like in Transnistria? 

I think that common sense in all sides of the conflict will take precedence, we will be able to find understanding and come to a normal solution of this situation, so reunite Ukraine within the borders of 1991, when it became independent.

When we met this spring in Luhansk, I saw you were speaking calmly, if not being friendly with the people who later more or less confidently supported the separatists. Now you are on different sides of the front line. What would you say to them, if you met them later, when everything ends, would you extend your hand or take out the rifle? 

I am ready to speak with everyone who did not commit crimes against the Ukrainian people, whose hands are not stained with blood. Unfortunately, today there is a divide between those who wanted and thought and those who acted. On that territory, there are instances of robberies, looting, murder, torture, therefore everyone who violated the law and committed a crime should be punished. I think those whose hands were stained with blood cannot be subject to any kind of amnesty.

Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
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