No Graffiti For You! Donetsk Rebels Are Holding Captive City's Guerrilla Artist

Earlier this summer, mysterious, surrealist, and deeply irreverent art began appearing on the streets of Donetsk. The graffiti and wooden cutouts openly mocked the city's pro-Russian rebels, depicting them as devils. A graffiti portrait of the rebel leader, Igor Strelkov, urged him to commit suicide. The rebels did not take kindly to the art. Sergey Zakharov, the artist behind the project, has disappeared. His friends and family say that he is a prisoner of the Donetsk People's Republic, as the putative leaders of the breakaway regions call their new "country."

Zakharov, the founder of the art collective Myrzilka, was forcibly taken from his workshop on Aug. 6, according to Sergii Mazurkevych, a member of the collective and its spokesman. Four armed men took Zakharov from his workshop under the direction of a man in civilian clothes. No reason was given as to why Zakharov was detained but Mazurkevych believes it is because of the critical art displayed around Donetsk.

Myrzilka's art installations in Donetsk generated international headlines in July when the group posted photos of their works, which satirized Donetsk rebels as devils and demons. Most famously, a graffiti portrait of rebel commander Igor Strelkov showed him with a gun to his head. The caption read "Just Do It."

Mazurkevych joined the art collective in early July and said he was eager to collaborate with Zakharov because he wanted to show a more nuanced version of life in rebel-controlled Donetsk. "There are lots of people living in Donetsk who do not want the Donetsk People's Republic," Mazurkevych told Foreign Policy. "There are many who want to protest, but are too afraid."

"Sergey Zakharov, however, was not one of those people. He could not keep silent any longer," he added.

In the past few weeks, Ukrainian troops have regained territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels and have encircled the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Government forces have also retaken many smaller settlements in Ukraine's east.

As their military fortunes have declined, the separatists are showing signs of weakness. Three separatist leaders were replaced last week and the Donetsk "army" recently instituted the death penalty for desertion. This vulnerable position may help explain the sensitivity and harsh response to Zakharov's art and small act of resistance.

Following Zakharov's abduction, Mazurkevych, along with the artist's relatives, tried negotiating his release with his captors. Meanwhile, Mazurkevych urged Russian and Ukrainian journalists to publicize his colleague's arrest and create public pressure for the artist's release. On Saturday, a group of Russian artists in St. Petersburg set up an art tribute to Zakharov. The installation featured a Donetsk fighter dressed as the grim reaper threatening to execute a cowering pencil. "Free Myrzilka!" an inscription reads. 

By Saturday night, it seemed the lobbying efforts had paid off. That evening, Zakharov was briefly released, according to Mazurkevych. Zakharov called Mazurkevych and told him that he was fine. Then, on Monday, armed men once more seized Zakharov, whose second capture was witnessed by his neighbor, who relayed the events to Mazurkevych.

Zakharov is believed to be held in a Donetsk building belonging to the Security Service of Ukraine -- or at least it used to belong to them until they were ousted by rebels.



Don't Look Now But Libya Is Falling Apart

Amid renewed fighting in Gaza, a militant land grab in Iraq, a pseudo-war between Russia and Ukraine, an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Libya is coming apart at the seams too. Not that many seem to notice.

The militias who deposed Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 are now battling for control of the country and its plentiful oil reserves. Some groups, like the militias in Zintan, are more moderate, while those in Misrata are reportedly aligned with the Islamists.

The government has no army with which to suppress them, and is relying on its own militias. The United States has proposed several plans to train Libyan security forces. But those efforts have collapsed due to the country's inability to pay for such training and develop the bureaucracy necessary to manage it. Other countries, including Morocco, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Italy, are also reportedly training Libyan forces.

Amid all this, fighting has only grown more intense over the summer, raising questions about whether Libya is on the fast track to civil war -- or already in one.

On Monday, planes of initially unknown origin conducted airstrikes on Islamist targets in Tripoli. Then, in the early hours of Tuesday, unidentified militants shelled an affluent section of Tripoli with Grad rockets, killing three. And, yes, that's the same kind of artillery Russia has been accused of firing across the Ukrainian border.

Who fired the Grad rockets remains a mystery, but eventually Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a onetime Qaddafi loyalist turned revolutionary and now a hardened anti-Islamist fighter, took credit for the airstrikes. Haftar said it's part of his broader campaign for control of the city and airport, though there's still some question as to whether Libyan planes could have been in any shape to conduct the strikes.

In May, Haftar's forces launched what they dubbed "Operation Dignity," a concentrated campaign against Islamist militias in Benghazi. Soon after, Haftar also dissolved the Libyan General National Congress, ousting the government's many Islamist lawmakers. His campaign against the militias has experienced mixed success, and has also contributed to instability and violence.

In response, Islamist forces embarked on "Operation Dawn," an attempt to secure control of Tripoli's airport.

The Libyan government has little to no control of the capital city of Tripoli, and is currently working out of the eastern city of Tobruk. Libya held an election on June 25 for a new body called the Council of Representatives, which is charged with drafting a permanent constitution and holding presidential elections within 18 months. In the election, secular politicians secured a decisive majority over Islamists.

On Wednesday, there was a rare spot of good news. Libyan officials said they will again export oil, something that hasn't happened since July 2013, when militants tried to take over the country's oil-shipping infrastructure. U.S. forces managed to quash any oil sale by stopping a tanker, and the rebels agreed last month to reopen the terminal along with another port at Ras Lanuf.   

The plan was for an Italian oil tanker to depart from the Es Sider terminal, its belly full of some 600,000 barrels of oil headed for the Italian port of Trieste, the Wall Street Journal reported. Drilling has also resumed at Sharara, Libya's biggest oil field. That resumption, along with the reopened ports, would boost Libyan oil production to some 560,000 barrels a day, about four times the level in May, according to the newspaper. The good news could hearten foreign buyers skittish about doing business with Libya.

Then, on Thursday, Tunisia and Egypt canceled most flights into and out of Libya. Tunisian authorities didn't say why, but Egyptian officials said it was for security reasons, especially given the extant uncertainty over who conducted the complex airstrikes on Tripoli earlier this week. As Reuters reported, flights from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya had been operating on an almost daily basis.

In public statements, the U.S. government has encouraged the Libyan government's democracy-building efforts. Just last week, the United States, France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement commending the Libyan Council of Representatives for taking an "important step towards putting Libya's democratic transition back on track and helping restore law and order to the country," and called on the council to be "inclusive and fully representative in its work going forward."

Meanwhile, the United States has also been careful not to draw conclusions or premature comparisons between the situation in Libya and other theaters of conflict. When asked in a press briefing last week what lessons the Obama administration has learned from Libya that it is applying to Iraq, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the situations are not analogous, emphasizing that Iraqis asked for U.S. assistance in their fight against Islamic State forces, as opposed to the situation in Libya, where the United States provided assistance through NATO in the 2011 ouster of Qaddafi.

When pressed on the scale of U.S. involvement in Libya, Harf said that the United States "took a pretty lead role in NATO in the Libya operation, and I think Colonel Qadhafi would certainly agree that we took a pretty lead role there, considering how he ended up."