Despite its patriotism, Dnipropetrovsk region remains a stronghold of the Party of Regions and oligarchs
The comeback of the Party of Regions is possible: this is a concern shared by both activists and politicians from different camps in Dnipropetrovsk region. They believe that the reasons are many: the reluctance of Kyiv to change the old system of relations between the authorities and the citizens, preservation of the old schemes established under the Donetsk regime, economic problems, and poor choice of candidates whom the President could use to patch all the cadre holes locally. Still, the locals believe that despite their desire to return to power, the regionals will get fewer votes than several years ago.
CEO of Dnipropetrovsk Inc.
Dnipropetrovsk and the surrounding oblast was never an easy region. It has both large plants and small farms, and electoral preferences vary radically. Local politicians believe the east of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast to be more similar to the traditional Donbas that supports the Party of Regions, the north to Poltava, the territories adjacent to Zaporizhzhia to political preferences of Southern Ukraine, and the western districts to Kirovohrad. However, activists point out that there is no doubt as to who is the "boss" in the oblast. Despite the presence of all major Ukrainian and even Russian oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoiskiy is the one who has the most control, although achieving that had not been easy before volunteer battalions were established. They have provided a sort of security support to this amition.
At the same time, locals complain that despite his ample opportunities, Kolomoiskiy has not changed the system that existed under the Donetsk regime. It's not that he failed: he never even tried. Officials from the Party of Regions in most cases stayed their offices. The only noticeable post-Maidan figure in the city for a while was Vadym Shybanov, acting Deputy Head of the Oblast State Administration, but he was removed by the Party of Regions functionaries following a court decision. The web of corruption that was in place several years ago is still functioning, say local businessmen. They still have to pay bribes for an "undisturbed life", as they did before, to regulatory authorities, utility providers, and law enforcement agencies. The situation did not change after the replacement of the Head of the Oblast State Administration. Valentyn Reznichenko, appointed for the post in April, also failed to turn the tide.
Civil society in the region, however hard it tries, has little to put against the system. According to local activists, there is no demand for any changes in society. They also say that there are no teams of people capable of successfully competing with the system in the oblast. Most people that could have replaced the old cadres are busy with internal problems that push politics into the background.
Most people The Ukrainian Week spoke found it hard to say exactly how much the President controls the region. But all agreed that local functionaries of the Party of Regions are probably irreplaceable. Poroshenko only removed the key figures that could be replaced quickly, including the Head of the Oblast State Administration. Appointments to lower level positions are the responsibility of the head of the oblast. According to local activists, the central government resolved the situation quite simply, by instituting the posts of advisers. They were granted tacit authority, giving them control over the processes in the region.
Sometimes, they were quite successful. One of the positive developments, according to activists, is the installment of e-procurement practices using ProZorro system. In Dnipropetrovsk, the city council voted down the initiative three times, while the oblast completely switched to the system on September 21. Local businesses are also interested in the system. According to activists, the last seminar dedicated to ProZorro was attended by 450 business representatives, as opposed to 100 expected. To accommodate all visitors, the organizers had to change the venue twice.
Elections tainted with revanchism
Despite the widespread myth of Dnipropetrovsk’s sudden switch to patriotism, the former Party of Regions is likely to lead in local elections, the latest polls suggest. The Opposition Bloc could win about 25% of vote. Petro Poroshenko Bloc, UKROP, Hromadska Syla (Civil Force) and Vidrodzhennya (Rebirth) are likely to gain seats in the city council. Vidrodzhennya party consists of the regionals and Communists and is reportedly controlled by Kolomoiskiy. Samopomich and Batkivshchyna parties also have chances of passing the threshold. The main contenders for the mayor post will be, predictably, Borys Filatov and Oleksandr Vilkul.
Both in Dnipropetrovsk and in the oblast, the former regionals are likely to gain the upper hand. There are several reasons for this. The first one, singled out by most activists, is the nationwide economic downturn. Most of the population remember the days of "stability" and wouldn't mind going back in time. Against the backdrop of the economic turmoil, the former Party of Regions’ oblast head Oleksandr Vilkul has more chances than Reznichenko or Filatov who came to the scene in the time of turmoil. After all, during his tenure there was "order" and "at least something was being built in the region." However, it should be remembered that large factories employing thousands are still owned by the regionals, and people's mindset would not allow to vote against their employer. In this regard, Kolomoiskiy could be better off in Nikopol (where his Ferroalloy Plant is located). Overall, the situation is painfully reminiscent of the times of Yanukovych revenge following the Orange Revolution.
Activists say that gaining such a high rating did not cost the Opposition Bloc much. Electoral moods in the region are such that the wait-and-see approach and timely criticism of the government is enough to increase the numbers of supporters. Similarly, in some regions Batkivshchyna started gaining votes by exploiting the issue of increasing utility tariffs.
By its electoral sympathies, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast takes the niche exactly between the East and West of Ukraine. The regionals, along with Vidrodzhennya, can get up to 30% of the vote there, but not 70%, as it used to be in Donbas. At the same time, the support for the Party of Regions and the Communist Party in Dnipropetrovsk is slowly but surely waning. Compared with the previous local elections, it is now twice lower.
There are several strange candidates as well. For instance, Viktor Marchenko, a former communist and head of the Union of Soviet Officers NGO, was recently nominated for the mayor position. This person is known for being linked to Viktor Medvedchuk's Ukrainian Choice project and for raising the Russian flag in Dnipropetrovsk in 2014. Local activists are outraged: an outspoken separatist is running for office. However, politicians assume that Marchenko is running under the tacit consent of the Oblast State Administration to dilute pro-Russian votes that would otherwise go to Vilkul.
Lack of competition
In Zaporizhzhia, unlike in Dnipropetrovsk, the situation is more predictable. In the absence of more or less influential business elites, almost all available space in the oblast has been taken up by Rinat Akhmetov, who moved there after the outbreak of the war in Donbas. At the time, Ukraine's major oligarch almost destroyed the real estate market by renting all largest office centers.
Local civic activists call the oblast "a feudal kingdom," with the representatives of a few businesses competing with each other. These include Vyacheslav Bohuslayev (a standard "red director", co-owner of Motor Sich, a top manufacturer of helicopter and airplane engines worldwide), the Kaltsev brothers (Volodymyr and Serhiy), and Yevhen Chernyak. However, they cannot compete with Akhmetov.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that this division of interests has played a role in preventing the establishment of a “Zaporizhya People's Republic”. At the time of Yanukovych and Co., when the region was controlled by Yevhen Anisimov, local businessmen established a media holding in an attempt to fight this protégé of the Donetsk regime in their city and to protect their businesses. It published biased articles against Anisimov, and the media scene was actually split between two camps controlled by Chernyak and Anisimov. The situation with local activists was similar: each camp had its own "tame" people to engage in rallies and protests. With the beginning of Maidan in Kyiv, the media and the activists not controlled by the regionals used the slogan of overthrowing the Yanukovych government for their own purposes: the dismissal of Mayor Oleksandr Sin and the Head of Regional Oblast Administration Oleksandr Peklushenko (both directly linked to Anisimov). Due to this war in the media, the idea of “Russki Mir” did not find enough supporters, and the functionaries of the Yanukovych regime decided to cooperate with the new government.
Meanwhile, activists complain that despite the power shift, almost all officials appointed under the Donetsk regime remained in office. Anisimov is now on the wanted list; however, reports have it that he never stopped controlling the oblast through his own people. Currently, local politicians, according to activists, are aligned with the Opposition Bloc. Party of Regions members have reserved their posts in county administrations, which, given the strong pro-Russian sentiments in the areas close to Donbas, creates certain risks. Meanwhile, according to the representatives of local political elites, in Zaporizhzhia, similar to Dnipropetrovsk, Poroshenko has no cadres to ensure the oblast’s manageability.
The schemes of "cooperation" with business that existed several years ago still remain in place. Local authorities are not interested in eliminating them. They are still trying to extort money from businesses. It starts low. Say, to be able to work at a bazaar, small entrepreneurs have to pay bribes to the police department, district police officers and regulatory authorities. The total figure is around UAH 500. According to activists, the intermediaries are not to blame. It is the system that works for the benefit of current municipal and oblast authorities.
As for the investigation into the Maidan events, there has been little progress. Viktor Mezheyko was sentenced for the dispersal of protesters as a principal offender for five years, with the execution of sentence suspended for one year. Peklushenko, who was also accused of dispersing Maidan and coordinating titushky, shot himself. This scenario, however, receives little creditability.
Building a "Small Donetsk"
The residents of the oblast are not original in their political preferences. Similar to the residents of the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, they will vote for the Opposition Bloc in the upcoming local elections, despite their veneer of patriotism. After all, Zaporizhzhia can be seen as the Party of Regions’ backbone region, since most local factories are owned by the Donetsk clan. In the meantime, according to activists, Petro Poroshenko Bloc representatives keep their leading positions in politics. Even Hryhory Samardak, who replaced Reznichenko after his transfer to Dnipropetrovsk, joined the Poroshenko Bloc ranks. The future Zaporizhzhia city council is likely to include the Opposition Bloc, Poroshenko Bloc, Samopomich, and maybe Batkivshchyna. Instead of Vidrodzhennya, it may get a group of former regionals from Nash Kray party (a project allegedly created by the spin doctors of the Presidential Administration).
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As for the mayor position, the situation is more complicated. According to local politicians, Akhmetov is trying to establish his own "Small Donetsk" in Zaporizhzhia. To this end, they say, he nominated Zaporizhstal Chief Engineer Volodymyr Buryak, a man with almost no negative record, for Zaporizhya Mayor, with the support of the “opposition”. The election campaign is well underway, with the mayoral candidate actively manipulating potential voters. Recently, the “opposition” candidate organized a “Mega Disco Dance of the 80s” for the employees of Akhmetov's local plants, accompanied by the distribution of campaign materials, bringing Boney M, Savage and Eruption for the nostalgic electorate. They believe that the event cost the main Donetsk oligarch just UAH 5mn.
Mykola Frolov, President of Zaporizhzhia National University, is trying to compete with Buryak. Activists believe his election campaign to be rather dull and rough. However, he allegedly has the support of Bohuslayev, who is competing with Akhmetov. Besides the above mayoral candidates, Kaltsev Senior supported by Nash Kray party also plans to run for the mayoral seat. He is not likely to win, but he will draw some of Buryak's votes. Ihor Pozhydayev, a former traffic cop, also planned to run for the Mayor of Zaporizhzhia. He even staged a long-term image campaign, but disappeared before the election.
In general, activists say, most locals want no change, while the Maidan generated more freaks than individuals capable of making a difference in the oblast. However, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic, since both in Dnipropetrovsk and in Zaporizhzhia former officials are slowly losing popular support. Time will show whether these changes will accelerate.