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12 December, 2016  ▪  Yelyzaveta Honcharova

A well-rehearsed scenario

How elections in the Donbas usually play out

Recently, the phrase "elections in the occupied part of the Donbas" has somehow become synonymous with the word "peace". At the very least, foreign and domestic advisers and consultants see a clear cause and effect relationship here. They say that as long as there is an electoral battle, there will be no war.

It is very easy to predict what kind of elections there will be. Although I have never stood for election myself, I have seen every trick in the book behind the scenes. Most of these stories are almost comical. But in the end, after laughing, we had to cry too... Aware of our own responsibility for this thoughtlessness.

I was not lucky enough to vote for the first president of Ukraine or have my say concerning the Declaration of Independence, as I had not yet reached the required age. Nonetheless, as a student at Donetsk National University, I experienced the next electoral race first hand. With my feet and ears.

RELATED ARTICLE: The origins of Donetsk separatism

"On election day, all students are not allowed to go home until they have voted! Course tutors should be present at polling stations and record their groups' turnout. Students who live in dormitories are noted separately: The dorm lift will not be turned on until all students registered in the building have voted!" – my photo album has a black-and-white picture in front of this sign in the university hall of residence, which even then seemed ridiculous to us. For the record, the building had 14 floors, so the lift was a big thing! And this was still not enough! Cars with loudspeakers were set up near the halls in the morning, so that lazy students would not "forget about" the voting process and the necessary parties would not lose votes (by the way, we were given their promotion materials at all classes and examinations). At exactly 8 a.m. we sprang up with a start, when Irina Allegrova, a Russian pop singer, started to blast out at full volume. We had no idea why she of all people was chosen to rouse the conscience of us devil-may-care students. However, it was hard to endure this outrage for too long – the girls and boys slowly stumbled down to the polling station, afterwards sitting on the grass in anticipation of the promised lift.

"Petro! Come down already! We've been stuck here for over two hours because of you!" Ukrainian language students in unison tried to entice out their classmates, too lazy to run up the stairs to the top floor. The rector surely got a considerable "reward" for the high turnout.

Then I managed to get involved in the elections as an observer. On behalf of the opposition Yabluko party, which attempted to take a stand against FUU, the "For a United Ukraine!" alliance that was popular in the Donbas at the time (it was immediately nicknamed FUUD due to the food packages it distributed to potential voters). I was on duty at a polling station in the small hall of the city gas office with a Communist grandma and a chap from the Social-Democratic Party, who as it turned out, was on friendly terms with the manager of the gas office and strong alcohol. Almost the whole day was spent stoically staring at the ballot boxes in order to prevent any illegal actions. Towards evening, our opponents' nerves gave out. The winking manager called the Social-Democrat observer into his office and they devoured a bottle of cognac. After this, he could not care less about boxes or candidates. The old lady, as idea-driven as she was, had to answer the call of nature, and was promptly locked in the toilet. She started to hammer on the door, shouting slogans and threats. And I, thin in both figure and voice, was simply obstructed by the body of a macho skinhead, who hissed "Just try to shout, I'll kill you!" – at this moment, another athletically built fellow pulled a few wads of ballot papers out of his trousers and tried to stuff them into a box. For some reason, I did not feel like dying for some paper pulled out of someone's trousers, especially as the fuss made by the communist relic in the lavatory was not helping anyway. It is unlikely that our duo or even trio with the tipsy Social Democrat would have been able to intimidate the ballot-stuffing specialists. Yabluko activists ended up calling the police, but they were advised to go home so that nothing would happen to me. The musclemen were smoking around the corner, snarling right at me.

RELATED ARTICLE: Why Russian curators are disposing of warlords in the occupied parts of the Donbas

It was worse still in 2004. Then, the cynicism reached a caricature-like level, and the election began to resemble a contest for the most impressive fraud. Teachers went around apartments where voters lived, very persistently asking who would definitely not go to vote for whatever reason. This was called "voter verification". Subsequently, all the electorate from those apartments, including some who already died but were still registered as residents there, turned up to their polling stations in the shape of these very same teachers... They put on wigs and changed their coats around the corner, applied different shades of lipstick and went back several times in order to help "their president" win.

I, admittedly, took advantage of one such dead constituent myself –I just wanted to experience how the process takes place first-hand. Only I think that the choice of my "proxy voter" would not have pleased the people in charge of the whole rigmarole.

Ten years later, in 2014, we were not given a chance to choose our next president at all. I rush towards the local authority office where the election commission is stationed. A colleague calls me, "Don't come, we've been captured!" I do not have time to react before I run into an armed man in a balaclava on the steps of the office. He rocks his machine gun back and forth, his eyes glinting expressively, as if to say – run along somewhere else with your camera. So I run. But not too far, because a crowd of people gathers by the nearby newspaper kiosk. I had no intention of leaving the regional press without unique – as it seemed to me at the time – photographs. Finding cover behind a newspaper, I take pictures of the car into which two men in camouflage are loading all the paperwork from the constituency's election commission. Later it turned out that the purses belonging to female commissioners had been seized at the same time too. Obviously, to make extra sure that the voting would not go ahead. One of the members of the electoral commission told me he realised that only one gunman remained in the room at any one time, so he made a gesture to a policeman, who was lying face-down on the floor, suggesting they overpower and disarm the intruder. However, seeing the policeman’s eyes wide with fear and vigorously shaking head, he realised that this hero could not be relied on. The law enforcement officer continues to perform his duties to this day, especially persistent in not letting Ukrainian activists into the local authority office. Unlike the masked man with arms during elections, activists do not have guns, after all.

RELATED ARTICLE: Who supported Ukraine in the Donbas before the war

A few days later, local residents, among which I saw my pensioner neighbour, return to the scene in order to spirit away the ballot boxes and papers. A woman leads him by the arm, telling him why he needs to do be there. A minibus is swiftly brought to the commission office and papers from the polling station are enthusiastically thrown inside. The "rescuers" believe that voting is detrimental to the health of local residents.

We chose our representatives to parliament only after being liberated. Well, who could we choose from? It was more the realisation that there is no choice. It was basically a head-to-head between the odious Serhiy Klyuyev, the brother of Yanukovych’s ex-chief of staff and ex-Party of Regions MP who built a playground in every yard with stolen money, and the son of the then mayor. The latter had already been to parliament once and distinguished himself by using his powerful physique to block the rostrum. Klyuyev’s sandpits and swings won the hearts and minds of local residents, which very much offended the mayor. Shortly after being elected to Rada, Klyuyev fled (he was charged with abuse of power and fraud), presumably to Russia, leaving us without a representative in parliament. Needless to say, decent candidates from democratic parties, which progressive citizens would have gone to vote for, were simply not nominated. Why would they be? The election rules of the Donbas do not provide for such a luxury. Why waste energy and money? You say "elections in the occupied part"... What else do we not know about their principles? And most importantly – how is this circus supposed to ensure peace and harmony?

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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