Pervomaisk, a regional centre in the Mykolayiv Oblast, is a place where masters change all the time. It is a merger of three towns, ruled by different states in the past. It was here that the borders of Poland, Russia and Turkey met in the 17th century. Holta, a district in Pervomaisk, was once a town that was part of Zaporizhzhian Sich. Another, Bogopil, was the customs point of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Olviopol was the domain of the Russian Empire. There is hardly anything in today’s Pervomaisk with its Soviet Street, granite Lenin monument in the middle of a flowerbed, and old khrushchyovkas (low cost apartments) that is reminiscent of those times. Its Soviet nature has been cemented in every election where the counting rather than voting mattered. It was here that the Central Election Commission confirmed the victory of Arkadiy Kornatskyi, an opposition candidate, over the local Party of Regions’ candidate Vitaliy Travianko with a margin of more than 4,000 votes in a town of 66,000 in the 2012 parliamentary election. 24 hours later this changed in favour of Travianko.
The locals arose in protest to protect their votes. Those in power used the Berkut special-security police to hush up the dissent. The town eventually became one of the five first-past-the-post districts in which the Central Election Commission designated a re-election. However, this did not soothe the political confrontation that continues to this day.
READ ALSO: The Law and Reality
The battle for power
Despair and indifference are the main factors that determine the socio-political environment in Pervomaisk. “I have no idea who will run. It’s so confusing,” Natalia shrugs. “But they’re all the same, no matter whom you choose!” Dmytro shares her opinion: “Opposition or government candidates – everyone wants to get closer to the trough.”
Today, Mykhailo Sokolov is the only one who seems to be openly campaigning for the re-election. Billboards with the former opposition MP who has headed Batkivshchyna’s Mykolayiv Oblast organization since April 2013 are on virtually every street in town.
So far, he has been promoting himself as an “advocate” rather than a candidate, advertising his assistance hotline. His other pre-election tricks include newspapers and greeting cards for his “dear compatriots” although he himself comes from the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. This surge of activity may signal that Batkivshchyna is ready to nominate him instead of Kornatskyi. However, local party representatives deny this.
It appears that the campaign is Sokolov’s personal initiative. This has happened in Ukrainian politics before: the official opposition candidate, journalist Kostiantyn Usov, ran alongside Hennadiy Chekita, the head of Batkivshchyna faction in the Odesa City Council, in the parliamentary election in Odesa. With diluted votes for the opposition, the Party of Regions’ Serhiy Hrynevetskyi won with 32% against the combined 48% for Chekita and Usov. Given this scenario, Sokolov is essentially acting as a technical candidate of the party in power.
Arkadiy Kornatskyi claims that this is the case. Meanwhile, his “party colleague” Sokolov commented that the notorious attack by thugs on Kornatskyi’s farm, which Kornatskyi himself sees as a purely political act, was merely a “distribution of the harvest” between competing farms, recommends that Kornatskyi sues them and is offering his help in negotiations between Kornatskyi and Mykola Kruhlov, Head of the Mykolayiv Oblast State Administration. The latter wouldn’t mind running in the district instead of Travianko, the pro-government candidate who lost the election last October.
The police and bandits, hand-in-hand
The locals barely know Mykhailo Sokolov. Unlike him, Arkadiy Kornatskyi is a well-known businessman in the region. Opinions on his political activity vary. “Some praise him, others curse him,” says Ivan, one of the locals. “But he’s a good employer.” “His employees are happy,” Dmytro confirms. “He offers good terms and salaries.” This means a lot to the locals. Here, in the rural south, people are glad to have any job at all. According to the State Statistics Committee, the average wage in the Mykolayiv Oblast was UAH 2,800-3,000 in 2013. Kornatskyi pays unskilled workers UAH 4,000-4,500, while skilled workers earn UAH 5,000 to 15,000.
This was the first reason why villagers were pushed to protect the farm when it was attacked by thugs. Even gunshots didn’t scare them away. The conduct of the police (which supported the bandits) shocked witnesses. They claim that the police were involved in the process from the very beginning. Not only did they ignore the villagers’ demands to intervene, but made a corridor for the armed thugs to pass through safely. Now, the farm’s employees are ready to give evidence on the criminal inactivity of the police.
Locals finally fought off the raiders without the help of the police. “You should have seen how people kicked their asses,” says an employee. “Even women, some of them old, chased them off. People chased them on horseback in the field, like rabbits. They would have crippled or killed those bandits if they had not been aware that they have to abide by the law. But we controlled ourselves and chased them to Velyka Mechetnia, a village 10km away from here.”
The thugs, almost a hundred of them, included “athletes” from Kyiv, Bila Tserkva and elsewhere. Some of them were locals – the local unit of bandits known as “Kruglov’s eagles” in this region. These guys have been known since 2010 when they first smashed the Drive night club in Pervomaisk. Back then, a criminal case was opened against them under public pressure but was later closed.
No one was arrested after the June 18 attack on the farm. Locals claim that Kruglov’s eagles and the police officers that raped the woman in Vradiyivka are all members of the same gang. They have been racketeering on markets in Mykolayiv Oblast, including those in the Pervomaisk Region. Rumour has it that part of the income goes to the head of the Oblast State Administration and chiefs of the prosecutor’s office, police and tax authorities. The rest is used to maintain the gang.
READ ALSO: "The regions set us up really badly"
The political component
The notorious bandit attack was not the only incident on the farm. “It’s hard for me to single out one incident because we’ve been under permanent pressure for a while now,” Arkadiy Kornatskyi comments for The Ukrainian Week. “There is not a single government authority in the Mykolayiv Oblast that does not exert pressure on my farm. They all do, including the Oblast State Administration headed by Kruglov, Pervomaisk and Kryvoozersk Regional State Administrations, the prosecutor’s office, the police, tax authorities and courts – with no exceptions.” He refers to the oblast authorities as a “true organized crime group.”
After June 18, the epicentre shifted from Chausove-2, the village where the farm is located, to the neighbouring Kamiana Balka. Next to it are the fields where Ahrofirma Kornatskykh (Kornatskyi’s Farm) works legitimately, based on nearly 500 state registered lease contracts with the villagers who own the land. Last fall it sowed winter crops there. Now, it’s harvest time but the former opposition candidate’s farm is not allowed to gather the wheat. Some villagers have received faux land certificates. Based on these, they are signing new contracts with Yuriy Khanahian, a businessman from the neighbouring region who is closely tied to the Party of Regions.
Arkadiy Kornatskyi believes that the pressure on his farm is an attempt to eliminate him as a political opponent and his farm that operates on a legitimate basis. “This has nothing to do with the economy,” he claims. “The farm’s assets that they grab after they ruin it will just be a reward for the bandits who attack it. Also, they are trying to seize the farm as an example to others of what will happen to them if they don’t pay bribes, share their businesses or give kickbacks. The local authorities are performing their key function – sending corrupt money to the top, to Kyiv.”
WHY IS MYKOLAYIV REBELLING?
Mykolayiv Oblast has constantly been in the news lately: Oksana Makar was raped and burned alive; those in power acted like bandits in the Pervomaisk district 132 in the 2012 parliamentary election and a riot followed; then Chausove-2 with the raider attack on the farm of a former opposition candidate, and a woman gang-raped and almost killed in Vradiyivka. These have all triggered public protests. There are several reasons for such resistance. Firstly, the oblast has a strong and clear hierarchy, headed by two or three families. As a result of the omnipotent domination of one political force – previously the Communist Party, and now the Party of Regions – actually, not the parties as such, but one and the same masters of the oblast, the situation there has barely changed since the collapse of the USSR. This leads to the impudence and impunity of those in power at all levels. So the exceptional impudence of the Mykolayiv Oblast authorities stems from the lack of normal political competition over many years, which has allowed its long-time masters to cement special rules and caused officials to feel that they can do anything and not be liable for their actions. Secondly, local masters prefer to use anti-Ukrainian rhetoric to aggravate tension in the oblast populated by 81.9% of Ukrainians and 14.1% of Russians. Thirdly, this territory, especially northern agrarian regions, is seeing a steep fall in economic indices, which affects the welfare of its many citizens. All of this has made Roman Zabzaliuk, former head of the local branch of Batkivshchyna, claim that if Ukraine ever sees mass protests again, they will definitely kick off in the South.
READ ALSO: Beyond Tolerance