The stereotypical image of Odesa Oblast as a pro-Russian region and mainstay of the Party of Regions turns out to be far from reality
The socio-political situation in Odesa Oblast has its own nuances, covert subtleties and purely local features. The region is best described as multifaceted, multi-ethnic and multi-zonal, composed of three dissimilar electoral and intellectual groups.
THE ODESA MYTH
“Odesa Oblast is not, has never been and never will be a politically monolithic entity,” asserts Anatoliy Boiko, head of the OPORA NGO and chief of the Ukrainian Voters’ Committee in Odesa Oblast. “Odesa may have the biggest number of electoral districts and over 700,000 of the region’s 1.8 million voters, but it stands in stark contrast to other parts of Odesa Oblast. There are three sub-regions in the oblast: the city of Odesa and two northern areas—the historical Odesa region and Bessarabia, which was added to the oblast as late as 1940.”
The oblast’s electoral sentiments characterized by a love of freedom, a penchant for private entrepreneurship and detachment from the all-Ukrainian context can largely be attributed to its historical and intellectual past. The region did not endure serfdom under the Russian Empire and suffered relatively little damage in the Second World War due to Romania’s relative leniency as an occupying regime (in comparison to the strife of German-occupied regions). Moreover, ethnic minorities residing in Odesa Oblast (Bulgarians, Gagauz and Greeks) were not eligible for the Red Army. Thus, the gene pool of the local population did not eventually suffer as much as elsewhere in Ukraine. Another important formative factor was the extremely advantageous geographical location of the region and especially of Odesa, which is essentially Ukraine’s commercial gateway to the Black Sea.
Odesa is one of the few cities in Ukraine that still retains a clearly defined myth. It is rooted not so much in Soviet times as in the pre-revolution era—the imperial ideological concept of Odesa as the “empire’s fourth city”. In fact, this may explain the city’s Russophilia, visible in the wary or surprised way locals react when spoken to in Ukrainian. However, this reaction is far less aggressive than that of the local leaders, many of whom are indeed Ukrainophobes. Odesa Mayor Oleksiy Kostusiev is a good example: he doesn’t even attempt to conceal his disdain for all things Ukrainian in the city. At one point, he ordered to have all future paperwork submitted to him exclusively in Russian rather than in the state language, which is Ukrainian. Local teachers also say that it was on his initiative that Ukrainian-speaking schools were transformed into bilingual institutions, while many Ukrainian-speaking classes were closed.
The political worldview of Odesa residents must have also been shaped by the ideology of this “free port” of entrepreneurs, a special and unrivalled “state within a state” for which the guiding principle is to do business and never burn bridges with anyone. This worldview comes through in electoral preferences: on one hand, Odesa votes only for its own and, on the other, it is extremely loyal to the current authorities, whoever they may be.
For a non-local-born candidate to be elected mayor of Odesa is unthinkable. Ironically, however, Eduard Hurvits, former Odesa mayor of long standing and a local political leader for the past 20 years, was born in Mohyliv-Podilsky, while Kostusiev, the current mayor, hails from the distant Russian island of Sakhalin. However, both lived and worked in Odesa since childhood and are thus perceived as “Odesa’s own”—otherwise, they would not have had the slightest chance of success in local politics. “For Odesa to be ruled by a stranger is simply impossible,” Oleksiy Katiuzhonok, a local pensioner, says. “Some time ago, I would have said that we need a Jewish mayor, but nearly all of them have emigrated by now”.
This important electoral mindset sends every new government in Ukraine on a mission to find their own point man in Odesa through whom to rule the region. Even the Party of Regions, when it came to power and divided all top-level administrative offices exclusively among people with Donbas backgrounds, did not risk sending their own “Varangian” to the Black Sea coast. Initially, they tried to assert themselves there by choosing between popular local leaders who represented different generations. First, they tapped former Odesa Mayor Ruslan Bodelan, who was in hiding in Russia during the Yushchenko presidency from 2004 to 2010 . Then came Leonid Klimov, one of the biggest local tycoons, owner of the Prymoria Financial Group and Chornomorets football team. Their current appointee is Odesa Oblast Governor Eduard Matviychuk, former Nasha Ukraina (Our Ukraine) member and political renegade. Tellingly, one of his first moves in the new office was to cut off state financing for the region’s only Ukrainian-language newspaper Chornomorski novyny, while budget allocations for Russian-language periodicals were increased.
In general, Odesa residents are very sceptical of politics. “Let them fight all they want,” Serhiy, an entrepreneur who has three sales points on the famous Arkadiya beach in Odesa, says. “Practice shows that you can find common ground with everyone. It’s important to always find benefits for everyone. We are a city of trade and any political extremities are out of place here. This is precisely why the locals vigorously oppose both the Svoboda (Freedom) party and pro-Russian radicals. True, many people here want to speak Russian, but if you want to speak any other language, you’re most welcome. We’ve always had many ethnic groups here and they all have found their place under the sun”. With 133 ethnic groups residing in its territory, Odesa Oblast is indeed one of the most multi-ethnic regions in Ukraine. The Ukrainian population is in the majority (62.8%), while other groups are smaller: Russians (20.7%), Bulgarians (6.1%), Moldovans (5.0%), Gagauz (1.1%), Jews (0.6%), Belarusians (0.5%), Armenians (0.3%), Roma (0.2%); Poles, Tatars, Germans, Albanians (0.1% each); Czechs, Greeks and others.
Despite the fact that the Party of Regions holds most of the top offices in the executive and local governments and the party won the 2012 parliamentary elections in the region with 41.9% of the vote, the oblast is not at all a mainstay of the ruling party. In 2007, it polled 52.22% here and has lost over 10% of its base since then. Contributing to this slide were last year’s corruption scandals involving Kostusiev and the fact that the party failed to nominate a single consensus candidate in many election districts, resulting in superfluous rivalry. The best-known example is Ihor Markov, head of the pro-Russian Rodina (Fatherland) party, who was recently stripped of his MP status after he went against the party line. Although a member of the Party of Regions faction, he had refused to vote for the European integration bills. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, Markov ran in district No. 133 and beat Oleksiy Honcharenko, the Party of Regions’ official nominee and Kostusiev’s son, by picking up more than 26% of the vote and winning by a margin of some six%. By and large, Party of Regions membership means nothing in Odesa except that a certain businessperson finds it convenient to cooperate with this political force at a given moment.
“We turned a blind eye to Yanukovych’s criminal past because we believed that he would be able to put things in order so that everyone could earn their money normally”, says Andriy Hlushchan, a private entrepreneur from Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky. “But he turned out to be the same idle talker as his Orange predecessors. I don’t even know whom I will vote for in 2015. The main thing is that they let us do business and stay away from our local affairs. We will sort things out ourselves one way or another”. This is the quintessence of the prevalent electoral attitudes in Odesa Oblast, which would gladly support a party with centrist views and social slogans. Voting here betrays a certain class structure: intellectuals and private entrepreneurs sympathize with the opposition, while the government sector and workers back the Party of Regions.
“Odesa Oblast in general is peculiar for its detachment from the ideological war between Western and Eastern Ukraine,” Boiko says. “Southern Ukraine – and especially our region – is more pragmatic and indifferent to lofty theoretical issues. Instead, people vote here with their wallet; they calculate things based on profit and personal comfort. The only important ideological factors are the heroic pages of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and the Russian language. However, this is more typical of Odesa itself, while the northern districts are somewhat different”.
POOR NORTH VS. RICH SOUTH
“Another huge electoral sub-region of Odesa Oblast is its northern part,” Boiko explains. “This is a Ukrainian-speaking territory and quite supportive of the opposition. These are the districts to the north of Odesa, especially those that are closer to Vinnytsia and Kirovohrad oblasts.” The majority of the 15.5% of votes that Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) garnered in the 2012 elections in the oblast came from this area.
However, these districts are statistically the poorest and most agricultural: 45% of their population work in the agricultural sector, compared to 14% oblast-wide. Moreover, they are landlocked and thus unable to utilize one of the oblast’s key advantages.
“I supported Nasha Ukraina back in 2006,” a village teacher in the Balta district told The Ukrainian Week. “And in the most recent elections, I voted for Svoboda. There are quite a few people like me here – opposition-minded, you might say. We are Ukrainians – my grandfather was born in the Cherkasy region and moved here in the early 20th century. In the village, we speak what may be a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian, but it’s Ukrainian all the same. But our people are poor and underprivileged and the villages are small. Young people escape to Odesa, where they quickly become Russified. Those who stay are easy to control. And in general, I get the impression that Odesa is more interested in the rich southern districts, while we seem to be something like a fifth wheel”.
Because the population of the pro-Ukrainian belt in Odesa Oblast is paralyzed by poverty, the level of protests and civic activity is very low here, amounting to little more than support for the opposition at the polls. But there are some nuances; northern districts bordering on Moldova are densely populated by ethnic Moldovans, a minority that usually votes for the Party of Regions. The rich southern part (historically called Bessarabia) stretching along the Dniester Estuary with up to 50% ethnic minorities in some districts (for example, 47% Moldovans in Reni district) is very active socially, rather than politically—primarily in defending its own interests. There are, however, traditional “white-and-blue” (Party of Regions’ colours – Ed.) enclaves, such as Bulgarian district No. 142, the city of Artsyz, which gave the Party of Regions 51.21% of its votes.
Southern districts stand out through constant political competition and livelier civic processes, especially in environmental protection. In important ways, this has to do with the resort industry, which is a substantial source of income for the locals, and the proximity of two national borders—one with Romania, i.e. the EU, and the other with Moldova. Another factor is the proximity of the breakaway Moldovan republic of Transnistria, a political black hole that generates income for many local smugglers.
Thus, paradoxically, the more opposition-minded and pro-Ukrainian northern part of Odesa Oblast is more inert, while its southern part, which is more loyal to the authorities, is more active, even if in a non-political sphere.
COMMERCE = COMPETITION
The region also has an unusually large number of influential local mass media owned by businessmen and politicians. This results in constant political competition and thus relatively balanced coverage. More than 800 printed mass media outlets, over 100 local TV channels and at least 100 Internet publications are registered in the oblast. All of them are focused on local topics, which makes it possible to see the intensity of civic-political life in the region.
“Odesa has traditionally had a great deal of business activity, which requires information support,” Boiko explains. “Therefore, every influential clan and public opinion leader has its own media holding here, which ensures a wide plurality of thoughts, evaluations and angles of presentation.” For example, according to sources consulted by The Ukrainian Week, Party of Regions MP Hennadiy Trukhanov owns the Glas holding; Matviychuk controls the state television; UDAR MP Eduard Hurvits has the Krug Television and Radio Broadcasting Company in his portfolio; President of Odesa Law Academy Serhiy Kivalov controls the Akademiya Television Company and the Third Digital channel; Fatherland MP Serhiy Faiermark owns the Nova Odesa channel; the ATV channel belongs to Markov, and so on. This supports the idea of Odesa Oblast as a land of many options and goes some way in explaining why the Party of Regions has never had real or even seemingly autocratic power. In Odesa, everyone is used to making money, seeking their own benefit, so fitting into a strict vertical of power is something these people are neither capable of nor willing to do. However, the opposition forces are essentially missing out on this opportunity – as in all south-eastern regions, the party brands were offered here on a franchise basis until recently. Local clans exploited this tactic in fighting their opponents, while doing nothing to win over the electorate. The opposition had its greatest success here in 2004 when Viktor Yushchenko collected 27% of the vote in a presidential election. Since then, the situation has remained almost unchanged – Fatherland and UDAR together polled roughly the same percentage. The only surprise in the 2012 parliamentary election was due to the Svoboda, which received 3.3% of votes compared to almost zero back in 2007.
Like all parts of Southeastern Ukraine, this region now has a palpable void in the political sphere because the majority of voters no longer want to vote for the Party of Regions but are lacking an alternative. “We treat politicians like merchandize at the Privoz Market,” says Odesa resident Olha H. “We pick them out like goods, choosing the best or the cheapest. Of course, sometimes we get cheated, just like in the marketplace. Yanukovych palmed off rotten goods on us, but those self-styled opposition members are selling nothing but air. Let them first show that their goods are better, and then we’ll vote for them. Taking someone’s word for it is out of the question here in Odesa.”