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24 April, 2019

Sloviansk, where Donbas war started 5 years ago, sees peaceful election

When Russian-backed separatists began their offensive in eastern Ukraine in spring 2014, the city of Sloviansk was the first one they took over. After several months, it was liberated, but it keeps its memory as the place where Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, which killed over 13,000 people, started

Five years later, the Ukrainian flag flies over city hall and the citizens were able to exercise their constitutional rights and vote in the April 21 presidential election.

April 21 was a busy day at the polling stations in Sloviansk, a city of 111,000 people some 540 kilometers east of Kyiv but only 70 kilometers away from the front line. Almost 60 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. Volodymyr Zelenskiy won a landslide victory in Sloviansk where 65,447 of 75,243 votes backed him – almost 87 percent, which was considerably higher than Zelenskiy’s overall result in the election, 72 percent.

President Petro Poroshenko was supported by 7,965 citizens or 10.5 percent of Sloviansk voters, while he took 25 percent in Ukraine overall. Sloviansk wasn’t an exception – the results here matched those seen everywhere in eastern Ukraine, where Zelenskiy received higher support than in the west of the country.

There were 114 polling stations in an electoral district which includes Sloviansk and its neighborhoods. No violations were reported there, said Maria Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the Sloviansk police department.

This election was special for Sloviansk. During the previous presidential election in May 2014, parts of the Donetsk Oblast, including Sloviansk, were occupied by Russia-backed separatists. Only 15 percent of all the Donetsk Oblast voters could make it to polling stations and some 5,000 voters from Sloviansk and its neighboring districts cast their vote. Six weeks after the election, Ukrainian army liberated Sloviansk and the Russian-backed separatists, aided by the Russian troops, retrieved east, where they still occupy parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Comparing to the 2014 election, the number of Sloviansk residents who voted in the 2019 election grew 15 times.

Sloviansk has an interesting voting history. In 2010, local voters actively supported ex-President Viktor Yanukovych who took 75 percent of the vote. In 2019, Zelenskiy can boast even stronger support – almost 87 percent.

According to observers and electoral commission members, people have become more active in recent elections and there are more young voters (voters aged 18-30) than in past election campaigns.

Lyubov Arsenenko is an experienced observer. This time she worked at one of the polling stations in Sloviansk as a part of the Ukrainian Center for Democratic Society, a non-profit organization.

“People were really active today – there were many young ones, and older ones who walk with crutches,” Arsenenko said. “There’s a difference between this and previous elections. People were indifferent earlier and now they are tuned in. People want changes that’s why many come and vote.”

Sloviansk didn’t see any lines to the polling stations, however. People were arriving gradually, many with their families.

Despite the almost 60 percent turnout, some thought it’s not a large enough number.

“A turnout is 50-60 percent and then people complain that they don’t like people in power,” said Andriy Khryakov, a member of the electoral commission. “I’ve been deciding for a long time whom to support. I studied the election programs but don’t have lots of faith in them. It’s a lottery. I don’t expect much from this election, there’s no sense in these hopes.”

Oksana Mamedova who lives in Sloviansk says that voting is her responsibility as a citizen of Ukraine.

“I don’t want anybody else to decide for me. I chose my candidate by his program, his achievements and current activities, for the background in politics, diplomacy, intelligence, and qualifications,” Mamedova said. “I believe that our country will withstand any president. We will all be just fine.”

Serhiy Stoyan, another Sloviansk resident, is hopeful for the election’s outcome.

“I went to cast the vote because I do care about the future of our country. Also, it matters to me who will govern Ukraine,” Stoyan said. “Before I chose my candidate, I became acquainted with the biography of most of them, learned about their activities. I hope that the promises of the candidate I have chosen will not be left empty. I hope there will be changes in the country that we all can experience.”

However, Sloviansk had quite polarized opinions on the candidates competing in the runoff of the election. Some residents whose candidate did not make it to the second round confessed they would not take part in the vote or spoil the ballot.

Denys Bihunov, a Sloviansk native and official observer with the Strong Communities organization, explains that the city’s support for Zelenskiy comes from the hope for changes.

“This result in Sloviansk can be explained in two aspects: all-Ukrainian and local. The all-Ukrainian component is a general phenomenon of Zelenskiy throughout the country, and Sloviansk is no exception here. After all, the rating of Zelenskiy is a mix of his personal rating and the rating of the TV show ‘Servant of the People,’ the anti-rating of Petro Poroshenko, and the fact that everyone saw something personal in Zelenskiy – as he was supported by the left, right, and the centrists same as pro-Western and pro-Russian voters,” Bihunov elaborates.

In the first round of elections on March 31, a pro-Russian candidate Yuriy Boyko scored 45 percent of the vote in the city, and Petro Poroshenko finished with 10 percent. The rest of the votes were dispersed between other candidates.

“In the second round, the messages of Poroshenko’s team were simply incomprehensible for the conservative Boyko electorate,” Bihunov said. “These people(’s values) are far from the narratives voiced by Poroshenko. Also, we have about 60,000 pensioners per 115,000 and they had voted for Zelenskiy as an alternative to Poroshenko, with whom they couldn’t find a relatable message. They voted for an attractive ‘new face’ who promises serve the people and not to steal. Accordingly, the voters who backed other candidates in the first round voted for Zelenskiy, both in hope of change and against Poroshenko, who did not live up to patriotic expectations.”

Bihunov stressed this was the first election that could boast “such a relaxed and healthy atmosphere during the voting process” the electoral commission members, observers and police could recall.

By Lidia Khaustova


Kyiv Post

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