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20 November, 2015  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

The More Things Stay the Same

Analysis of elections in Eastern Ukraine: old and new parties

Election results in Donbas were a disappointment for those who expected the mentality of people living in Eastern Ukraine to change substantially. When Ukrainian soldiers pushed back the Russian proxies in northern Donetsk Oblast and entered the liberated towns, it seemed like the hegemony of anti-Ukrainian forces in this region had been eradicated. But while winning the military confrontation, Kyiv proved politically emasculated. With the exception of a few “unlucky” individuals like Sloviansk’s notorious former mayor Nelia Shtepa, who spent a few days chilling their heels in the basement of the Aidar volunteer battalion, the organizers of the anti-Ukrainian insurrection and the illegal referendum never faced proper justice for their actions. Worse yet, they were all allowed to participate in the elections and to once more take power in their hands in the region.

The outcome, as we say in these situations, was predictable. Members of the local clans who controlled the oblast for decades were easily able to take the upper hand again. Nor did they have to come up with anything particularly original to do so. They simply repeated their usual tricks, and nobody stopped them. Someone warned voters who worked for public institutions or were employed at their companies to vote “the right way.” Someone paid off commission members in cash to ensure “the right results.” Someone handed out baskets of goodies to voters. Someone paid outright for voters to cast their ballots a certain way...

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All that changed were the brands under which the members of the old guard campaigned this time. Instead of the Party of the Regions that everyone was heartily sick of, ballots now contained such parties as Opposition Bloc and Nash Krai, meaning ‘our region.’ But the people stayed the same. And without much effort, they won their regional base, leaving their opponents from patriotic political forces in their dust. Paradoxical as it might seem, after their military victory against the pro-Russian gangs, the patriots became the vanquished force on their own soil.

One-trick ponies rule

Needless to say, the results in Donbas are not cheering, with not just former members of the Party of the Regions once more in power, but individuals who are open, determined enemies of Ukraine. In Dobropillya, the separatist Andriy Aksionov, who was one of the organizers of the DNR referendum on May 11, 2014, won the mayoral race with a comfortable margin. Druzhkivka returned its incumbent, Valeriy Hnatenko, who attended rallies with the DNR flag in his hand in support of Russian operative Igor “Strelkov” Ghirkin. In Sloviansk, it looks like Vadym Liakh will win the first round, the candidate who promised on his billboards to “Love Sloviansk like Nelia.” Local councils also saw the massive return of people who had participated in anti-Ukrainian rallies and blocked Ukraine’s military vehicles.

The Opposition Bloc and Nash Krai parties won a majority of the vote in every local council in the region, including through open buying of votes in many instances. This happened most openly in Severodonetsk, where Nash Krai was headed by a local mogul called Serhiy Shakhov. His people handed out coupons to local voters that could be exchanged for UAH 100-200 on Election Day near the polling stations. This primitive method gave Nash Krai nearly 22% of the vote, which was remarkably good for a party that had only made its appearance a few months earlier.

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On the eve of the election, the deputy governor of Luhansk Oblast, Olha Lyshyk, had posted an urgent report in Facebook: “Right now, there’s massive vote-buying going on, on the streets of Severodonetsk! Unknown people with lists of personal information—names, surnames, patronymics, passport details, identification codes—are handing out coupons that the voter is supposed to bring to someone who will be standing near the polling station tomorrow. This person will have a green badge. When the voter hands in the coupon, that person will give them UAH 100. The campaign is being run by Nash Krai. The coupon, which one of our voters just showed me, is marked, “District 10, Collector 1684, Recipient 1685.”

The coupons were later handed in to the wrong people by a number of these voters. Typically, they were handed out to pensioners and people who looked down and out. Many of them did not understand whom they were supposed to give the coupon to, to get their money and gave them directly to election observers. Some women who were caught red-handed denied their involvement in the con and swore that they had simply found the coupons lying on the ground...

Interestingly, this same Serhiy Shakhov had already used a similar scheme for buying votes during the 2012 Verkhovna Rada election. At that time, he and a number of others, including Artur Herasymov who today is a national deputy in the Poroshenko Bloc faction, ran in the election on the FPTP lists in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts under the “Shakhov Team” brand. They also handed out coupons to voters, which could then be exchanged for UAH 50 at every rally in support of Shakhov and his men, ensuring huge turnouts for his events. The final amount was paid to voters on Election Day.

The worse things are, the worse the results

And so, it would appear that nothing has changed in the last three years in Donbas. Even the war does not appear to have taught voters and politicians a thing. With 67% of the ballots counted in Severodonetsk, the Opposition Bloc was leading with 38%, Nash Krai was second with 22%, Solidarnist had 10.0% and Samopomich had 9.2%.

The Opposition Bloc is in the lead just about everywhere with a huge advantage across Donbas. What’s more, a strange trend has been observed: the worse a city is doing, the more its residents support OB. A record success was had by former PR members in impoverished Lysychansk, which suffered enormously due to street fighting in the summer of 2014. Its council now has members from four of the seven parties that ran there: Opposition Bloc with 55.4%, Solidarnist with 15.1%, Samopomich with 8.1% and Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party with 6.2%.

Nearly all of this oil refining center’s plants are closed, yet this has not prevented former PR members, who had a monopoly on all the industry in the region, from once more gaining a sound majority. The result is a vicious cycle: things are really bad because the Opposition Bloc “owns” the town, but people vote for the Opposition Bloc because things are really bad.

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Sloviansk suffered from serious military action and was occupied by Strelkov’s terrorist gangs for several months, yet turnout was under 30% on Election Day: residents simply ignored the event. Yet even among those who voted, they predominantly supported the Opposition Bloc and Vadym Liakh, Nelia Shtepa’s biggest fan. Preliminary results give Liakh 52.6% of the vote and his nearest rival, the pro-Ukrainian Oleh Zontov only 20.3%. This huge result for Zontov was a reflection of the low turnout among anti-Ukrainian voters.

In the vote on party lists in Sloviansk, the Opposition Bloc leads with a healthy majority at 52.1%. The 5% barrier was also passed by Nash Krai, the Agrarian Party, the Radical Party, Solidarnist, and Samopomich. As in other Donbas cities, the $64,000 question is: Whose side is Nash Krai going to be on? It’s rumored to be linked to the Poroshenko Administration, so it can be expected to cooperate with Solidarnist. However, the members of this party paint a rather different picture: at the first opportunity, they will most likely switch to pro-Russian forces and act against the interests of the country.

Still occupied after all these tears

Local patriots bitterly joke that Donbas continues to be an occupied territory. And there’s more than a grain of truth in this. 18 months after their release from Russian terrorists, Sloviansk and Lysychansk look just like the Ukrainian Armed Forces saw them when they entered in July 2014.

Ruined buildings in Semenivka remain rubble. Holes in the asphalt from exploding mines fill with water every time it rains and are slowly turning into massive potholes. The traffic signs are dented and torn where shrapnel and bullets hit them...

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On the broken walls that are all that remain of a large home, a poster hangs with a plea to the President and PM: “Mr. President and Premier of Ukraine! Have you no shame for the empty promises to restore residential buildings?” This house once belonged to a local official from Party of the Regions and some say that the poster is little more than election campaign of the PR against those in power. But the ad works. All the residents of this village with whom we were able to speak agreed with it: the government promised compensation for our destroyed homes, even promising to build a new village, but nothing has been built in the last year.

We can argue whether Ukraine should have to pay to restore towns destroyed by the Russian proxies, or whether the responsibility lies with those who organized and supported the separatist referendum on May 11. But locals have their own interpretation of things. The residents of Donbas live in their own world and all the bad stuff is traditionally blamed on Ukraine.

Now for the good news

And yet. If we look more closely at the results of the election, there are clearly very positive changes. First of all, the communists have disappeared. The Nova Derzhava or New State party to which the old CPU activists switched after their party was banned, lost their electoral battle on all fronts and failed to make it into a single local council.

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And it’s noteworthy how well the pro-Ukrainian parties did, after not being able to ever get enough to even cross the threshold in previous elections. Samopomich gained 8-9% in the larger towns in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. In Novohrodivka in Donetsk Oblast, the humble Democratic Alliance actually picked up 10% of the vote. And in Dobropillya, more than 7% of the electorate supported Syla Liudey or Power of the People, whose members are mostly young people with no political experience. Incidentally, this last party did most of its campaigning and advertising through Facebook, which shows just how powerful social networks have become even in Ukrainian society.

Altogether, the number of pro-Ukrainian candidates in local councils in Donbas has increased since the previous elections. But positive changes are too slow in coming. All those who are keen to see reforms take place and are actively working for them may not be able to realize those ambitions. It’s always much easier to damage and destroy than to restore and build. In this election, the majority of voters in Donbas supported the masters in this: the professionals of skimming, scamming and kickbacks.

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