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21 April, 2019  ▪  Yelyzaveta Honcharova

“Nervous and predictable”

How Donbas elected president after almost a decade break

Most of the Donetsk region residents were not able to elect the head of state five years ago, because in many settlements electoral district commissions were robbed on the day before elections; also due to commission members’ intimidation, kidnapping and retention, and direct blocking of electoral districts by armed militants, it was impossible to organize the process of will expression. But no matter how paradoxically it may seem, among the people to whom their constitutional right have recently been returned, there are still quite a few who do not understand (or pretend not to) who were behind the events of five years ago, hinting that Donbas then did not become an object of Russian aggression, but was simply removed from the political life by the Ukrainian government. And therefore, the results of the will expression in the frontline area can hardly be called unexpected: Donbas traditionally votes “for local men” who promise peace at any price. Even if this peace is going to be similar to the one from which residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions are fleeing.

 

Administrative resource ghost

 

Accompanied by loud songs and under the supervision of observers from different candidates, but of the same athletic constitution, I dropped the ballot in my ballot box at my polling station. By the way, I had no problems with my ID-card; no one demanded from me any additional document on registration, although I happened to hear complaints about such a violation that day. All in all, there was nothing special, as usual, except that this year there were no snack-bars. But at the bus station, from where you can get to the checkpoint "Mayorsk", where there are two polling stations left over from the once huge election district № 51, changes were noticeable on Election Day. To fill the bus with passengers, which usually takes several minutes, the driver had to wait for a whole hour. “It’s strange that today no one comes, no one goes. And there were rumors that they would take people from Donetsk here to the polls by buses. That's when we drove people to Kyiv on the “carrousel” to elect Yanukovich, then that was really well-organized, – said the bored driver almost with pride. – And as for me, I, perhaps, will not have time to vote today. What a shame, my vote would be appropriate, because, I think, they will not let a new man come to power, the administrative resource rules!”

A lot was said about the administrative resource in the Donetsk region on that day; complaints were written in different polling stations about the fact of “voting” by people who were not in the country at the time of will expression, some voters were intercepted who “accidentally” carried not one but two ballots into the box. And there were stations where they worked even more traditionally and primitively. In Toretsk, for example, activists recorded several cases of outright dumping of a bundle of ballots, and in Konstantinovka observers complained about poor sealing of boxes, which made them convenient for throwing a large amount of paper. The headquarters of the candidates reported violations, quarreling and even jostling at the polling stations, seven criminal cases were opened in the region, but after the preliminary results were announced, it became clear that this time the administrative resource somehow did not work.

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At least, the relatively high result of the current president is spoken of only in the district with the center in Toretsk, just where the two most significant violations were registered. This situation happened to be also hardly surprising to anyone, because it was clear even before the start of the race Poroshenko had relied, in particular, in Donbas, on the authority of the very people who had supported Yanukovych before. And this claim regarding the support of the old elites in order to use them for falsification was repeatedly voiced by local Ukrainian activists, trying to point out the harmfulness of such a personnel policy. Because “experienced organizers of voting carrousels” have no other strategy but bribing and intimidating state employees, “engaging” the dead and those who had left in voting. And this is one of the reasons for the so-called protest vote among patriotic East residents.

But the phrase of one experienced participant in the electoral process at the Bahmut polling station, who explained why, in her opinion, this time it does not work, seemed very revealing: “They have carried the country to the extreme, so that people do not care who will win. Before they used to come from authorities and say how many per cent it should be, and we tried to reach it. And now no one will be doing this for anyone.” And, it seemed to me, she said this with incredible regret...

 

No matter what kind of peace

On the bus to Mayorsk, where you can get to the occupied territory, more than half are the elderly. While we are going, they are watching the Russian TV series about the police, shuffling things in their bags, asking their neighbors how best to hide the battery or sausage so that they won’t be noticed when crossing the checkpoint. They do not talk about elections, and when I ask, they look away. Somewhere at my side a student girl tells that this morning she was traveling from Horlivka: “There DPR policemen went completely crazy: they turned all my things upside down, they checked all the photos and contacts on the phone. What has driven them mad?”. Someone asks if they let people pass through at all, because she is going to her mother to check how things are going after yesterday’s shelling, and wants to manage to return to Bakhmut this day. “I heard that they had promised to detain because of the elections, but they didn’t ask me anything about it,” the student reassures, and everyone goes on silently. – No, we did not vote. We don’t care much, – says the woman sitting nearby.

Perhaps, after five years of occupation, some people no longer feel in the mental space of Ukraine. But the reasons why at least those who cross the front line by public transport did not become active participants in the electoral process are in fact much more. Among them quite a big sum of money that you need for at least two trips: to get permission to vote not at the place of registration and to actually vote. And fear: for several months now, newsmen of the unrecognized republics have been telling that at the polling stations Ukrainian passports would be taken away from the residents of the occupied territory, they have been scaring people by terrorist attacks, as well as the consequences that may be for ideological opponents of the “DPR” or “LPR” who are interested in politics of hostile Ukraine.

“At our station among voters there are a lot of those who live in the occupied territory,” – say members of the election commission of polling station № 141527, where residents of the village of Zaitsevo, which before the war was subordinated to Horlivka, vote. – Firstly, they are those who have registration in our village, even if their street is located in an occupied territory. Secondly, people from the nearest settlements who intentionally registered with us in order to be able to quickly give a vote.” In total, 634 voters voted on this polling station, the figures correspond to the majority of the Donbas polling stations. According to the CEC, 184 of them voted for Yuriy Boyko, 188 for Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 165 for Petro Poroshenko. When I ask the voters who leave the polling station, the majority say that they voted “for peace”, it is quite reasonable that for those who have been living under shelling for many years, this is the most important thing. “Even if these people need to be explained that the peace can be “Russian”, what can we say about others. If the occupation expands, I will go to the trenches again, but what will they do?” – the head of Zaytsevo Civil military administration Volodymyr Vesyolkin admits wearily, although he says that he has done everything to give people the opportunity to make their choice so that they would feel like citizens of a democratic state. He says that today the residents of remote parts of the village will go by bus, which has been provided by volunteers. A little later, members of the commission tell: for more than an hour there has been no connection with the group that went to those who vote at home. They reassure each other, saying, nothing bad has happened, it’s just due to poor signal in those areas.

Medical volunteers from the ASAP group, which is located nearby, also vote in this area. “Everyone who is now on our base has expressed a desire to give a vote. This is important because we choose not one person, but the policy of the state. Having the opportunity to express your will is not so much a duty as an advantage. In Poland, for example, more than a million of our citizens, but there are few polling stations, so not everyone will be able to exercise their right. And I, being on the front line, can do this much easier. Therefore, I believe that it is necessary to show our unity, the desire to defend the national idea, which during the years of independence, no matter what they say, has been extending to the whole country” – says one member of ASAP Roman Poliychuk after the vote. And his colleague adds: he is glad that, unlike Russia, we have real elections and that even this nervous state in which the country is today is an indicator of democratic transformations.

In the same building where the civil-military administration of Zaitsevo is located, on the second floor there one more section of this, perhaps, the smallest district in Ukraine, where Mayorsk residents vote, is organized. From time to time bullets fly to the upper floor of the building, so there is protection and sandbags on the windows. “Yes, it seems to be quiet, although the military said that it was gunfire in the morning,” – say the women working on the commission. Most of them are local, but there are also some from other cities of the Donetsk region. The representative of the Opposition Bloc also leads in this section, but Zelenskiy and Poroshenko have changed places. Literally, on the next street there is a special station in which the soldiers who serve here vote. Near the tent it is quiet and empty: the military are brought from time to time by transport, they make their choice quickly and in a disciplined manner. Just after the counting of votes, it becomes clear that the administrative resource has not worked even here: in most of the special sections, the military have given their votes to different candidates. And even in the Bakhmut remand prison, where traditionally about 100% is always received by any current president, this time he has taken only the fourth place, and Zelenskiy, Tymoshenko and Boyko are in the lead. It is interesting that in the mentioned remand prison, in particular, there are those who are suspected of separatism. Immediately prior to the elections, for example, the head of the settlement of Novoluhanske got there, although perhaps it was he who did not have time to issue permission to vote at the place of stay.

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Despite the scandals and even car mining in Kramatorsk, where instead of explosives found fake ballots with marks for one of the candidates, all the stations worked until the end of the allotted time. During the counting of votes, I had to visit an ordinary polling station in Bakhmut, where 731 people came to the polls from 1094 voters. A few minutes before closing, students of the local college, the hostel of which is located on the territory of this station, rushed in. Someone joked that, apparently, the hostel manager would not allow them to enter until they vote. Perhaps this was just a coincidence, but on 13 spoiled ballots after that there were pictures that turned out to be more eloquent for an irritated forced electorate than a vote for one of the candidates.

All in all, everything happened transparently and quietly, the results on the station were more than expected: the first is Yuriy Boyko, the second is Volodymyr Zelenskiy, then Oleksandr Vilkul and Petro Poroshenko. But the general atmosphere, to be honest, required patience and moral strength. When destroying unused ballots, a woman cut her hand, almost immediately the joke about “elections on blood” turned into moans about impoverishment. During the counting, members of the election commission and observers (even those who represented a completely different candidate) did not hold back emotions: they rejoiced to a large number of votes "for our candidate, from Horlivka", and one elderly man openly and loudly laughed upon hearing the name of another candidate, surprised that someone could even vote for him. To the remark that such comments are not included in the list of duties of a member of the commission, he proudly replied: “Why should I be silent? Now everything can be said, we have democracy... ”.

 

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