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26 August, 2019  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

A war of sensations

How the 2019 elections were different from all the previous ones in the Donbas

The Central Election Committee counted 99% of the ballots in single-member districts of the Donbas by midweek following the election. The result was not as surprising or sensational as it was in other oblasts where candidates from Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People swept their rivals away. Still, even the Donbas delivered some unexpected results.

In the pre-war period, single-member districts in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were mostly distributed between the Party of Regions candidates before the actual vote – the winners were appointed rather than elected. This time, competition was harsh between two or three, even four candidates. As a result, representatives of five single-member districts out of six changed in Luhansk Oblast, and nine out of twelve in Donetsk Oblast. The major sensation of this election in the Donbas was the crushing defeat of Yuriy Boyko’s team in his base Luhansk Oblast. While his Opposition Platform – For Life party gained nearly 50% in the oblast, its candidate won just one single-member district out of six despite the fact that Yuriy Boyko personally came to rally for the party nominees.

 

Luhansk Oblast: Yuriy Boyko’s defeat and Serhiy Shakhov’s triumph 

 

Most surprisingly, the Opposition Platform – For Life candidates lost the towns of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Rubizhne where they were expected to win. This is where the main assets of Yuriy Boyko and Dmytro Firtash, an oligarch close to him, are located. This is also where the pro-Russian electorate is concentrated. This virtually cements single-member constituencies for Boyko. But something unbelievable happened this time.

All of a sudden, Servant of the People’s Oleksiy Kuznetsov won in district 106 in Severodonetsk. His victory was funny enough to inspire an episode for a TV show. The battle was to unfold between self-nominated Yuriy Furman, a candidate loyal to Serhiy Shakhov, and the Opposition Platform’s Valeriy Chernysh endorsed by Boyko. Furman was seen as a favorite of the race. In order to beat him, Chernysh’s team registered Andriy Furman as a dupe candidate to confuse the voters. The fake Furman worked, stealing 3.5%, while the real Furman was 2% short of winning. Ironically, it was Oleksiy Kuznetsov, an unknown servant of the people without a proper election campaign, that won in the end. The Opposition Platform’s Chernysh came third. This was the only constituency in the Donbas where a candidate from Zelenskiy won thanks entirely to the stupidity of Boyko’s team who played into his hands unwillingly. 

The Opposition Platform’s candidate came third in district 107 in Lysychansk, losing to yet another man of Shakhov, Oleksandr Sukhov. Oleksandr Sorokin from the Servant of the People came second. Serhiy Rybalka from the Radical Party came fourth – he tried to bribe the constituency and flooded it with money. But his concerts with pop celebrities and road repairs for a show failed to give him a decent result. This proved yet again that money alone is not enough to guarantee victory in a single-member district.  

 

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Constituency 112 in Rubizhne brought a crushing defeat to the Opposition Platform – For Life. This is where Yuriy Boyko controls Zoria, the major chemical plant, and the local government. Oleksandr Chernetsov, director of Zoria, ran here. Boyko personally came to endorse him; so did Yuliy Ioffe, an MP from this constituency who ended up on the Opposition Platform’s party list this time. Eventually, something unfathomable happened. Boyko’s manager lost against Serhiy Velmozhny, a self-nominated candidate from Serhiy Shakhov’s team. 

In district 105 – a large part of it is occupied – Viktoria Hryb, an employee with Rinat Akhmetov’s DTEK, won as a candidate from the Opposition Bloc. Her secret was fairly simple: the center of the district is in Shchastia, a town where a DTEK-owned power plant operates. Only six polling stations were open in the district and Hryb became MP with some 1,852 votes. 

The Opposition Platform’s Serhiy Medvedchuk (brother to Viktor Medvedchuk) fought a long battle but came second. 

The only successful candidate from the Opposition Platform in Luhansk Oblast, Oleksandr Lukashev, ran in constituency 113 mostly comprised of Ukrainian-speaking farming districts. He used to work at Serhiy Shakhov’s foundation. Servant of the People’s Vita Slipets came second, and Volodymyr Struk, a notorious separatist known for his open support for the “LNR” militants in 2014, came third. The incumbent single-member representative came fourth after winning the election in district 113 five years ago. 

In district 114, Serhiy Shakhov won by a large margin like he did in the previous election. He has been competing for the leadership positions in the region since the pre-war time when Yefremov and Boyko clans dominated in Luhansk Oblast. At the time, their hegemony seemed unshakable. Now, Yefremov’s clan is gone while Boyko has lost the oblast to Shakhov in the latest election. 

 

Donetsk Oblast: Akhmetov is losing ground

 

The unexpectedly poor performance of the Opposition Bloc controlled by Akhmetov was the main takeaway of the election in Donetsk Oblast. He hopelessly lost the election to his rivals from the Opposition Platform – For Life led by Boyko and Medvedchuk, including in the districts where the Opposition Bloc’s candidates won in single-member constituencies. 

This seriously undermined the position of Akhmetov who was traditionally seen as the master of Donetsk Oblast. The Opposition Bloc candidates won just four out of twelve districts. Borys Kolesnikov, a major heavyweight in the Donbas and a long-time ally and friend of Akhmetov, lost to an Opposition Platform candidate. 

Musa Mahomedov, director general of the Avdiyivka Coke Plant, won in district 45. Most of this constituency is in the occupied territory. Avdiyivka is the only town remaining on the Kyiv-controlled side. The coke plant is the main enterprise in the town so Mahomedov’s competitors barely had any chance against him. Akhmetov’s MetInvest owns the plant, so Mehomedov ran with the Opposition Bloc becoming one of Akhmetov’s few MPs in the upcoming parliament. 

There were no surprises in Mariupol. MetInvest co-owner Vadym Novinsky won the race in district 57 and Serhiy Mahera, regional development director with the city’s Illich Steel Plant, won in district 58. They ran as single-member candidates. The results in the party-list component was completely different. Akhmetov’s Opposition Bloc came third in both constituencies. The Opposition Platform – For Life came first with over 30%, followed by the Servant of the People with 26% and 28% in the two constituencies of Mariupol.

The Opposition Platform’s Fedir Khrystenko won in district 46 with a center in Bakhmut, followed by a Servant of the People candidate. The Opposition Bloc’s Dmytro Reva, the son of the local mayor, came third. In district 47 centered in Sloviansk, Yuriy Solod, an incumbent MP and the husband of Natalia Korolevska, won with the Opposition Platform – For Life. Another MP Oleh Nedava invested a lot more work into the constituency in recent years, but the voters in Sloviansk opted for Solod again. Nedava came third, taken over by a Servant of the People candidate. Sloviansk mayor Vadym Liakh ran with the Opposition Bloc, but he came fourth. Maksym Yefimov, an MP with the Petro Poroshenko Bloc faction, won in the Kramatorsk constituency 48.He controls several machine-building plants in Kramatorsk and invested into his campaign generously, so he had no problem running for parliament again. 54.8% voted for him by contrast to 19% for his competitor.

District 49 saw a thriller battle of three popular candidates for one mandate. Druzhkivka mayor Valeriy Hnatenko ran with the Opposition Platform – For Life. He is known for having openly supported the “DNR” militants in 2014 and having conducted an illegal referendum in the town. His rivals were Borys Kolesnikov, a Party of Regions veteran, and Serhiy Syvokho, a popular TV host with the Servant of the People. Kolesnikov was seen as a favorite in the constituency but Hnatenko won in the end. One reason may have been a scandal with Kolesnikov: he insulted a man asking for his help in cutting trees in town at a meeting with voters. Someone recorded that and posted the video on the Internet. 

The fight continues in district 50 in Pokrovsk: Dobropillia mayor Andriy Aksionov is competing for a seat with Pokrovsk mayor Ruslan Trebushkin. Aksionov is known for having supported “DNR” militants in 2014 and having Russian citizenship. He is running for parliament as a single-member candidate. Trebushkin is running with the Opposition Bloc and is winning over Aksionov by 1%, but the counting has not finished yet. 

District 51 was yet another shameful page in the history of elections in Ukraine. Makiyivka-born Oleksandr Kovaliov won here. He is the leader of the Nobody But Us organization and known for his Ukrainophobic views. Prosecutor General’s Office claimed in 2016 that Kovaliov had helped members of the Black Unit of the Berkut special police who shot the Maidan protesters get out of Kyiv in February 2014. Kovaliov was declared suspect, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko pledged to complete the case and Petro Poroshenko Bloc’s MP Volodymyr Ariev happily reported the identification of a dangerous criminal. Three years later, Kovaliov is in parliament. 

How he got there is the most interesting story. Constituency 51 is a fiction. A great part of it is occupied by the “DNR”. Just two semi-ruined frontline villages remain on the Kyiv-controlled territory. Nearly 2,000 people live there, according to official statistics. In reality, 700 people came to vote. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, the Central Election Commission decided to hold the election in this district under an agreement with the Opposition Platform – For Life’s Andriy Aliosha. He was hoping to bribe voters into electing him but that was a miscalculation. 

 

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Aliosha placed his bets on bussing voters from the occupied territory. In a district with just 700 voters, he just needed to bring 300 people from the occupied Horlivka to get the necessary result. Aliosha was the only candidate who could bus voters from the occupied territory based on a deal between Viktor Medvedchuk and the “DNR” militants. That turned him into a favorite candidate as his rivals had no chance to do the same thing. But something went wrong on election day. Someone – Kovaliov’s people apparently – reported that the Mayorsk checkpoint on the contact line was mined. It was closed. Aliosha failed to bring voters from the “DNR” and lost to Kovaliov. According to Volodymyr Vesiolkin, head of the regional Military Civil Administration, Kovaliov simply gave $100 to the voters. 220 votes was all it took him to win. 

In district 52 in Toretsk, Batkivshchyna’s Yevhen Yakovenko coming up as an unexpected winner followed by the Opposition Platform – For Life’s rival. The risk of fraud was extremely high in this district. 

District 59 delivered no surprises: an Opposition Platform’s candidate won there. Self-nominated Dmytro Lubenets, an incumbent MP, won in district 60 for the second time in a row (he won the 2014 election, too). Lubenets stayed with the Petro Poroshenko Bloc faction for the past five years, and the voters still supported him – he defeated his Opposition Platform rival by a serious margin.

The main takeaway from the 2019 parliamentary election in the Donbas is that real politics has finally reached the region. For the first time in its history, a relatively fair and competitive election took place in the region. The monopoly of one political force in Eastern Ukraine is over. Replacing it is the era of political pluralism and intense rivalry. 

 

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