Similar to the rest of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, the election campaign in Luhansk Oblast seems to offer the voters nothing more than a handful of pro-government parties
“Can you tell us anything about your candidate?” I ask a young man at the Party of Regions’ promotion tent as he hands out leaflets for the local first-past-the-post parliamentary candidate. He looks around helplessly. The candidate’s bio must be buried somewhere on the table beneath the piles of election junk, but this guy seems completely taken aback.
“Well, he’s from the Party of Regions!” his witty female co-worker cheerfully chimes in.
“How long has he been in the party?” I ask the first question that comes to my mind. The promoters look at each other. “Would you like our little souvenir flag?” the girl pleads. Both are saved when a vagrant with a bottle of beer appears and grabs the pile of party newspapers from the table.
“It’s okay, I’m gonna give these to my friends,” he tells the girl as she jumps up from her stool. The man opens a plastic bag filled with newspapers for Ukrayina-Vpered! (Ukraine-Forward!), a party led by the Luhansk-born Natalia Korolevska, and tosses The Party of Regions promotional brochures in. With a happy grin, the vagrant hurries to his friends who are leaving a nearby grocery store and laying out booze and food on the grass out front. A white Lexus nearly hits him on the crosswalk. The driver lowers his tinted window and swears at the vagrant in a colorful local dialect.
My first impression is that people in Luhansk prefer just two kinds of cars: some drive Lexus, while others ride in shabby old Zhigulis, the most popular cars made and used in the Soviet Union. The first dozen cars I saw in Luhansk were one or the other. Later that day, I spotted a few middle-class cars like the Daewoo Lanos or Sense, both produced at the Zaporizhia Automobile Building Plant.
At the crosswalk, a girl wearing the local version of street chic – a tracksuit jacket with golden accents, a microskirt with rhinestones and sneakers – is trying to catch a cab. A taxi with a small Communist Party flag in the front window is cut off by a rival cabbie wearing a Party of Regions T-shirt. Both drivers jump out of their cars and begin swearing at each other loudly. In the end, the communist driver takes a plastic bag advertising Natalia Korolevska’s party out of his car and warns his Party of Regions competitor: “I’ll put it over your head next time!”
Someone unfamiliar with Ukrainian politics might think that Luhansk’s ballots will list only the Party of Regions and the Communist Party, with Ukraine-Forward! listed in fine print somewhere at the bottom of the page. Other political forces, including opposition parties of all colours, seem to ignore Luhansk altogether. As we walked around the city, we noticed just one billboard for Svoboda (Freedom) and two for the United Opposition placed next to each other on the outskirts of town. Opposition promoters were entirely absent from the streets.
Almost eight years after its victory in the Orange Revolution, the current opposition has failed to win a grain of affection from Donbas voters. “The Party of Regions guys have run this place for twenty years now, no matter what party they are in officially,” the locals say.
- Why don’t you vote for someone else? – I ask them.
- For whom? Yulka?! [Yulia Tymoshenko – Ed.] – They stare at me as if I were an alien.
- Well, maybe Yulka.
- No way! Those scary Banderites [Followers of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera – Ed.] will come. At least, these guys are from here – our own people.
- Yulka stole gas!
- What gas?
A long break follows, and then: “You speak Ukrainian so well, you must be from Lviv…”
Inert politicians and average voters have turned Luhansk into a perfect model of homo sovieticus over the past twenty years. The central street named Sovietskaya (Soviet) is typical of a large provincial town: a dozen quarters with modern shops, restaurants, coffee shops and a couple of shopping malls. Stray just two hundred metres from Sovietskaya in any direction, and you’ll find yourself in 1985.
The outstkirts of the city are covered with kilometres of industrial jungle. Carcasses of once powerful factories are now overgrown with trees and weeds, managed into bankruptcy by the current Luhansk-born leaders of the Party of Regions.
The downtown still has street-level public radios—a remnant of the soviet era. Loudspeakers installed on lampposts perform the kind of brainwashing operation originally invented by Joseph Goebbels. Local Party of Regions members utilize this medium to sermonize throughout the day about improvements of the past and present, and especially the future, interrupted by brief musical interludes.
Even when they come home, Luhansk voters plunge once again into the propaganda of improvement as soon as they turn on their TVs. Primetime TV is a continuous flow of propaganda for the Party of Regions on all three local channels – one of them state-owned and other two private, although there is no difference between them.
A typical night of TV consists of the following: a local Party of Regions member talks about new jobs for half an hour, then another party member talks about increased pensions. This is followed by a promotional video for the local Party of Regions team: first-past-the-post candidates led by Oleksandr Yefremov, leader of the party’s oblast office and head of its parliamentary faction, walk onto the stage to a song called “The Team of Our Youth” – a nonliteral gesture, considering that team member Viktor Tykhonov is 63 years old, and Yuliy Ioffe, another member, is 72.
Then one of the party’s central figures talks about “Orange ruin” followed by an interview with a local Oblast State Administration official who reports how well the roads have been repaired. This is followed by a video of mudslinging against the communists, whom the Party of Regions justly view as serious rivals in Luhansk Oblast. In fact, the Party of Regions and the Communist Party are almost equally popular there, gaining around 30% each while Ukraine-Forward! lags behind with a mere 4-5%.
The Communist Party is popular in Luhansk Oblast because, according to locals, virtually all of their local middle and top officials still have their Komsomol badges somewhere in their drawers. The only exceptions are hooligans and people who had bad grades in school and were thus ineligible for the Komsomol.
Meanwhile, the TV blathers on about local news: social standards improve; a water supply system breaks in some village but the local Party of Regions’ guy fixes everything. Then The Team of Our Youth video is played a few times in a row, and an interview with the local Party of Regions member who talked about new jobs is replayed.
I switch to a different channel. It has the same Party of Regions guy talking about the same new jobs. Local journalists explain that the state-owned TV channel shoots the video and distributes it to the two privately owned channels, where it is obediently broadcast. The third TV channel is no better. One of its show hosts, a Party of Regions member on the oblast council, interviews a fellow party member who is involved in business.
Local TV channels lack content of their own, so they replay the content they are given many times or buy it from other studios. Their most popular programmes are Discovery shows about wildlife. In one such programme, an endless desert fills the screen with a rare snake in the foreground as a narrator describes the scene. But not even this show is safe from the Party of Regions, and its “We Will Win Together!” slogan flashes across the bottom of the screen. As the night drags on and the slogan remains, it appears the party is also planning to “win together” with elephants, seals, giraffes and even a gopher. Suddenly, the gopher on the screen is replaced with an obese Party of Regions member who has no doubt about his party’s victory in the election – and he tells the voters so. Apparently, the team of our youth is here to stay.