Khmelnytskyi Oblast has one of the highest representations with Sluha Narodu [Servant of the People] MPs in Parliament. Firstly, this party delegated four FPTP MPs to Parliament, including Mykola Stefanchuk from constituency #187, Olena Kopanchuk from constituency #189, Oleksiy Zhmerenetskyi from constituency #190 and Ihor Marchuk from constituency #193. In the previous convocation of the Verkhovna Rada, these constituencies were represented by Petro Poroshenko Bloc MPs, so the election brought about a dramatic change of electoral preferences and high hopes that the voters invested in candidates from the current President’s party. Secondly, another six MPs elected in Khmelnytskyi Oblast present themselves as Ze-team. These include Ruslan Stefanchuk, Serhiy Mandziy, Volodymyr Vatras, Vadym Halaichuk, Yuriy Zaslavskyi and Denys Monastyrskyi, all elected from Sluha Narodu’s party list in the national constituency. This is also the list of MPs that Sluha Narodu presented as its own in the second issue of Ze. Khmelnytchyna party bulletin published on its oblast account on Facebook.
What unites all these MPs from Khmelnytskyi Oblast – especially the ones from the party list – is not just the desire to make life better for the oblast residents. Most MPs elected from it to the Rada on Sluha Narodu’s party list are professional lawyers linked to Leonid Yuzkov Khmelnytskyi University of Management and Law, renamed from Khmelnytskyi Institute of Regional Management and Law, a popular university in the oblast. Four MPs elected as part of Sluha Narodu’s list, including Ruslan Stefanchuk, Denys Monastyrskyi, Volodymyr Vatras and Serhiy Mandziy, graduated from that university in different years. Three later taught at their alma mater. Another two, Vadym Halaichuk and Yuriy Zaslavskyi, have degrees in law from other universities.
Mykola Stefanchuk, Ruslan Stefanchuk’s brother, is a FPTP MPs from Sluha Naroduwho graduated from that university and worked there.
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Why and how such a homogenous group of MPs highlighting their Khmelnytskyi origin ended up in the 9th convocation of Ukraine’s Parliament is intriguing. One possible launch pad for political careers of Khmelnytskyi lawyers was the Club of the Funny and the Witty, a standup comedy show better known for its abbreviations, KVK in Ukrainian and KVN in Russian. Ruslan Stefanchuk was one of the first members and writers at Three Fatties, the Khmelnytskyi team where the Management and Law University students made up the core group. Three Fatties started in the 1990s and was quite popular. That is also when the Quarter 95 team emerged where current President Volodymyr Zelenskyi acted. It later transformed into Quarter 95 Studio, a well-known TV project.
Both teams played in the Top League of Ukrainian KVK. We can thus assume that it was the KVK where the future president and Verkhovna Rada deputy speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk met. Years later, this contact brought both Stefanchuk and other lawyers from Khmelnytstkyi into politics.
Dmytro Habinet, former head of Khmelnytskyi Oblast State Administration, is another lawyer associated with the Management and Law University. He ran the oblast for a year from November 2019 to November 2020 and worked as assistant of MP Mykola Stefanchuk before that. He is a graduate of the Management and Law University where he worked later, but he did not last long in Sluha Narodu’s team.
According to Habinet, he learned that he was dismissed during his trip to Kyiv from Kyrylo Tymoshenko, Deputy Head of the President’s Office. Habinet was never informed of the reason why he was fired, nor of any complaints about his performance as head of Oblast State Administration. Quite on the contrary, he said that Tymoshenko confirmed that Khmelnytskyi Oblast was «a leader by every criterion.»
«Some ‘friends’ worked to make this happen, the MPs both from the ruling coalition and not who did everything throughout the year, since day one of my appointment, to make sure that I was out,» Habinet commented on his dismissal at a press-conference on November 20.
He said then that he knew his deputy Serhiy Hamaliy who was introduced to him in September as someone who could «advise on some aspects related to Kamianets-Podilsky» and mentioned that Hamaliy knew the President’s Chief of Staff. This may have been the factor that influenced the appointment of Serhiy Hamaliy, also a lawyer, as head of the Oblast State Administration.
When it comes to the reasons why Habinet was dismissed, different scenarios were mentioned despite the «good performance»: from his reluctance to listen to the recommendations of influential politicians and businessmen and to protect their interests to the results of the local election in Khmelnytskyi Oblast.
According to the Central Election Commission, Sluha Narodu ended up with almost 17.59% or 5,809 deputies, the highest number of elected deputies who ran with local offshoots of political parties in the October 25, 2020 local election. Experts of the Rating pollster spoke of the party’s success in the election. According to the data available on its website, five parties made it through the nominal 5% threshold, including Sluha Narodu with the best result at 14.5%. Before the election, Rating’s poll projected a somewhat better result for the party at 17.7%.
Still, Sluha Narodu’s results in Khmelnytskyi Oblast could have been better, especially given its serious representation in Parliament. Apparently, the party had some expectations of «its own» head of the Oblast State Administration. But Habinet failed to meet those expectations as he did not use administrative leverage in the election by contrast to his predecessors, as noted by OPORA, an election monitoring NGO, among others.
How did Sluha Narodu perform in the local election in Khmelnytskyi Oblast? It nominated 11 candidates for mayors out of 13 cities and towns in the oblast, but failed to win any office. In Khmelnytskyi, Sluha Narodu’s Inna Yashchuk lost to Svoboda’s Oleksandr Symchyshyn; Serhiy Vedernikov failed to get into the second round in Kamianets-Podilskyi and Svoboda’s Mykhailo Positko won the election there; and self-nominated Vitaliy Buzyl became mayor in Shepetivka while Sluha Narodu’s Maksym Bondarev ended up in the sixth place.
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In the oblast council, the party ended up with 16% or 10 seats. It did not join the nominal coalition and essentially ended up with no executive positions. In county councils within the oblast, Sluha Narodugot 14-19% and 10-23% in city councils. In Kamianets-Podilskyi, it split in the city council: three out of eight did not join the Sluha Narodufaction, setting up their own group instead. This led to public squabbles at a council meeting where one party representative challenged another to «duel.» Village and settlement councils have a more diverse representation — Sluha Narodugained half of seats in some and zero in others.
In this context, Sluha Narodu hardly has a strong position in Khmelnytskyi Oblast. Another factor to take into account is the reorganization of county state administrations that is underway in Ukraine. It seriously undercuts the influence of the presidential hierarchy in the oblast as 20 county administrations transform into just three in line with the number of new counties in the new administrative territorial setup. These changes will hardly reinforce the president’s party in Khmelnytskyi Oblast, especially as its national ratings dwindle and people are unhappy with the lockdown restrictions, utility tariffs and the overall economic situation in the country.
When it comes to Sluha Narodu’s MPs from Khmelnytskyi, the party seems to have failed to capitalize on this asset in the oblast. This may be because the MPs are personally more interested in doing bigwig politics in Kyiv rather than promoting the party brand in the province, or because this is the nationwide trend in Ukraine. Whatever the reasons, one conclusion for now is that the party has wasted its chance here.
Oksana Bankova, Khmelnytskyi
Translated by Anna Korbut