Oligarch Turf Wars. 2.0

20 November 2015, 15:03

The local elections have confirmed what much of the debate recently focused on: Ukraine has been divided into spheres of influence between the oligarchs that are seeking to consolidate authority over their territories.

The country’s regions still look more like fiefdoms. In a number of oblasts, the election result for a political party is linked to the name of the oligarch backing it more than it is to the party’s platform.

Preliminary results of the most recent local elections crystallize this problem. Only a handful of mainstream parties managed to get more or less equal shares of votes throughout the country: these include Petro Poroshenko’s Solidarnist (Solidarity), Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party, and Andriy Sadoviy’s Samopomich (Self-Help). They will be represented in local councils in almost every oblast. Syla Liudey (Power of the People) and Demokratychnyi Alians (Democratic Alliance), two new parties which climbed to success both in Western Ukraine and in the Donbas, have become a welcome surprise. At the same time, many proxy parties backed by oligarchs and regional feudal lords have also made it to city councils. These are mostly political tools designed to lobby the interests of specific individuals or groups.

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Oligarch-backed parties have different results in different oblasts: their rates depend on the authority their owner has locally. For example, Ihor Kolomoisky's political project, UKROP, won 25% in the oligarch's core Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and the city of Dnipropetrovsk, as well as in Volyn, where it outran all competitors by a significant margin. In Rivne Oblast, neighboring on Volyn, UKROP is hardly passing the 5% threshold although the two oblasts share pretty much the same mindset. In Donetsk Oblast, which is close to Dnipropetrovsk in its mentality, UKROP failed to even cross the 5% threshold.

Another of Kolomoisky's political projects, Vidrodzhennya (Renaissance) party, made up mainly of former Party of Regions members and tailored specifically for south-eastern oblasts, has won a landslide victory in Kharkiv, where this party is headed by the long-time controversial Mayor Hennady Kernes. Hastily created just a few months ago, it won 54% of votes in this major eastern city. Any Western spin doctor would be envious of such results, but in Ukraine such miracles, unfortunately, are pretty normal. This victory proved that party symbols, principles or platforms make absolutely no difference to most Kharkiv residents. The only thing they find interesting are personalities. Should Kernes suddenly join some other political project tomorrow, be it Kolomoisky's UKROP or Poroshenko's Solidarity, the level of support for those parties in Kharkiv will instantly skyrocket, and Vidrodzhennya will fade like the Party of Regions and the Opposition Bloc did earlier.

In Odesa, Doviryay Dilam (Trust Actions), a party privately owned by the incumbent Mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov, won 34% of votes, outdoing the race by a large margin. Poroshenko’s Solidarity managed to get only half of that in Odesa. Serhiy Kivalov's personal political project, Morska Partiya (Sea Party), crossed the 5%-barrier, gaining over 6% of votes. This results spells growing influence of local clans in Odesa Oblast.

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In Dnipropetrovsk, Hromadianska Syla (Civil Force), a party fully controlled by a local politician Zahid Krasnov, won 12% in municipal elections. Outside of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast no one has ever heard of it.

Yedynyi Tsentr (United Center), a party owned by the Viktor Baloha-led clan in Zakarpattia, has performed locally even better, winning elections in several cities of the oblast. In Mukacheve and Chop, the oblast’s two major hubs, it got significantly ahead of all mainstream parties currently present in Parliament. But this is not a result of a good political platform the party offered. The fact that this triumphant march stops abruptly at the administrative borders of Zakarpattia Oblast gives an idea of where the sphere of influence of its sponsor and owner ends.

Oleksiy Koshel, Director General of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, noted a marked rise in the popularity of regional parties in these local elections, and some may even be a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty. "I'd like to say that Ukraine has no regional parties. We are a unitary state, not a federation. All parties in Ukraine exist at the national level," Koshel said. However, it is clear that some nationwide parties are being used as purely regional projects. Interestingly enough, the former Party of Regions, rebranded as the Opposition Bloc, has embarked on this course. Its influence is now limited only to south-eastern Ukraine. This project, in fact, is now owned by Dmytro Firtash and Rinat Akhmetov, and managed to show good results only in the regions where their oligarchic clans are still influential.

The only region where the Opposition Bloc had an overwhelming success is the Donbas. In Kharkiv Oblast, the party even failed to register for the elections; its electorate switched to the newly-created mayor-led Renaissance party. In Dnipropetrovsk, the Opposition Bloc won the elections but failed to get the majority of seats in the local council. In Odesa minicipal elections, the Opposition Bloc only came third, winning about 13% of votes, while its electorate voted for the parties owned by long-time and controversial local politicians Trukhanov and Kivalov, who ended up with the total of 40% of votes between them.

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Interestingly, even in Pavlohrad, a mining city in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast where Rinat Akhmetov owns the city's main enterprise, Pavlohradvuhillya (Pavlohrad Coal Plant), and enjoys almost unchallenged authority, the Opposition Bloc's candidate failed to garner a convincing victory. When it became clear that the Opposition Bloc candidate Anton Vershyna failed to win in the first round over his opponent from UKROP party and popular war veteran Yevhen Terekhov, the Central Election Commission simply reduced the number of voters in the city on paper. Following this overhaul, the Central Election Commission Head Mykhaylo Okhendovsky said that Akhmetov's candidate, Vershyna, had won in the first round and the second round would be canceled. This brutal manual interference with the election process caused public outcry: UKROP and civil society presented strong enough arguments to make the President himself comment on the elections in Pavlohrad. As a result, the city will have the second round of elections.

The Pavlohrad scenario proved that Akhmetov is gradually losing his influence and can no longer secure victory for his candidate without outright fraud even in his core city. Dnipropetrovsk Oblast is in the meantime gradually passing under control of the local oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.

Amidst all those turf wars, however, there is a beacon of hope. Parties, such as the small and independent of oligarchs Power of the People and Democratic Alliance, have been successful in a number of oblasts. They managed to do what seemed impossible just a couple of years ago by making it to local councils in Donetsk Oblast. The Power of the People won about 7% in Dobropillya, a town in Donetsk Oblast, while the Democratic Alliance got about 10% in Novohrodivka, another town in the Ukraine-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast.

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The Power of the People’s website states that its candidates have made it to at least 35 local councils across Ukraine, and their candidate Volodymyr Shmatko won the mayoral election in Chortkiv, a town in Ternopil Oblast, Western Ukraine. All this signals that people have grown wary of oligarchic parties and prefer candidates who barely pay anything for TV campaigns.

The fact that both the Democratic Alliance and the Power of the People campaigned almost exclusively in social media, is also an indicator of the growing importance of the internet in Ukrainian politics. If this trend continues, oligarch-backed parties will soon have to face serious rivals, and sink into oblivion as relics of the past in a longer-term prospect.  

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