Some places and cities in Ukraine are seen in mythical terms. Odesa is probably the best example of this. There’s “Odesa humor,” “Odesa speech,” “Odesa Mama” and “Odesa the Russian city” – and those who ascribe to this last myth don’t speak Ukrainian on principle. Like any other myth, these are all based on some reality, but they needn’t be taken at face value. While debunking the “Russian city” myth on May 2, 2014is still controversial and has become encrusted in myths itself by now, the results of the latest local elections are an undeniable fact.
Despite negative projections, the chaos generated by Sluha Narodu,the high ratings of the local Doviriay Dilam [Trust Actions] party led by long-term Mayor Ghennadiy Trukhanov, and the strong ratings of the Opposition Platform-Za Zhyttia (OPZZ) party, Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity nominees got 12.4% of the seats on the Odesa City Council. This is more than Ukrainian political analysts predicted and better than the “C” grade – at Hogwarts, they would say this “exceeded expectations.” Odesa voters may not be students at a school for magicians, but there is a bit of magic in this, nevertheless. First of all, nobody really expected this. Secondly, the real numbers are even higher. It’s not a question of witchy numerology here – we’re not at Hogwarts, after all. In reality, things are quite simple.
The local mayor’s party Doviriay Dilam, which many in Odesa have supported for years, got 24.4%. This is significant amount to represent the party’s interests on the city council, and nobody really expected the party to vanish, either. In contrast to Verkhovna Rada elections, which are more about profile pictures, representing a specific brand and voters who idealize candidates, local elections are more about channeling than romancing. Local voters elect those who will have a direct impact over the quality of roads, whether things get built or not, public services, and public transit. These are concrete things that deliver a certain standard of living. In local elections, people vote more rationally and pragmatically.
On one hand, a strong local party, which is what Trukhanov’s Doviriay Dilam is, no matter what else one might think of it, will always have a fundamental advantage. On the other hand, it will be blamed for everything that’s not working right. In Odesa, there is a lot to be scapegoated for, including the illegal construction in the historical downtown and along the coastline, problems with water and heating in older districts, trouble with public transit and traffic, and, on top of that, now, healthcare and pandemic issues uncovered by COVID-19. All this depressed Doviriay Dilam’s ratings, and OPZZ was at its heels.
RELATED ARTICLE: Top party in town
The truth is that Odesa has always a share of the nominal Party of the Regions electorate, especially when frustrations of the kind mentioned here abound. As a result, OPZZ, a party that is actually hostile to the Ukraine and its members make no bones about it, got 23.3%. European Solidarity’s 12.4% is about half of what Doviriay Dilam and OPZZ got. With its ratings plummeted across the country, Sluha Narodu pulled in a fraction more than ES, 12.46%. If we take the total 100%, subtract the 24.4% of Doviriay Dilam, which Odesa voters see as “theirs,” the 4.8% of the Morska (Sea) party, which failed to meet the 5% threshold and gained no seats, and the 6.7% of the Shariy Party, which has taken over the “disrupter” role of Oleh Liashko’s party once played, it works out that about every fifth voter cast a ballot for European Solidarity. This is a strong result. And so far we’re talking about the party’s future in the city council, not about the results of its candidate for mayor, Petro Obukhov.
This support suggests that the gap can be narrowed down in the future. And these numbers are an undeniable success. If European Solidarity deputies, who include many experienced volunteers from the early stages of the military conflict in the Donbas and civic activists who know how to work consistently, are determined enough, the party could eventually double its share. One of the factors of the party’s success in the local election undoubtedly was the nomination of people who are not just well-known in the city, but have a reputation for character, capacity and real achievements. Moreover, they have demonstrated all this under very unfavorable conditions. These include Natalia Bohachenko, a well-known volunteer and activist who got into the city council with 1,978 votes; Anastasia Bolshedvorova, the writer and host of a TV show called “Architectural Patrol,” which reports “all truth about new construction and façades;” Oleksandr Roitburdt, an infamous artist and, the recently-appointed director and reformer of the Odesa Art Museum; and Andriy Vahapov, volunteer and leader of a rehabilitation program for ATO veterans, who was shot at by unidentified men two years ago. These candidates got their seats. Other nominees did not make it into the city council but they clearly caught voters’ attention. They include well-known figures in Odesa, such as historian Andriy Krasnozhon; human rights advocate Oleksandr Ostapenko, lawyer Zhanna Mandrychenko and ATO veteran Dmytro Koltsun.
Together with European Solidarity representatives like businessman Oleh Zviahin, the ES Odesa branch’s Secretariat Manager Valentyna Shultz, and chemist, biologist and director of a local environmental NGO called Zeleniy Lyst [Green Leaf] Vladyslav Balinskiy, Natalia Bohachenko stopped the illegal takeover of the Airport Grove park and cleaned its territory of waste. The thing is that the Odesa Airport area is a remote district surrounded by industrial facilities, traffic hubs and old buildings. To the locals, the park is a real oasis. There is a lot of new real estate development at this point and the issue of rubbish has been resolved, but when it comes to recreation and little corners of nature, it’s really “a grim picture,” as Odesites would say. It’s a myth that all of Odesa lies along the sea coast. In real life, the sea can be pretty far away, so a grove by your home is extremely precious.
Some Odesa voters remain loyal to the mayor’s party, mostly because they don’t believe in “changing horses in midstream.” Others still place their bets on “regional” values, now represented by OPZZ. Others prefer people who have proved themselves to be pro-Ukrainian and pro-European modern professionals. This is the main factor that led to almost 12% for European Solidarity’s Petro Obukhov, who ran for mayor. And it is also a good result.
In Odesa, Obukhov is mostly known thanks to his popular and very effective local news site, Dumskaya.net, and for his Bond taxi service, pricey but one of the best in town. He ran in the 2020 election with a clear, realistic and useful platform of reforms in the city. In a nutshell, he offered channeling rather than romancing. While the rest of the candidates competed over how to best entertain voters by telling them that “mama needs to be saved” (from what?), “mama is sick” (with what?) or “let’s return Odesa to Odesa” (who took it away and how would this benefit the average Odesite?), Obukhov offered very concrete proposals: let’s make better traffic junctions, let’s set up safety islands, let’s replace marshrutkaswith comfortable electric cars and make public transit available 24/7 – a huge problem for Odesa – , let’s install tonometers in clinic halls and set up a unified online system for the city for people register and book appointments with doctors; establish a municipal hospice; make buildings more energy efficient; audit all old buildings for structural safety (Odesa has seen several buildings collapse recently); ban commercial exploitation of animals in the streets (whoever has seen pigeons, monkeys and horses at Derybasivska, one of Odesa’s main tourist streets, can see how important this is).
Obukhov’s platform was extensive and very detailed, and tackled issues that really matter in Odesa. You can easily google it. Of course, Google will also give you “Obukhov’s platform is for idiots” – you can’t hide from this. But there’s those voters, every fifth one, who chose him. And although Obukhov did not make it into the second round, the voters who want to see such proposals implemented will demand this of Trukhanov, who was re-elected. Obukhov’s electoral capital is pushing others to make deals with him here and now. Clearly, this is a serious commitment for Obukhov, as well: to those voters who will not forgive treason and to his party colleagues, as he has to maintain his seriously increased weight there, too.
RELATED ARTICLE: Reforms: Resistance and fragmentation
So far, Obukhov has left the impression of a respected and properly moral person. His professional talents are well-known. He has no bandit past or links with the political forces that are hostile to Ukraine. What does this bode for him? European Solidarity is likely to use his potential as quickly as possible to bring Obukhov to the national level, promote him on TV and place him in the most challenging areas. It is likely to see what was a feat in this election become the norm in the next race. Clearly, the residue of komsomol culture – party regulators and “mentors,” gerontocratic tendencies and obsession with control – has been the negative element in both European Solidarity and its predecessor, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. A 30-year old intellectual IT expert is not someone who can be manipulated easily, while a 50-something former policeman with some kompromatagainst him is far more “useful.” That’s why ES will give Obukhov more challenging tasks.
But that is theory. In practice, he is the candidate who could become mayor of Odesa in the future. Because at least every one in five locals likes specifics and wants a city that is suitable for living and making money – this IS Odesa, after all — rather some mythical Odesa returned to an equally mythical Odesa. Yes, myths can linger, but Odesa voters have proved that they can reject them when they get in the way of real life.
Nika Naliota, Odesa
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj
Follow us at @OfficeWeek on Twitter and The Ukrainian Week on Facebook