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District 205: what the Chernihiv elections mean for Ukrainian politics

Ahead of municipal elections in October, Ukrainian politics gets dirty, hot and local in the northern town of Chernihiv.

 

Valery Kalnysh
3 August 2015

Meteorologists in Ukraine called 26 July the hottest day on record for 80 years. But while temperatures reached 26 degrees in Chernihiv, some 140km north of Kyiv, 26 July also saw some of the dirtiest elections in the country’s history. 

This by-election, caused by Petro Poroshenko’s promotion of Valery Kulich to regional governor, saw candidates from the opposing factions of Poroshenko and businessman Igor Kolomoisky square off in provincial Chernihiv.

Political theatre

It’s 9pm on Sunday, 26 July: the polls have just closed, and I’m sitting in the Chernihiv regional drama theatre—the headquarters of the newly victorious Sergei Berezenko, the government’s candidate in electoral district 205.

‘Now I can relax,’ I think to myself. ‘I won’t have to run around this hot town any more, drinking litres of water, waiting for briefings and discussing the exit polls, inaccurate anyway.’ 

As I begin to relax, I notice there’s a fair amount of red and white balloons in this foyer. Some are tied together, others have been made into bouquets, and the rest just hang in the air.

An elderly woman walks in unexpectedly. She looks intelligent. Taking in the scene before her, she asks—in confusion: ‘is this some kind of a play? I was walking past and I saw there was a light on in the theatre. I thought perhaps I’d missed a play.’

The woman turned out to be surprisingly correct: the ‘play’ had just finished. 

Election day

Chernihiv was half-empty on election day. Residents preferred to spend their Sunday somewhere out of town, near to water. The elections, however, managed to reach them there too.

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Sergei Berezenko proposes to turn Chernihiv into a 'truly European city'. Sergei Berezenko / Facebook. Some rights reserved.

Local residents were offered a free trip to Blue Lakes, 50km outside of Chernihiv. Time of departure: 7am. Time of return: 10pm. Later, it became clear that the candidate who organised this ‘excursion’ was purposefully trying to reduce the election turnout. He simply transported voters out of town before the polling stations opened, and brought them back when the stations were closed.

Indeed, the only thing that cut through the slow pace of life in this provincial town were the convoys of luxury vehicles, which rushed from one end of Chernihiv to the next with an air of self-importance. 

The vehicles, carrying representatives of the race’s leading candidates, Sergei Berezenko (Poroshenko Bloc) and Gennady Korban (Ukrop, a charitable organisation funded by Kolomoisky), were on their way to inspect polling stations for evidence of vote tampering. 

Sat in one of Gennady Korban’s cars, I speed along to a polling station in a convoy of 12 vehicles. Having barely made the green light at a junction, we arrive at a station where police officers are allegedly impeding the work of election observers. Korban’s team is sure that the local branch of the Interior Ministry is trying to engineer a vote falsification.

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The Ukrop organisation goes large on agitprop.Геннадій Корбан ( УКРОП ) Чернігівщина / VKontakte. Some rights reserved.

The incident is over in a few minutes. The police officers look a bit frightened when a whole convoy of jeeps turns up and Korban’s muscle jumps out in front of them. 

All told, observers didn’t note any serious violations (by Ukrainian standards) in district 205. The Interior Ministry press office reported that the police opened 57 criminal investigations into evidence of electoral fraud during the campaign and on election day. ‘Thirty-seven investigations directly concern violations of electoral legislation. In particular, 18 investigations were opened into vote buying, five into instances where electoral rights have been infringed, and three cases of stealing ballot papers.’ 

Ten cases were opened on 26 July: six involving purposeful harm of property (tents and stands belonging to various parties), theft (placards), and four cases of anti-social behaviour. On top of all this, the Interior Ministry states, there were three bomb threats, and two occasions where firearms were used illegally. 

Testing democracy 

The elections in Chernihiv have become something of a national shame, but 26 July turned out to be far from the most representative day of the election campaign. 

According to my information, the Berezenko and Korban teams knew roughly how the vote would go on Saturday—they had accurate polls, though they didn’t have the right to make them public.

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Berezenko meets potential voters on a rainy July day. Serhiy Berezenko / Facebook. Some rights reserved.

This is why neither side made serious preparations for a ‘scenario of force’: for example, to drive out to the polling stations, break open the ballot boxes or try and interfere with vote counting. But these plans did exist, and both sides prepared them. 

The days leading up to 26 July were just as shameful. In their campaigns, candidates played on the basest human desire, greed, using voters’ poverty as an opportunity to get into power.

In their campaigns, candidates played on the basest human desire 

For instance, Ukrop gave out free food parcels—rice, buckwheat, butter, sugar, flour and preserved goods. You could get one of these parcels simply by presenting your passport. 

Inessa Vachnadze, a local teacher who has been recognised nationally for her abilities, told me about the ‘courtyard mafia’ operating in the queues for food parcels—women, old and young, organised into groups to ensure their access to Ukrop’s charity.

Imagine, if you will, a woman standing in front of you in the queue. She receives a parcel, runs into an apartment block and leaves it there before changing her blouse and rejoining the queue. But the woman joins with her friends further down the line, and soon enough she receives another parcel.

Korban isn’t the only one suspected of vote buying, though there’s a reason people started calling him the ‘Buckwheat Marshal’. Sergei Berezenko is also suspected of the same. Local activists say that Berezenko’s team organised a ‘social contract’ with some voters: a voter would show his passport, he is then put on a bus with others and taken round town for 30-40 minutes, taking in a polling station on the way. They received 400 hryvnya (£12) for voting for the government’s candidate.

‘These elections are a stain on Ukraine’s reputation,’ says Anatoly Lutsenko, a political commentator. ‘Everyone’s guilty: the impotent Central Electoral Commission, and the parliament, which doesn’t want to change the electoral system. Our local institutions of law and order are unreformed, and they can’t operate in the new conditions of competitive democracy. The real loser of district 205 is Ukraine.’

Consequences 

In the end, attempts to buy votes with buckwheat didn’t succeed. And the words of Viktor Yushchenko, remarking on the eve of the 2004 presidential elections, suddenly seemed relevant again: ‘Take the buckwheat, but vote according to your conscience.’

‘Take the buckwheat, but vote according to your conscience’ 

People took the buckwheat and the food parcels, but they cast their vote as they saw fit. Or, in fact, didn’t cast their vote at all. Indeed, if everyone who received a parcel from Ukrop had voted for Gennady Korban, then he should have racked up a minimum of 20,000 votes. He received far less. 

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Gennady Korban. Геннадій Корбан ( УКРОП ) Чернігівщина / VKontakte. Some rights reserved.

According to Central Electoral Commission statistics, Sergei Berezenko received 17,782 votes (35.9%), Korban – 7,311 (14.76%).

Ukrop is a new political force, and its core consists of advisers and people close to the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, currently having a hard time of it.

Kolomoisky has lost his influence over the assets of state oil companies Ukrnafta and Ukrtransnafta, which he formerly controlled through a loyal management structure. Mikheil Saakashvili, new governor of Odessa (and current favourite of Petro Poroshenko), has taken a sharp disliking to Kolomoisky’s aviation company, Ukraine International Airlines. As a politician, it seems, Kolomoisky’s career has taken a turn for the worst—otherwise he’d still be governor of Dnipropetrovsk region.

That said, Ukrop thinks its job is done. ‘You can mock the “casualties” and “reputations” all you want, but we fulfilled an additional task,’ wrote Boris Filatov, a leader of Ukrop, on Facebook. ‘Petro Alekseyevich [Poroshenko] had long-term plans for Seryozha Berezenko: from party leader to a future speaker [of parliament].

‘Now we’ve made Berezenko into a laughing stock. The horse, which Caligula wanted to make a consul, was called Incitatus. Poroshenko has Seryozha [Berezenko]. And he isn’t a horse, but a donkey.’ 

Berezenko himself says that he doesn’t have the right experience for the post of speaker, ‘but I could be deputy head of the party’. Thanking the residents of Chernihiv for their votes, Berezenko said: ‘I’m sorry you’ve had to swallow all this muck.’

And so the hottest day in 80 years finished with a thunderstorm and torrential rain. It’d be nice to describe this scene in romantic terms, with the rain washing away the dirt and the sense of disgust at the methods used by political campaigns. But it didn’t.

While meteorologists don’t know when these temperatures could be broken again, the situation in Chernihiv could be repeated as soon as October, when people go to the polls in local elections. 

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