In this frontline city in Ukraine, people voted for peace - but at what price?

Some 20 kilometres from the frontline, Mariupol may have voted for the incumbent in the past - but has now voted strongly for opposition candidates.

Grigory Pyrlik
23 April 2019, 12.01am
(c) Ivanov Stanislav/Zuma Press/PA Images. Все права защищены

Following Ukraine’s presidential elections in Mariupol is interesting for a number of reasons. First, this city has been directly touched by war, and continues to feel its impacts today. Second, it is a centre of economic power in its own right - oligarch Rinat Akhmetov owns several factories here, and the town is run by a former employee of his.

Third, when Ukraine lost control over Donetsk, Mariupol informally took up its status, at least informally - artists visit the city, new cafes and art platforms open regularly. And despite the fact that the majority of residents support pro-Russian politicians from the former Party of Regions, here you can meet plenty of pro-Ukrainian activists and volunteers. In 2014, Mariupol became a battleground between the Ukrainian authorities and supporters of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”. In June that year, the Azov battalion cleared the city, and Kyiv didn’t lose control over Mariupol.

That same year, Petro Poroshenko took first place in the presidential election in Mariupol, with 37% of the vote. But in the second round of Ukraine’s 2019 election, Poroshenko didn’t even take 10% here. What happened?

On the train

“What’s going on there? Is that Poroshenko shouting? Can you make it quieter?”

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My fellow passenger on the train from Kyiv to Mariupol is talking to her boyfriend. The train stops for 30 minutes, and Anna, a trainee anaesthesiologist, goes out on to the platform to watch the debates.

The departure time for the Kyiv-Mariupol train coincides with the start of the presidential debate between incumbent Petro Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. For politically active passengers on the train, there’s few chances to follow the debates live: the mobile connection keeps cutting out.

Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky
(c) Yaghobzadeh Rafael/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Alina is originally from Donetsk region, and a part which is now controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Her parents still live there. Now she’s studying in Kropyvnytskyi (formerly Kirovohrad), a city in the centre of the country.

“When Poroshenko spoke, his face went blue he was so nervous,” she tells me, commenting on the televised debates at Kyiv’s Olympic stadium. “At the end he proposed singing the national anthem, and Zelensky supporters shouted ‘Zelensky’. He didn’t expect his rival to have such strong support.”

Alina tells me her boyfriend will vote for Poroshenko, but she hasn’t made up her mind yet. Recent investigations by journalists have weakened her confidence in the incumbent president - right before the first round vote, journalist Denys Bihus released a series of articles showing how members of Poroshenko’s team have been involved in bringing in contraband defence goods from Russia, and then selling them to Ukrainian defence manufacturers at a higher price. Anna’s own experience also added doubts.

"I understand that there’s a whole business built on this war, and that no one is planning to bring it to an end"

“I’m on my way to see my parents. I understand that there’s a whole business built on this war, and that no one is planning to bring it to an end.”

Alina promises to make her final decision after watching all of the presidential debates. She’s the only passenger who shows any interest in the election on this 19-hour train ride to Mariupol. I don’t hear any debates or arguments on the train.

The majority of passengers get off at the station before Mariupol - at Volnovakha, where four years ago, 12 bus passengers were killed in a rocket attack. From here, taxis will take them through checkpoints to territory which is not under Ukrainian control, and on to Donetsk. Most of them, it seems, won’t be voting.

Subtle agitation

On my way into town from the train station, I’m greeted by a billboard that reads “THINK”. At every election, candidates use a loophole in election law: election messages are forbidden on the day before the election itself, so instead they put out messages without names in their campaign colours. Over two days, I saw at least a dozen of these billboards across the city. Apart from calls to think, the anonymous author of these messages also reminded passers-by that “The main thing is not to lose the country”.

(с) Григорий Пырлик. Все права защищены.

Mykola Trofymenko is an adviser to the head of the Donetsk Regional Military Civic Administration, and is also a member of the local Mariupol campaign office for Petro Poroshenko. When I ask him about who put up these billboards, he avoids giving a direct answer.

“The Mariupol campaign for Poroshenko has no relationship to these billboards.”

“Does any other campaign office?”

“Ask any other office.”

I didn’t see any posters with Zelensky’s colours or message around town. Representatives of the CHESNO election monitoring organisation photographed billboards that read “For Zelensky” in the western city of Lviv. On Saturday, Zelensky’s team promoted paid posts on Facebook.

“We’re ready to work with any president”

Neither Poroshenko, nor Zelensky took first place in Mariupol in the first round vote on 31 March: city residents gave 30% of the vote to Yuri Boiko, an ex-member of the Yanukovych-era Party of Regions, and ex-leader of the political force that followed it, Opposition Bloc. Right before the election, Opposition Bloc split, and its two main representatives both ran for president - Boiko and Oleksandr Vilkul, a former vice-prime minister under Viktor Yanukovych.

Stepan Makhsma, secretary of the Mariupol city council and a member of Opposition Bloc, asked Boiko to remove himself from the running. Vilkul took third place with 20% of the vote in the first round.

Volodymyr Zelensky took second place here, with almost 29% of the vote. Poroshenko came fourth (with an average of six percent over two election districts). There was a 59% turnout.

Speaking on Saturday, Stepan Makhsma predicts that the turnout at the second round would be lower, between 30% to 45%. But in the end, the turnout was roughly the same as on 31 March.

(c) Григорий Пырлик. Все права защищены

The Mariupol mayor’s office is ready to work with any president, Makhsma tells me. What the local authorities want here is infrastructure changes.

“We want to see more attention than before,” Makhsma says. “Mariupol is the easternmost city in Europe that remains under the Ukrainian flag. On the one side we’ve got the sea, on the other - the contact line. We’ve got two routes to the capital. Before it took 25 hours to get to Kyiv by train, or the terrible highway via Zaporizhzhya.”

Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman visited Mariupol on 19 April. Here, he promised to monitor the funds spent on the Mariupol-Zaporizhzhya highway, and to support a project on drinking water. Currently, the city receives water from the Severskiy Donets river - and part of the canal runs through uncontrolled territory, which means that personnel often can’t get access in case of faults. Another project is to build a water supply network on the Kalmius and Kalchik rivers, which the French government is prepared to fund, but guarantees from the Ukrainian government are needed.

Putting an end to the war is the city’s main hope under Volodymyr Zelensky, says Makhsma. “For us, a ceasefire is the main priority. We don’t want peace at any price, not at the cost of capitulation, but via pressure and sanctions on our neighbours.”

Life in the echo of artillery

If you wander around Mariupol as a tourist, you can fail to notice the war. Residents relax in parks, buses and trams ferry people around town, cafes are open for business. On the beach, there’s young couples embracing. Election day falls on Easter Sunday, and people visit polling stations often after church or their way there, carrying flowers and willow branches.

It’s much the same in the Vostochnyi (Eastern) district, where it’s loud and children are playing. The district’s School No. 5 has four polling stations, so there’s a lot of people here. In January 2015, the district was hit by Grad rocket fire, and 30 people died. The Ukrainian government, OSCE observers and then-mayor Yuri Khotlubei stated that the rockets came from territory under separatist control. The Security Service of Ukraine detained a local resident, who is now on trial for allegedly acting as a fire corrector.

(c) Rossinsky Bogdan/ABACA/PA Images. Все права защищены

Bellingcat also showed that the fire came from uncontrolled territory, and that artillery batteries were transported into Ukraine from Russia the day before the attack. Yet some residents of the district still believe that it was the Ukrainian army that fired upon them - a member of the election commission at the school, for example. Her colleagues didn’t hide the fact that they are against Poroshenko.

“It’s too late to cry. He [Poroshenko] needs to lose with dignity,” says another election commission member as she gives out ballot papers. “But still he turned his arse towards us when he went down on his knees.”

Indeed, there were many different interpretations of the moment when both candidates knelt during the presidential debates. Volodymyr Zelensky initiated the gesture, saying that he was ready to kneel before every mother who has lost a son on the front - and knelt before the audience in the stadium. Poroshenko, meanwhile, knelt before a woman on the stage, with his back to the stadium and TV cameras. As it turned out, this woman was MP Tetiana Rychkova, a volunteer whose husband died on the frontline in 2014.

Lyudmila Streltsova, the head of the other election commission at School No.5, believes that people go to the polls to avoid the sound of artillery fire.

“We’re tired of this atmosphere. We hear this thunder every day and every night. We’ve already resigned ourselves to this, but it’s not right. During the 2015 attack, my family remained alive and unharmed, but our windows were blown out when the Grad rockets hit the local market. My son saw all of this with his own eyes. When I found out, I ran home from work. There were bodies, police, medics, our soldiers.”

For and against

The polling station at Mariupol’s School No. 40 is closer to the centre of town, by a local park that has been done up recently. Within the space of half-an-hour, I come across voters who don’t only have completely opposing views, but completely different ways of looking at the world. Larisa, a pensioner, complains about the pain in her legs. She tells me that she didn’t vote in the first round. But she says that it’s the responsible thing to vote today, and she tries to vote right in front of the election commission members. After Larisa comes out of the voting booth, her mood removes any questions about her choice - she’s definitely against Poroshenko.

“I’m for my country, for our territory, which for some reason Russia assigned to Ukraine,” Larisa tells me, calling herself a “pure-blooded Russian”. “But young people don’t know their history. Nikita [Khrushchev] gave us Crimea, and now they shout: ‘It’s ours’. But how is it yours?”

Closing the door to the polling station, Olha Bardeha says goodbye to me in Ukrainian. In Mariupol, it’s hard not to notice that Ukrainian is spoken by a minority of people.

Olha grew up in Mariupol, and studied in the school where she voted today. She used to work in Kyiv at a central television station, but now she’s on maternity leave, raising her son.

"I was interested to find out what the other team proposes, but only Petro Poroshenko has shown a path for Ukraine, a path that completely fits with what I think the people need"

“For me, the choice was clear. I’m voting for the current president. I don’t see any other choice. For me, however interesting the debates were, they didn’t affect my decision. I was interested to find out what the other team proposes, but only Petro Poroshenko has shown a path for Ukraine, a path that completely fits with what I think the people need. I started consciously speaking Ukrainian, in order to bring up a son who will know the state language.”

Back at the hostel where I’m staying, there’s patriotic music playing in Ukrainian. It’s the choice of Nikolai Petayev, the hostel’s owner. He was displaced from his home in the Donetsk region, and is close touch with local veterans and volunteers. Petayev also voted for Poroshenko.

“I don’t see Zelensky as president,” he says. “As a person in the media, as a creative - he’s had huge growth. But I’m worried by what he says. Not worried, but scared. In terms of politics, peace, the strange word ‘insurgents’ [which Zelensky used during the debate to describe forces in the uncontrolled territories]. Poroshenko has done a huge amount of work. I’m a displaced person, I’ve seen the Russians, I know what it’s like to run under artillery fire. I see that Mariupol is stable, the city is developing.”

Halyna Odnoroh is a volunteer in the city. She helps the army and participates in organising funerals when soldiers from Mariupol die. When he talked the day before the election, Odnorog’s main thought was: “I can’t move my hand to vote for Poroshenko.”

“Poroshenko said that the war would be over in two weeks,” Odnoroh tells me. “And today this concerns no one but us. Sometimes we go out to the sea and we hear the thumps. Local people already know what it sounds like. In the past five years we haven’t seen what they want to do in order to bring peace. Forty percent of our petrol comes from Russia, there’s coal in our port from Russia. What war?”

Both Petayev and Odnoroh believe that, under Poroshenko, Ukraine’s pro-European path has become irreversible - and that a return to a closer relationship with Russia would lead to mass protests.

The military’s choice

The frontline is separated from Mariupol by less than 20 kilometres. And here there’s Ukraine’s 56th motorised infantry brigade. The Central Electoral Commission set up four polling booths for soldiers, they’re located next to brigade’s emplacements.

I visit one of the polling stations, which is a military tent next to the unit’s base. The voters in uniform either refuse to speak to me or don’t say much. One soldier admits that he came to keep his friend company, another says that he watched the debates, but didn’t see anything of substance.

The most talkative person I find is a military chaplain attached to the unit, Alexander Vivchar. He’s been in the army since 2014, and was a priest before the war. Together with his unit, Vivchar has been at Kalynovka, Avdiivka and other flashpoints in the Donbas. For Vivchar, his most difficult memories are when the brigade buried its first soldier, and seeing the eyes of local residents, filled with fear as they clambered out of their basements following an artillery strike.

Александр Вивчар
(с) Григорий Пырлик. Все права защищены.

His main hope for Ukraine’s new president matches those of local residents.

“The most important change, the one that we need, is peace,” Vivchar says. “I want our guys to go home healthy - both physically and spiritually. My heart is heavy: the consequences of this war become post-traumatic disorders which mean that up to 90% of the guys can get divorced, up to 60% can commit crimes and a third can take their own lives. I really want God to give us salvation, and that these statistics don’t turn into reality.”

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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