Mariupol elections: will Donbas voters be represented in Ukrainian politics?


The Donbas is being airbrushed out of Ukrainian politics. This will only build another barrier to a united and democratic country. Русский


Vitalii Atanasov
26 November 2015

The line of contact with separatist-controlled territory lies only a few dozen kilometres from Mariupol, the second largest city in the conflict-torn Donbas. Situated on the coast of the Azov Sea, Mariupol is home to a large port and acts as an important transport hub.

The Ukrainian state has managed to maintain control here, but despite the February 2015 ceasefire holding from September, many residents of Mariupol have little faith in the country’s current political system, and the authorities are yet to figure out how to work the Donbas’ local political identities into the post-Maidan project. A vital test of Ukrainian democracy, this Sunday’s local elections in Mariupol could set the course for political inclusion in south east Ukraine.

Lack of faith

Last month, Ukraine hosted local elections across the country, with voters choosing mayors and city council members. In Mariupol, though, the elections did not take place—they were postponed until 29 November following a scandal at one of the ballot printers.

Well before this, though, Ukraine’s ‘elites’ were faced with a dilemma: if the elections did take place in territories of the Donbas controlled by the Ukrainian state, then Opposition Bloc, the successor to Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, would take the most votes.

To put it simply, this isn’t what the Ukrainian government wanted—a majority for Opposition Bloc would have demonstrated the government’s lack of popularity in the Donbas. But the government couldn’t refuse to hold elections either, as that would suggest it feared the prospect of ‘democratic self-expression’ in the Donbas.

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25 October: Activists declare ballot papers to be unusable after errors found in printing at the Priazovsky typeworks.This dead-end situation is largely the result of the Poroshenko government’s political failures, but it’s also connected to eastern Ukraine’s recent history, its system of values and the political preferences of its residents.

As Serhiy Kudelia notes, regional identity has been dominant among residents of the Donbas for decades. In contrast to other parts of Ukraine, in the east, people associate themselves first and foremost with their hometown or region, rather than the Ukrainian state as a whole. The region, it should be said, is also characterised by a strong paternalistic culture.

The people’s director

The disintegration of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s plunged its former republics into chaos: social structures collapsed, populations were faced with poverty, and the heroes of criminal wars slaughtered one another in the fight for the initial accumulation of capital. Wages were unpaid for months, factories went bankrupt, job lost en masse and the surge of criminality—this is what the ‘the wild 1990s’ conjures up for most who lived it, or didn’t. It didn’t pass Mariupol by, either.

In contrast to the now depressed and deindustrialised parts of the Donbas though, Mariupol preserved its Soviet-era industry. Mariupol’s mascot, and covert manager, became Vladimir Boiko, the ‘red director’ who came to control the Ilyich Mariupol Metallurgical Factory (MMK), one of Ukraine’s largest producers of heavy metals. Despite the crisis raging in Ukraine’s economy throughout the 1990s, the MMK plant flourished, expanding production and personnel. Using the plant as a staging ground, Boiko became more than a factory director or a city mayor.

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Vladimir Boiko, Mariupol's 'people's director', supposedly took inspiration from Lenin for his localised version of state capitalism. Photograph via focus.ua.Boiko started out at the bottom at MMK in the late 1950s. A year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, plant workers elected Boiko as general director of the plant, and for many years he positioned himself as the ‘people’s director’.

His authority was based not on fear, but respect. And local residents believed that Boiko lived a simple life, living in a normal apartment block and rising at 6am to inspect the MMK workshops. Boiko was, of course, the owner of the entire plant.

The socialists won 18% of the vote in Mariupol—the highest result across Ukraine.

‘He managed a miracle—to preserve not only the factory, but to turn it into an island of stability across the entire post-Soviet space,’ this was the high praise lavished by a popular Mariupol newspaper on Boiko after he died earlier this summer. And these words reflect, to a certain extent, the opinion of many Mariupol residents.

For many years, a famous Soviet-era painting depicting Lenin at the St Petersburg’s Smolny Institute decorated the wall of his office. In it, Lenin sits deep in concentration, in an atmosphere more befitting a monk than the leader of the fledgling Soviet Union.

Boiko, it seems, thought of Lenin as his historical counterpart—not the uncompromising revolutionary, but the founder of a strong state.

State capitalism on home turf

With the world collapsing around him, Boiko created something approaching a state within a state, which he ruled with an iron hand for 25 years. The number of people employed at MMK and its sister companies reached 100,000. Its annual profits exceeded a billion dollars.

But these ambitions went beyond the confines of MMK. While elsewhere the newly-crowned owners of former state enterprises transferred funds into offshore accounts, MMK built new workshops and maintained social infrastructure in Mariupol. The profits from metal exports financed city hospitals, sanatoriums, sport clubs, teachers and pensioners, and interest-free loans for workers.

Boiko was often involved in solving the city’s problems, too. For instance, at the end of the 1990s, when Gazprom closed off gas to Mariupol, Boiko traveled to Moscow and got the gas turned back on. After the centre of power moved to Kyiv, Boiko went to the Ukrainian capital to lobby the decisions necessary for Mariupol’s development.

In the mid-2000s, the leader of the Socialist Party of Ukraine at the time, Aleksandr Moroz, won financial support from Boiko. Visiting the plant, Moroz called it an ‘example of socialism’, though Boiko saw himself more in the state capitalist, rather than Stalinist, vein.

The workers at MMK and their families came to trust their fates to the people’s director: the plant’s success and the prosperity of a significant number of residents dependent on him. This was informal agreement, in which personal loyalty was exchanged for stable employment, pensions and working infrastructure.

Divided loyalties

In time, this agreement required political loyalty, too. For instance, the parliamentary elections of 2006 saw MMK’s television and newspaper partners support the Socialist Party of Ukraine’s campaign, which positioned itself as a moderate social-democratic party. The socialists won 18% of the vote in Mariupol—the highest result across Ukraine—and this was enough for Boiko and his team to take seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.

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The shelling of Mariupol in January 2015 killed 31 civilians and wounded over a 100 more.It wasn’t enough to resist the rise of the Party of Region’s political monopoly, however. Created by local oligarch clans, the Party of Regions had practically no rivals in the Donbas. One of its key beneficiaries was Rinat Akhmetov, the majority owner of Metinvest, a rival in the metal business and Ukraine’s argest mining and steel group. Akhmetov is popularly believed to be Ukraine’s richest man.

In the end, thanks to Ukraine’s economic crisis and direct pressure, Boiko gave in. He sold MMK to Metinvest in 2010. Now the Party of Regions was the only claimant left for Boiko’s political legacy, and it subsumed the whole region to its power.

As a political project, the Party of Regions depended on regional patriotism. It actively speculated on the ‘language issue’, promising to make Russian the second official state language. The party used myths about the Donbas’ economic power and the particular mentality of its residents, painting its political opponents as ‘fascists’ and ‘Banderites’ after the wartime Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera.

Pursuing this aim, the Party of Regions followed Russian state political technologists’ and instrumentalised Soviet narratives of the Second World War. All of this had a significant impact on what came next.

Maidan, annexation, war

The mass Maidan protests, the flight of president Yanukovych and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 brought radical change to the political landscape of the Donbas region. T

he political inertia that had seemed to characterise it for many years gave way to active opposition to the new Kyiv government. There were pro-Russian rallies in the cities; groups of separatists seized government buildings.

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Electioneering has been banned in Mariupol following the postponement of October's regional elections.The bewildered functionaries of the ruling Party of Regions distanced themselves from these events. In April 2014, supporters of the self-styled ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR) seized Mariupol’s city council building and police headquarters, stormed army bases and took control of part of the city. In May, when the separatists organised a ‘referendum’ on secession from Ukraine, four polling stations were opened in Mariupol. By the middle of June, however, Kyiv government forces had reclaimed control of the city, in which brief street fighting left 20 people from both sides dead.

Since then, the city has been relatively quiet. ‘Relatively’, however, is the operative word, since the situation could only be called ‘quiet’ in comparison with the full scale fighting in nearby parts of the Donbas. The most significant incident took place in January 2015, when highrise residential buildings in the eastern part of Mariupol were shelled, killing 31 civilians and wounding over 100 more.

While the fighting was going on, the locals lived in constant trepidation. There were frequent rumours about an imminent attack on the city by separatist troops or even Russian regulars. Panic was whipped up on all sides. Local politicians and commanders of volunteer battalions just outside the city demanded more action from the Ukrainian army, and separatist leaders threatened to storm Mariupol.

Public anger was also fanned by the presence of the Azov Battalion patrolling city streets. This volunteer militia, which has now been incorporated into and armed by Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs, uses neo-Nazi symbols on its banners and uniforms, and some members have known far right affiliations. 

The election that didn’t happen

Since the ceasefire, the atmosphere in Mariupol has calmed, and the focus has returned to peacetime problems. The loss of Donetsk and other parts of the region to the separatists has given Mariupol a more significant role within Ukraine.

The city’s formal status is unchanged, but the Donetsk region governor’s office moved to Mariupol in 2014. Its mayor is still Yuri Khotlubei, who has held the post since 1998. When the Party of Regions was in power in both Mariupol and Kyiv, Khotlubei was unswervingly loyal to it, but now Opposition Bloc is in opposition, the mayor has distanced himself from it publicly, and has stated that he will not contest the upcoming elections.  

One reason for this is that Opposition Bloc has put forward its own mayoral candidate, Vadim Boichenko (by coincidence, his name recalls that of Vladimir Boiko), a senior manager at Metinvest, who is squaring off against Yury Tarnavsky, an independent, and Roman Sokolov from UKROP. 

Meanwhile, the centre-right and right-conservative parties that came to power in Ukraine in 2014 have been hot on ‘patriotic’ and sometimes openly nationalist rhetoric. This has alienated many residents of Donbas. In Mariupol, these forces have been represented by little known local activists, who made their names in the post-Maidan era.

‘No one can deny that there were political forces interested in disrupting the elections’

In Ukraine’s October 2014 parliamentary elections, Mariupol predictably voted for Opposition Bloc, and the prospect of that situation repeating itself this year is clearly unwelcome in the eyes of the national government. The idea of cancelling the elections, or postponing them for a year or 18 months, was first mooted by Donbas military-civil governor Pavel Zhebrivsky.

Appointed by President Poroshenko in June 2015, Zhebrivsky, a conservative politician and former businessman, announced in July that Russian propaganda had caused ‘disorientation’ among the residents of the region. Apparently, it would be difficult for these voters to make ‘a sensible choice’.

The problem, however, solved itself: local elections were announced for October 2015, but they did not take place in Mariupol. Local branches of parties that belong to the parliamentary coalition (created after the October 2014 elections) disrupted the process. On the night before the elections, activists blocked the production of ballot papers at a local print works. Voters, who were not informed about this, turned out at polling stations but were unable to cast their votes.

The blockers were activists and election committee members of Democratic Forces, an informal alliance that included members of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), the party headed by ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko, the new centre-right UKROP party and the populist nationalist Radical Party. They alleged that the ballot papers contained errors and could be used to rig results in favour of Opposition Bloc.

‘It is difficult to say how bad the errors were,’ said Roman Kislenko, an analyst with the regional Ukrainian Voters’ Committee, an organisation that monitors infringements of the election process, ‘but some Electoral Committee members thought they were sufficiently serious.’

The Priazovsky print works where the papers were being produced does indeed belong to Rinat Akhmetov, who has close links to Opposition Bloc. The blockers’ explanation of their actions was, however, less than convincing, as public opinion polls showed that the party could expect good results without having to resort to rigging. ‘Everyone knew the level of support enjoyed by the various parties,’ said Kislenko, ‘so no one can deny that there were political forces interested in disrupting the elections.’

The elections were disrupted not only in Mariupol, but in Krasnoarmiysk, north east of Donetsk. There too, conflicts in the local Electoral Committee led to ballot papers not being ready on time, and the Ukrainian Parliament was forced to announce new elections, to take place this Sunday.

A crisis of representation

The election disruption reduced to a minimum the already small percentage of the Donetsk region’s population who were able to vote. According to the regional Ukrainian Voters’ Committee, less than a third of those entitled to vote in Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk are actually on the electoral roll. And if you subtract the 400,000 voters in Mariupol and Krasnoarmiysk, and take into account the low turnout, you are left with only seven per cent of the electorate actually casting their vote.

One important factor here is that displaced people, of whom, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there are 1.4m in Ukraine (one million of them – voters), are also unable to vote. The overwhelming majority of these are from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as refugees from annexed Crimea. A new local election law passed in Ukraine this summer, of which many people had high hopes, did not extend the vote to displaced people.

The government’s attitude is pragmatic: they will do anything they can to prevent their opponents Opposition Bloc from increasing their influence. And where that doesn’t work, they are willing to make compromises. So, as many people commented, the Central Electoral Commission (which is basically controlled by the president) openly assisted Opposition Bloc representatives in Mariupol’s electoral commission. Meanwhile, electoral campaigning has also been banned in the city.

The presidential administration is not worried about former Party of Regions people as such, just the possibility that they may be in the pockets of another oligarchic clan. Proof of this fear can be seen in the Nash Krai (Our Land) project—a new party set up under the protection of the presidential administration to collect marginalised former functionaries of the Party of Regions.

The government’s attitude is pragmatic: they will do anything to prevent their opponents from increasing their influence

Ukrainian nationalists and far right radicals, less visible in the government but well embedded in the defence and law enforcement agencies, are driven by ideological motives and probably genuinely believe that before running elections, the local people’s mindset has to be adjusted.

In their public pronouncements, both government representatives and nationalists argue that a victory for Opposition Bloc will leave the region in the hands of the separatists. But is that the case? There were great popular illusions around about the self-styled separatist republics at the very start of the conflict, but even then only a third of the population of the Donstsk and Luhansk regions supported them. 

Now, after the countless catastrophes and devastation caused by the war, support for the separatists is thin on the ground, and even in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk ‘Peoples’ Republics’ half the population would prefer the regions to remain part of Ukraine.

The fact that Opposition Bloc is gaining electoral support in Donbas is, of course, a problem, but not because it has aspirations to represent the region in parliament. As it happens, it should have wider representation. The problem is that the bloc, like most parties in the Ukrainian parliament, is a creature of the oligarchs. Its leaders promise to defend the interests of eastern Ukraine, but in fact their aim is to avenge their defeat at the hands of the Maidan and the early parliamentary elections of October 2014.

In spring 2014, the Party of Regions—the predecessor of today’s Opposition Bloc—still controlled most of the votes in the Donstsk and Luhansk regions, but had lost its authority. Polls were showing that only four per cent of respondents in both regions wanted to see Party of Regions members in a new government. That government turned out to be so hopeless that local residents are now voting for their successors again, only a year and a half later.

However, despite the rhetoric (so beloved of the eastern regions) used by Opposition Bloc, voters still have little trust in the party. This was clear from the unprecedentedly low turnout in October. And the chances are that it would have even less support if there was room in the political arena for a clear alternative with a feel for Donbas’ specific economic and cultural makeup.

Such an alternative would have had to distance itself from all the oligarchic clans and the forces of nationalism, as well as creating a social agenda and finding ways to revive the region’s economy. This party should also reject existing stereotypes by not aligning itself with Russia: even in areas of Donbas not under Ukrainian control, attitudes to the current Russian leadership are far from enthusiastic.

In any case, the interests of the electorate and displaced residents of Donbas are far from the thoughts of the political establishment. And it is not just a question of electoral procedure: the problem is much wider. The region has been marginalised and pushed to the periphery of public consciousness. It is now a grey zone, whose residents are practically deprived of their social and political rights.

The region, its people and their sense of identity can be removed from the public sphere, as is happening today, but this will become yet another obstacle to the creation of a united and democratic Ukraine. And there is no guarantee that this obstacle will not be permanent.

All images courtesy of Vitalii Atanasov.

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