How Ukraine’s old guard are trying to get back into parliament

This Sunday, Ukraine goes to the polls in a snap parliamentary election. In the east, pro-Russian forces are fighting over who will return to power.

Yulia Abibok
18 July 2019, 12.01am
Party of Regions membership card
Source: Wikipedia

“Everyone should have their own Zelenskyy!” my interlocutors joke as they talk through the “political technologies” being used in their constituencies. I’m talking to Konstantin Reyutsky, Ivetta Kuzmina and Yevhenii Vasyliev, who are running as candidates in Luhansk in this Sunday’s parliamentary elections. In all three constituencies in the eastern region where they are standing, these activists - who are members of Vostok-SOS, an NGO working in eastern Ukraine - are competing with namesakes of Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was elected in April with a record number of votes.

In Konstantin Reyutsky’s constituency, for example, there are two candidates with the surname Zelenskyy, as well as two Kurilos, two Lukashevs and three Struks. Each of these surnames belongs to a regional politician, and each one has at least one “double” candidate competing against him.

This is a normal practice in Ukraine, the war in the east hasn’t brought any new political strategies. Double candidates are used to draw votes away from potential poll leaders, although in some cases they do the reverse and help promote the real candidate, taking all the “dirty work” on themselves and then withdrawing their candidacy.

But what’s notable in Donetsk and Luhansk regions is how hard former politicians from the now defunct Party of Regions – once the most powerful political force in Ukraine - are fighting one another. Indeed, since this year’s presidential election, there’s increased talk of a “revanche” - the return of political forces cast out by the EuroMaidan revolution.

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Tried and tested tricks

Elections will be held in 18 out of 33 constituencies in Donetsk and Luhansk regions – the remaining constituencies are all on the other side of the front line. This electoral campaign is unscheduled, and only people with substantial financial and “administrative” resources can afford to start campaigning in advance.

Indeed, Ukraine’s parliamentary elections were supposed to take place in October. But Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who lacks representation in parliament - and wants to score as many seats before his popularity starts to wane, dismissed parliament at the end of May. This left candidates with only two months to prepare, which meant throwing more money and administrative resources at their campaigns, as well as resorting to creative measures and/or particularly effective (although questionable) tactics.

Before 2014, no party - apart from the Party of Regions - had strong representation in Ukraine’s two most eastern regions

In Luhansk and some parts of Donetsk regions, constituencies are rich in both double candidates and candidates who exist only on paper - the latter are mostly independent, self-nominated. For these “technical” candidates, the election is a means of making money. For some, it boils down to registering their candidacy on someone else’s behalf; for others, it’s the fact that they can withdraw their candidacy ahead of the election.

These candidates include students, unemployed villagers, low-level clerks and unknown businesspeople from the other end of the country. For instance, a 24-year-old candidate from Kyiv is running in one Luhansk constituency. She has offered no information about herself in any open source, apart from the fact that there are 18 companies registered in her name. Potential candidates have to pay almost 42,000 hryvnya (£1,300) as a security deposit. This is quite a large sum in Ukraine, so it’s clear that it wasn’t a Kyiv schoolteacher, nurse or cleaner – all real candidates in Donetsk constituencies – who paid this cash. Candidates like these, of course, aren’t running campaigns, but formally they may have representatives in local electoral commissions.

What’s notable here, though, is the fact that the electoral battle in Donetsk and Luhansk regions is being fought by former members of the Party of Regions. And Luhansk human rights activists Konstantin Reyutsky, Ivetta Kuzmina and Yevhenii Vasyliev have gone to the polls to try and stop the “Regionals” from winning their constituencies.

Our land, our region

Since 2014, one key political party has been active in all elections in Donbas - Our Land (Nash krai). This political project positioned itself as a “party of mayors”, with many prominent representatives of the Party of Regions in local councils joining it. But after some time it became clear that Our Land was being run by Petro Poroshenko’s presidential administration.

Before 2014, no party - apart from the Party of Regions - had strong representation in Ukraine’s two most eastern regions. The “Regionals” came to be known informally as the “people from Donetsk”, since even when the party’s head Viktor Yanukovych was prime minister and president of Ukraine, the Party of Regions’ base remained Donetsk.

Viktor Yanukovych
(c) Yaghobzadeh Rafael/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

When Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014, and the demoralised Party of Regions collapsed, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were left without any organised force that could influence local politics. President Petro Poroshenko’s team quickly grasped the situation and practically brought the region under its control via local enforcers. Some of these politicians had been discredited, for example, by their participation in the events of the 2014 “Russian Spring” in Donbas, but were compliant enough, and were evidently forced to cooperate via threats of prison time.

In Donetsk region, the Our Land party was “curated” and overseen by MP Oleh Nedava, and in Luhansk this job fell to MP Serhii Shakhov. (Konstantin Reyutsky recognises the use of double candidates as a traditional campaign move of Shakhov.) Like any prominent businessman or politician in the region, both Nedava and Shakhov were in the orbit of the Party of Regions, but they were neither influential nor particularly public. Their time came after 2014.

The fall of the House of Donetsk

Meanwhile, the most prominent former “Regionals” formed several separate political parties and parliamentary groupings. Most of them, including Our Land, adopted the Party of Region’s white-and-blue branding in an obvious claim to the party’s electoral heritage.

None of these projects, however, could aspire to the political weight that the Party of Regions had enjoyed even during its worst years. First, because the lion’s share of the Party of Regions’ electorate no longer votes in Ukrainian elections - the more than three million residents living in districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions outside of Ukrainian control, as well as the more than two million people living in Crimea. But also because of the collapse of the Party of Regions, which led to the fragmentation of the “White-and-Blue” electorate.

The “two equally respected families” that had made up the Party of Regions - a group that controls Ukraine’s gas industry on the one hand, and the heavy industry group based out of Donetsk on the other - had been fighting one another well before the events of 2014. But eventually they managed to unite in order to form a parliamentary group (“Opposition Bloc”) in 2014. They couldn’t, however, agree on a joint candidate for the presidency, and the Party of Regions’ wing linked to Ukraine’s gas industry decided to go it alone.

Led by Serhii Levochkin, a former head of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential administration, and Yury Boyko, ex-Minister for Fuel and Energy, this grouping teamed up with close Kremlin ally Viktor Medvedchuk. They called themselves “Opposition Platform – For Life” and put Yury Boyko forward as presidential candidate.

The final public break-up between the two wings of the party came about because the Donetsk group didn’t want to support Boyko. For a while there was talk of an alternative in the form of the quite charismatic Boris Kolesnikov, but Kolesnikov felt uncomfortable in the spotlight. He rejected the offer.

Boris Kolesnikov
Source: kolesnikovfund.org

The notional grouping around Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, also proposed, among other things, the candidacy of Vadim Boychenko, the mayor of frontline Mariupol located on the shore of the Sea of Azov. Akhmetov is currently trying to develop Mariupol as his new home territory, a replacement for Donetsk. Eventually Opposition Bloc put MP Oleksandr Vilkul, a man with ties to Akhmetov’s businesses, forward as a presidential candidate in the 2019 presidential election – and lost.

Commenting on the friction with Levochkin and Boyko, Kolesnikov glowed with certainty that Opposition Bloc’s popularity was strictly down to Akhmetov and the Donetsk group in general as the former chief sponsors of the Party of Regions. And that the Akhmetov group were capable of raising any protégé of theirs to the level of a national leader.

In the first round of the 2019 presidential election, however, it was Yury Boyko who won a majority in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Lacking in any charm whatsoever, Oleksandr Vilkul couldn’t failed to take a lead in a single constituency, even on his home turf of Krivyi Rih (also the birthplace of Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself). His rival “White-and-Blue” candidates beat him almost everywhere.

Yuri Boyko
Source: boyko.org.ua

The Kremlin openly supported Boyko, who came to have three TV channels linked to Opposition Platform – For Life at his disposal (Inter, 112 and NewsOne). Akhmetov’s media holdings facing this heavy media machine looked like a mouse in front of an elephant.

The lifesaver

Now, just a few days before Ukraine’s snap parliamentary election, Boyko, Levochkin and Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform – For Life is in second place in the ratings, after Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party. Kolesnikov and Akhmetov’s Opposition Bloc hasn’t even been able to attract the five percent electoral threshold.

This is why prominent representatives of Opposition Bloc, including Boris Kolesnikov and Vadim Novinsky, Akhmetov’s close associate and business partner, are running in first-past-the-post constituencies in the Donetsk region.

Most of the “White-and-Blue” candidates have a similar political agenda, handed down to them from the Party of Regions: peace with Russia, official status for the Russian language and a strengthening of the regions in relation to the central state

The Party of Regions has been through hard times before. In the winter of 2004-2005, Viktor Yanukovych, having humiliatingly lost a presidential election, lost his well known associates one by one as they denounced their now toxic “leader” in public. By 2006, however, the Donetsk group succeeded in re-mobilising and won a parliamentary election, bringing Yanukovych a second prime ministerial term.

It’s unlikely that anyone back then could have imagined what awaits the Party of Regions in 2019. Even in Donetsk and Luhansk, Opposition Bloc chose not to put its prime candidates forward in all constituencies. Where its candidates are taking part in the election, they are having to compete with Opposition Platform – For Life candidates and independent ex-Regional candidates, including Our Land. Many Opposition Platform candidates are also little-known figures parachuted in from other regions - they can compete with the Donetsk group candidates in terms of money, but certainly not in terms of personal recognition or administrative resources.

Our Land officially fielded a candidate in only one first-past-the-post constituency in two regions - after the departure of President Petro Poroshenko, the project more or less went into hibernation.

There are still many candidates running in first-past-the-post constituencies who are designated as members of one party or another, although they are in fact self-nominated. The largest category consists of other barely known residents of other regions, “representatives” of the Opposition Platform – For Life. There are also a few candidates from the newly registered civic organisations calling themselves Servant of the People after Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party.

Luhansk region has a particularly large number of Our Land members as candidates, but most of them belong to the Serhii Shakhov faction and many of them work for his organisation. There are still local Our Land branches around and they are conspicuous in their pre-election activity on behalf of Shakhov’s people.

Most of the “White-and-Blue” candidates have a similar political agenda, handed down to them from the Party of Regions: peace with Russia, official status for the Russian language and a strengthening of the regions in relation to the central state.

The revenge

All this inspires hope for young candidates running in first-past-the-post constituencies. According to Konstantin Reyutsky, in constituencies where Vostok-SOS candidates are running, the main fight is between former members of the Party of Regions.

For Reyutsky, Kuzmina and Vasilyev, who had to crowd-fund to raise money for their campaign, it’s not a question of winning the elections, but of being able at least to stir things up against the most odious “white-and-blue” candidates who have more cash and admin resources. In this case, Reyutsky is particularly working against the candidacy of Vladimir Struk.

Screen Shot 2019-07-13 at 22.47.14.png
Vladimir Struk, 2014
Source: YouTube

“Struk is a clear representative of the ‘revanche’,” Reyutsky says. “He’s a throw-back to the 1990s, a petty criminal and friend of Valery Dobroslavsky, a Luhansk’s criminal ‘authority’. When he made his business legal and went into local politics, he became a local council member and then mayor of a village outside Luhansk, where he consolidated his position.”

Reyutsky recalls how, in 2012, Struk “entered big politics by joining the group around Alexander Efremov [former Luhansk governor and Party of Regions’ parliamentary leader].

“As the new guy, Struk had to do the dirtiest work, including during Euromaidan, where he organised attacks on demonstrations and harassed activists. All this logically led to the organisation and arming of ‘militia’ squads, and now he’s shamelessly standing for parliament on the slogan ‘For Peace’, which is particularly cynical.”

Initially it was Opposition Platform – For Life that planned to field Struk as a candidate, but, possibly because of his ambiguous reputation, the party went for Alexander Lukashev instead. This candidate’s “double”, reportedly his father Anatoly, withdrew from the candidates’ list on 9 July. The two Lukashevs were born 23 years apart in the same city and both work as legal personnel at the Serhii Shakhov Foundation.

This is not the only confirmation of the existence of an electoral alliance between Serhii Shakhov and Opposition Platform in Luhansk. In the home constituency of the candidate aiming to become the new Luhansk regional “boss”, Opposition Platform has not only no candidates, but no members or even representatives – and neither, admittedly has their rival Opposition Bloc faction. At the same time, Serhii Shakhov hasn’t fielded a genuine candidate in the constituency where the Opposition Platform’s candidate is Serhii Medvedchuk, whose brother is Viktor Medvedchuk. There are, however, at least four paper candidates who are directly or indirectly linked to Shakhov and who will probably support Medvedchuk in organising and running his campaign.

According to Konstantin Reyutsky, Shakhov supports not only his “own” candidates but is also campaigning for the Boyko-Medvedchuk-Levochkin faction.

The entertainers

Luhansk’s Constituency No. 105 is a first-past-the-post anomaly, as is No.51 in Donetsk. These frontline areas have the fewest voters and voting stations in the region. In the Luhansk region town of Schastye and its neighbouring villages, where Serhii Medvedchuk is standing, there are fewer than 10,000 voters and six voting stations. And in Zaitsevo, where there are only two voting stations and under 3,000 voters, a whole galaxy of former Party of Regions politicians (although not very prominent ones) are registered.

This makes sense: the fewer the voters, the cheaper the campaign and the easier the victory. Schastye, however, has 33 notional candidates standing, and in Zaitsevo, 26. No other constituency in the region has such a mass battle for votes.

Source: Brian Milakovsky

An even tougher fight, however, is taking place in Severodonetsk, the new administrative centre of Luhansk. Here, a post-war split between local “Regionals” was obvious much sooner than in Kyiv. This town has been practically without leadership ever since the 2015 local elections. Its council membership is in a continual state of flux, as one group of members, mostly from Opposition Bloc, deposes the elected mayor (supported by Serhii Shakhov), fires his deputies and appoints his own people until the mayor goes to court to regain his post - but doesn’t treat his opponents in the same way. And so it continues.

Observers from the Opora civil network, which is monitoring the electoral process, have recorded illegal electoral agitation involving Serhii Shakhov and the Our Land party, not to mention the “battle of the doubles” even before the official start of the election campaign.

There is also an odd situation developing in Slovyansk, a city in Donetsk region where part of the Opposition Bloc faction of the city council recently announced the formation of an Opposition Platform – For Life deputies’ group. This decision was taken, they explained, because they couldn’t support the Opposition Bloc candidate, current Slovyansk mayor Vadim Lyakh, who “worked for Petro Poroshenko during the presidential election and helped him falsify results in Donetsk region”. This group is led by Pavel Pridvorov, a confident of Yury Solod, the Opposition Platform leader in the constituency. Nelya Shtepa, the former mayor of the city, is also a Solod supporter (although she, one of the Donetsk region’s two mayors, is at present on trial for supporting the “Russian Spring”).

Another electoral candidate in Slovyansk is a certain Ivan Shtepa, likely a former employee of companies owned by Rinat Akhmetov and Boris Kolesnikov. And yet another is Oleh Nedava from Our Land, who until recently seemed to be the all-powerful MP for the area.

To be continued

Back in the early 2010s, the Party of Regions would quietly win elections with ease. But now the winner has to be the “strongest” of the candidates battling for the favour of its former voters. The question of what difference that will make to the electorate has never arisen. Many people in the region are still ready to give their votes to “their” familiar “White-and-Blues” out of pure inertia.

The Party of Regions immortalised itself by passing a regional language law in favour of Russian, and the attempt to rescind it in early 2014 was the first trigger for mass demonstrations in the east of the country, where Russian had become an official regional language in 2012. On the other hand, it was the Party of Regions that blocked decentralisation reforms for years (now it is campaigning for it). Decentralisation reform only began in late 2014.

In the end, the most controversial promises the “White-and-Blues” have made – an end to the war and peace with Russia – are little dependent on the will of the Ukrainian parliament and government, so long as the full implementation of the unpopular Minsk Protocol, on which Russia insists, has not taken place. This version of “peace” is more likely to be a guarantee of all-out war.

The worst that Ukraine can expect is a coalition of Opposition Bloc, Opposition Platform – For Life and their potential satellites in parliament, all for the sake of fulfilling their pre-election promises.

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