Among the many scandals that coloured Ukraine’s nationwide local elections last month, one in particular stood out. In Slovyansk, where the pro-Russian insurgency first erupted in April 2014, the mayoral candidate from the controversial Opposition Bloc political party plastered the city with campaign posters promising to ‘love Slovyansk like Nelya!’
The billboards sparked a frenzy in the Ukrainian media: ‘Nelya’ refers to Nelya Shtepa, Slovyansk’s former mayor who is currently standing trial in Kharkiv for allegedly aiding and abetting the insurgents after they seized the city last year. This slogan thus drew fire from those who see Shtepa as a collaborator and Opposition Bloc, which is made up of former Yanukovych allies, as little more than a fifth column.
But what non-locals didn’t realise, according to Vadim Lyakh, the man behind the campaign, was that Shtepa was genuinely well-liked in Slovyansk before the crisis. Shtepa’s tenure was marked by significant public spending—thanks largely to cash from Kyiv meant to boost former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s son into parliament on a local ticket— and residents saw her as an effective manager.
‘In reality,’ said Lyakh of his provocative campaign slogans, ‘people knew what we meant.’
A year and a half after Slovyansk (Slavyansk in Russian) was liberated from Moscow-backed rebels, the town hasn’t escaped social and economic malaise.
Separatist instincts are still prevalent among a minority, local observers say. But there are also few illusions about life under the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic: locals experienced their chaotic rule firsthand last year. Anyone who has relatives in rebel-held territory knows life there is grim, with essential goods either inaccessible or more expensive. Voters in Slovyansk headed at the polls on 25 October, where they elected new municipal officials.At the same time, critics say, the Ukrainian government hasn’t yet proven itself to the population here, a fact that has kept local discontent simmering. In and around Slovyansk, homes destroyed by shelling more than 16 months ago have not been rebuilt. Predictably, Kyiv’s campaign against communist symbols (‘decommunisation’) has rubbed many the wrong way.
Meanwhile, the economic outlook, traditionally people’s first concern, is still far from rosy. ‘Today,’ says Leonid Vasilchuk, head of a local veterans’ organisation, as he laments the decay of local industry, ‘it’s not completely clear what they have in store for our Donbas.’ Such basic social and economic concerns have played into the hands of the oft-maligned Opposition Bloc, which promises peace in Donbas and economic stability over the more ideological issues upon which other Ukrainian political parties often seize.
In April 2014, the rebel Donbas People’s Militia captured Slovyansk under the command of Igor Strelkov-Girkin. A repeat of those events seems all but impossible now. But while Slovyansk may not have been lost, it hasn’t quite been won.
Voter turnout during local elections last month hovered around a dismal 28 per cent, indicating a fairly typical disinterest in the political process. Second, those who did come out—mostly the middle-aged and elderly—handed a significant victory to the Opposition Bloc. Many regard the party as the new but not-so-improved former ruling Party of Regions. Lyakh was elected mayor in the first round, and his party will control roughly half the city council.
The Opposition Bloc has faced significant criticism for its perceived status as a mere reincarnation of disgraced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s party machine. In contrast to the upstart progressives at the Samopomich (Self Reliance) political party, for example, with its base in western Ukraine, experts say the Opposition Bloc consists largely of a network of local bosses with deep roots in the industrialised but economically depressed Donbas.
Vadim Lyakh, the newly-elected mayor of Slovyansk, represents the controversial Opposition Bloc.
Given the nature of regional politics in Ukraine, it’s still largely the local boys who attract support here, especially in the absence of a popular central government.
A former city councilman, Lyakh says he is keenly aware of the issues that drive his constituents to the polls.
He admits that a major motivating factor is local displeasure with the ruling coalition in Kyiv—that is, a protest vote. But effective city management is also important, such as improving the water supply system, or rebuilding homes damaged during the war.
The latter has been a significant bone of contention. According to Lyakh, around 120 private buildings in the city were totally destroyed, along with several hundred that have been at least partially damaged.
He says Kyiv has largely failed to provide the money to tackle the problem, a fact which contributes to what he claims is a feeling among locals that they are being purposely neglected.
‘We know that every year, when flooding strikes Transcarpathia [in western Ukraine], thousands of homes that were washed away qualify for a reconstruction program,’ he tells me.
‘My parents live in Transcarpathia, and I can see how the program works there, in a non-war zone, where there were never any problems with separatism.’
Dreams of decentralisation
As with many cash-strapped regions in Ukraine, there’s no shortage of local complaints with the central government, many of which often focus on its perceived inaction or corruption.
This may be where Kyiv’s current efforts at decentralisation, which is meant to devolve more power to towns, cities and regions, could come in. Ideally, the reform would potentially provide a sense of ownership to the local population over their own affairs. A greater degree of self-rule might prove especially valuable in eastern Ukraine, where local grievances during last year’s uprising—certainly fueled by Russia’s Kremlin-friendly media—were based on Kyiv’s alleged ignorance toward the Russian-speaking population there.
However, the primary vision for decentralisation in Ukraine is dependent on policymakers in Kyiv, and there are still plenty of questions as to how it will eventually be put into practice or financed.
The remains of a home in the village of Semenivka, just outside Slovyansk, which was destroyed by shelling last year amid the conflict between Ukrainian troops and Moscow-backed rebels.In Slovyansk, local community leaders such as Vasilchuk, the veterans’ group head and a supporter of Opposition Bloc, say they’re not against the new reform, but that it hasn’t been explained to them in earnest. ‘When we talk about decentralisation, the vast majority of people can’t imagine what exactly it is,’ he comments. ‘Moreover, since the country has no money at the moment, it’s very unclear how they plan to distribute it and what it will be spent on.’
Nevertheless, a handful of local activists in the area are experimenting with other, non-political ways of fostering a sense of community. Youth-focused cultural centers such as Teplytsia in Slovyansk and Vilna Khata in neighboring Kramatorsk aim to expose the new post-Soviet generation to concepts such as self-organization and grassroots social activism. They sponsor everything from language lessons and master classes to Ukraine-wide exchange programs, with an overarching theme of self-development.
Both centres are still free-thinking islands in what some observers here say is a sea of old habits. Anna Avdiyants, a Teplytsia staff member, says the centre has attracted a steady stream of young and curious visitors. Avdiyants adds that most here still harbour a sense of passivity when it comes to seizing the initiative and changing something about their communities on their own—be it politically, or just cleaning up the local neighborhood.
‘It seems to me that this is the mentality of our region,’ says Avdiyants. ‘Once every five years, we wait around for some guy to come and take care of everything for us.’
Long road ahead
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for optimism. Politically, there is now more diversity in the city government after last month’s local elections than ever before. Both President Petro Poroshenko’s party (Petro Poroshenko Bloc) and Samopomich managed to break the five-per-cent electoral barrier, elbowing their way onto a city council dominated for years by the Party of Regions. Given the poor turnout, that Samopomich was able to secure around 10 per cent of the vote was particularly noteworthy. What’s more, some experts say the growing prominence of the Opposition Bloc is less of a concern than its fiercest critics perceive, at least for now. Political observer Oleksandr Kliuzhev, an analyst with Ukrainian election monitoring group Opora, believes the Opposition Bloc and Poroshenko’s party—the single most dominant political force in Ukraine—are still capable of striking a bargain if it suits both their interests. ‘To say that it [Opposition Bloc] is an anti-system force at the moment... would be a major exaggeration,’ says Kliuzhev. Some locals complain that eastern Ukraine, a traditionally working-class region, is still misunderstood by Kyiv and other parts of the country. But still, Lyakh and others here often speak of a fundamental social misunderstanding between the Donbas—which is within close proximity to the war zone—and the rest of country.
During the months-long demonstrations on Kyiv’s Maidan, there was resentment from the east that protesters in the capital were ‘partying’ while Donbas was at work, keeping the economy humming.
Today, there’s a similar political talking point: Lyakh complains that the Opposition Bloc and its supporters are being demonised as alleged separatists for seeking peaceful dialogue over the conflict instead of outright victory. Kyiv, he says, lives in a different world that’s never experienced artillery strikes. ‘Here, like nowhere else, people want peace at any price,’ said Lyakh.
He also points to the ongoing decommunisation campaign—Slovyansk is currently renaming its Soviet-era streets—as a further sign that the central government, under ostensible pressure from the more patriotic elements of society, is stubbornly stoking tensions instead of mitigating them. While decommunisation needs to be conducted eventually, he says, now is not the time.
‘Instead of changing people’s roofs and windows, we’re changing street signs,’ observes Lyakh. ‘Is that moral or not?’
All photos courtesy of the author.