Revenge of the Oligarchs

Last Sunday’s local election was Ukraine’s first chance to show that things have changed. But it looks like the moguls still rule.

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Ordinarily, the election of a new mayor in Miami or Scranton or Salzburg is of no concern to the international community. But Sunday’s local elections in Ukraine marked the first time since the 2013-14 Euromaidan uprising (which deposed former president Viktor Yanukovych and brought about a change in government) that Ukrainian citizens have been able to vote to change their local leadership. (In May 2014, some localities did have local elections; the victors of those elections had to stand again on Sunday.)

The local elections were widely seen as a kind of referendum on the leadership of pro-European President Petro Poroshenko, who has faced the monumental task of restructuring Ukraine in line with the inflated hopes of the Euromaidan protesters and their supporters. The reforms promised by his eponymous party, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, and its allies in the parliament, have been slow in coming. Many suspected that his party would lose significant support. But, in fact, they did reasonably well throughout the country, with only a slight decline of their vote count compared to their total in last year’s election. Official results are not yet available for most races, but the president’s allies also appear set to hold onto key positions like the mayoralty of Kiev, the country’s capital.

It seems that Ukrainians have chosen to place most of the blame for the slow pace of reforms on Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Polling numbers for his National Front party were so low that it chose to not even field local candidates, rather than risk the prime minister’s position. A trouncing at the polls could have meant a move in parliament to remove Yatsenyuk and replace him with someone from a more popular party.

So, on the whole, Ukrainians seem willing to give their president more time to act. Commentators’ worst fears — that the slow pace of reforms would turn people against the revolution, perhaps even in a more Russian direction — proved largely unfounded. But there are other indications that not all is well.

Yes, voter turnout was relatively high by western standards, averaging 46.6 percent across Ukraine — far higher than the turnout for most American local elections, which hovers in the low twenties. But it was the lowest turnout in the history of independent Ukraine, a worrisome indicator that this nation that has recently gone through a small-scale political revolution may be slowly growing jaded with its new leaders, the slow pace of reforms, and, more importantly, the stagnation of the political process.

In reality, the Maidan movement has made little impact on local administrations, the level of politics that affects a Ukrainian citizen’s daily life the most. Certainly, there has been an influx of new, younger candidates and a flowering of civic activity, but in most cases, the status quo — in which local political positions are considered the personal fiefdoms of oligarchs or political bosses — remains. That status quo was only reinforced by Sunday’s elections, which far were uglier than the 2014 elections for parliament or president.

Oligarchs like Ihor Kolomoisky and Rinat Akhmetov still maintain outsize influence in the political world; their massive, ill-gotten gains allow them to sponsor two or three seemingly antithetical political parties at a time. One only needs to contrast Kolomoisky’s patriotic-themed, pro-Ukrainian Ukrop Party with one of his other rumored projects, the Renaissance Party, which is seemingly pro-Russian. For his part, Mr. Akhmetov supports the Opposition Bloc, which consists largely of alumni of Yanukovych’s old political party, and is thus widely viewed as responsible for the deaths of Euromaidan protesters in early 2014.

The two faced off in the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, where Sunday’s mayoral voting narrowed the field down to two candidates. Borys Filatov of the Ukrop Party is backed by Kolomoisky; the other candidate, Oleksandr Vilkul, is considered a kind of protégé of Akhmetov. A run-off race between the two is set to take place on November 15 and, in the interim, the politicking is sure to be fierce. It has already been reported that President Poroshenko, an oligarch in his own right, has chosen to support Vilkul, a symbol of the old regime, simply to spite Kolomoisky.

Smaller-scale competition between entrenched interests and pro-reform groups in the port city of Odessa resulted in huge numbers of election violations, including allegations that some voters were instructed how to vote, and may have received payment. Lawsuits are set to be filed over the city’s mayoral race results. Russian-American journalist Vladislav Davidzon, who observed the election, said: “Every sort of violation was seen, short of the election being stolen outright. It was the worst election in a long time.”

In the city of Mariupol, which lies not far from the front line with Russian-backed separatist fighters, the involvement of Rinat Akhmetov ended up scuttling the entire election. Activists found out that the ballots were set to be printed by a print shop owned by him and intervened to have the voting halted, citing concerns about falsification and the spoilage of ballots. Similar circumstances in least two other cities in the region caused them to postpone their votes as well. Dates for the make-up election have not yet been set.

All in all, Sunday’s elections felt rather like a return to older, wilder, less democratic days. While many regions were free of the kinds of electoral violations that were rampant in Odessa, the larger trend is discouraging.

Ukraine’s politicians have adjusted their tactics for a polity that has declared its desire to become more European but is still unsure how to get there. The scenery has changed, but many of the old characters and their rapacious charms still remain. Poroshenko seems to have bought himself some time to make the changes that Ukrainians are demanding, but his window of opportunity is rapidly closing. The scions of the old system are circling the wagons.

In the photo, a Ukrainian soldier votes in the village of Kovyari in the Lviv region on October 25, 2015.

Photo credit: YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/Getty Images

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