Mi­gra­tion and mimicry:

Party build­ing in Donetsk Oblast

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Ye­lyza­veta Hon­charova, Bakhmut

How much par­ties in Donetsk Oblast changed af­ter the Maidan

The shock of the war in the Don­bas should have be­come the point of no re­turn, the mo­ment when the old elites in­volved in un­leash­ing the con­flict are fi­nally re­moved from power. Un­for­tu­nately, there has been no re­newal with pro-Ukrainian par­ties gain­ing more and more in­flu­ence. Some par­ties are do­ing quite well there, but these are not the ones that rep­re­sent Ukrainian in­ter­ests in the Don­bas.

The po­lit­i­cal life of Donetsk Oblast, like in the rest of Ukraine, is de­ter­mined by the elec­tion cy­cle. It is bustling when elec­tions are around the cor­ner, and very quiet dur­ing the off-sea­son. Find­ing real po­lit­i­cal projects in front-line cities, where elec­tions have not been held for quite a while, is even harder.

Un­ex­pect­edly (though not for sea­soned ac­tivists), the above does not ap­ply to rad­i­cal par­ties that have found a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of sup­port­ers dur­ing the war: they have a clear ide­ol­ogy, which is in high de­mand in Don­bas. This ide­ol­ogy is eas­ily un­der­stand­able and close to the hearts of the Ukrainian pa­tri­ots of Don­bas. Es­pe­cially to those who tol­er­ated no com­pro­mise with the Party of Re­gions. Branches of Svo­boda or the Right Sec­tor, which were a buga­boo for the res­i­dents of East­ern Ukraine be­fore the war, can now be found in al­most every lo­cal­ity of the lib­er­ated Don­bas. They are house­hold names, and peo­ple are aware of their ac­tiv­i­ties. Same as any­where else, these cells are some­times run by odd peo­ple look­ing for profit, and some­times by sea­soned pa­tri­ots who never be­trayed their prin­ci­ples, even in the worst times of the oc­cu­pa­tion. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the new wartime gen­er­a­tion can also be found. One is Artem Popik, head of Svo­boda in Kostyan­tynivka, who was cap­tured by the sep­a­ratists at the be­gin­ning of the hos­til­i­ties for his po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion and joined the military ser­vice once re­leased. How­ever, it is ob­vi­ous that the rad­i­cal par­ties are not likely to gain a large voter base de­spite all their ac­tiv­i­ties, whether real or hyped. This is prob­a­bly true not only for Don­bas.

"The lead­ers of Arseniy Yat­se­niuk’s Nar­o­d­nyi Front, the Peo­ple's Front, de­cided not to run in lo­cal elec­tion. In this way, the only rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our party in Don­bas is the head of its re­gional branch, MP Kon­s­tiantyn Mat­ey­chenko. How­ever, we are plan­ning to set up voter re­cep­tion of­fices and step up our ac­tiv­i­ties," Vik­tor Buslov, Peo­ple's Front rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Bakhmut, com­mented when I tried to lo­cate the party's lo­cal of­fice at the ad­dresses listed on the Verkhovna Rada web­site. Another rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the par­ties in power, the Op­po­si­tion Bloc’s Ser­hiy Kluyev, is nowhere to be seen around. So the lo­cals come with their prob­lems to the only MP avail­able in their town. Ear­lier, many lo­cal pro-Ukrainian ac­tivists joined the Peo­ple’s Front in Donetsk Oblast. But Mat­ey­chenko’s work re­mains the most vis­i­ble here so far. In fact, bill­boards with greet­ings from Mat­ey­chenko, for­mer com­man­der of a bat­tal­ion, re­cently popped up in Bakhmut. Ap­par­ently, the plans to step up ac­tiv­i­ties lo­cally are turn­ing into re­al­ity.

Sim­i­larly bleak is the po­si­tion of Samopomich. Ini­tially, the party cam­paigned ag­gres­sively to en­list lo­cal vol­un­teers and com­mu­nity lead­ers. Many of those who were in­spired by their ideas have now joined other par­ties or re­turned to com­mu­nity ac­tivism. Two Samopomich rep­re­sen­ta­tives work in Slovyansk city coun­cil. The party of­fices can be found in sev­eral cities, which could sig­nal that it is also look­ing to be­come an in­flu­en­tial player. How­ever, these are just the first steps, when Samopomich and the vot­ers are get­ting to know each other.

Olek­sandr Me­lanchenko, for­mer Head of For­eign Pol­icy De­part­ment at Donetsk Oblast State Ad­min­is­tra­tion, thinks that the over­all trend is dis­ap­point­ing: east­ern re­gions have seen mi­gra­tion of elites, not the nec­es­sary re­gen­er­a­tion. He thinks that the Head of the Oblast State Ad­min­is­tra­tion did not take the op­por­tu­nity to form a new gov­ern­ment in Donetsk Oblast. In­stead of demon­strat­ing a clear pro-Ukrainian stand, he fol­lowed the lo­cal tra­di­tion and took the role of an apo­lit­i­cal strong­man. Lo­cal ac­tivists who an­swered his call and sub­mit­ted their CVs for posts in the gov­ern­ment bod­ies never got a re­ply. The old cadres re­mained in power. The only dif­fer­ence is that they are now trend­ing em­broi­dered shirts for pub­lic ap­pear­ances. For many, this was an in­di­ca­tor that the changes are not to be ex­pected.

"I am very frus­trated with the fact that Donetsk ac­tivists who demon­strated their best qual­i­ties dur­ing the war do not want to come to power. This would be a pow­er­ful drive for change: they are mo­ti­vated, pa­tri­otic, and ex­pe­ri­enced, many of them have or­ga­nized as­sis­tance to the army or the IDPs with­out any help from the gov­ern­ment. Un­for­tu­nately, the trend is quite the op­po­site. They do not buy it. Some limit them­selves with commu-


nity work, hop­ing to be able to con­trol the cor­rupt of­fi­cials. How­ever, those have been and will be steal­ing, es­pe­cially to­day, when ProZorro (elec­tronic state pro­cure­ment sys­tem – Ed.) al­lows for steal­ing hon­estly: you can buy mops at UAH 2,000 each or pro­cure air bal­loons for the In­de­pen­dence Day (cel­e­brated on Au­gust 24 – Ed.) in Septem­ber. All this can be done trans­par­ently and ev­ery­one can see where the money goes. Others turn up their noses: pol­i­tics is dirty, join­ing the au­thor­i­ties means los­ing your good name, and for the or­di­nary mid­dle class rep­re­sen­ta­tives it took years to earn that name. There are others who say that there are no true pa­tri­ots in the oblast and they need to be im­ported from else­where."

Me­lanchenko be­lieves that to­day vot­ers choose between per­son­al­i­ties, not ide­olo­gies. Tra­di­tional, fa­mil­iar per­son­al­i­ties of Don­bas Oblast are in high de­mand and hunted by par­ties with var­i­ous ide­olo­gies. A po­lit­i­cal party comes to a city's main em­ployer and en­lists its man­age­ment in its ranks. The em­ploy­ees are in­formed that they are now loyal to this or that party. "Don't for­get, this one, not that one!" That guar­an­tees vic­tory to the party. Just two years ago, they all be­longed to one spe­cific party.

Sim­i­lar schemes were tested re­cently dur­ing the elec­tions in the newly es­tab­lished com­mu­ni­ties of Myko­layivka (near Slovyansk) and Soledar (near Bakhmut). There­fore, no one is sur­prised that the Pres­i­dent's Sol­i­dar­nist, which just a year ago in the same Myko­layivka failed to reach the 5% thresh­old, now won over 40% of votes. How­ever, the ac­tivists say that this was the first elec­tion held hon­estly, where the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of one old nest had to com­pete with one another. Lo­cal mem­bers of the for­mer po­lit­i­cal mo­nop­oly, the Party of Re­gions, can now be found in three po­lit­i­cal forces: Petro Poroshenko Bloc, Op­po­si­tion Bloc, and Nash Kray. PR de­fec­tors are vis­i­ble to­day in every in­flu­en­tial po­lit­i­cal force in Don­bas. There­fore, no vote counts or elec­toral vic­to­ries should be at­trib­uted to any party's achieve­ments: they were ac­quired in a pack­age deal along with the "po­lit­i­cal mi­grants."

How­ever, there are also those who took the risk of go­ing into pol­i­tics with the par­ties that are new to Don­bas. Oleh Zon­tov, head of Slovyansk af­ter its lib­er­a­tion and al­most the only pa­triot at that time, a City Coun­cil mem­ber, gave up his post to Vadym Lyakh, for­mer head of the youth wing of the Party of Re­gions, af­ter the elec­tion. To­day Zon­tov is Deputy Chair­man of the Oblast Ci­ti­zens' Coun­cil at the Donetsk Oblast State Ad­min­is­tra­tion. He also left PPB, although he was one of the first to sup­port this pro-Ukrainian party.

"The rul­ing party was au­to­mat­i­cally re­garded as pro-Ukrainian. Many peo­ple be­lieved in it, be­cause this is how it should be,” he re­calls. “How­ever, to­day Sol­i­dar­nist in gen­eral and its Slovyansk branch in par­tic­u­lar have many mem­bers, with whom I don't want to have any­thing in com­mon. In other cities no elec­tions have taken place be­cause they are too close to the front­line. As a re­sult, the old elites do not rush to present them­selves as new par­ties. As many of them are on the hook for in­volve­ment in the or­ga­ni­za­tion of sep­a­ratist ref­er­enda, they are easy to con­trol. There­fore, there will be no change so far," Zon­tov said.

Stanislav Ch­er­nohor from Com­mu­nity Devel­op­ment Fund NGO does see some new faces in the pol­i­tics of his home city Kram­a­torsk, but these ac­count for no more than 20%. These peo­ple fol­low prin­ci­ples and have joined pol­i­tics in or­der to bring about change to Don­bas. Sol­i­dar­nist rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the lo­cal coun­cil are de­cent peo­ple. Nev­er­the­less, Ch­er­nohor be­lieves that there should be much more of such peo­ple: "To­day we have just an il­lu­sion of party di­ver­sity. No mat­ter for whom you vote, this will still be some rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Party of Re­gions un­der the ban­ner of one or another po­lit­i­cal force. We wasted time, when we didn’t get rid of red di­rec­tors and old sys­tem rep­re­sen­ta­tives af­ter the Or­ange Rev­o­lu­tion, and didn't nur­ture new elites. When the state lead­er­ship, in­clud­ing the postOrange Rev­o­lu­tion pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yushchenko, failed to do this, they laid ground for the cur­rent war. To­day this trend con­tin­ues. For ex­am­ple, Maksym Ye­fi­mov, MP from Kram­a­torsk and a mem­ber of Petro Poroshenko Bloc, is the for­mer mem­ber of the Party of Re­gions and has al­ready joined the board of trus­tees of Nash Kray, an off­spring of the Party of Re­gions, in Kram­a­torsk. Dozens of po­lit­i­cal mi­grants have changed five or six par­ties and are pre­par­ing for new elec­tions. Is this about ide­ol­ogy or be­liefs, or merely about noth­ing per­sonal, just busi­ness? I see no point in join­ing pol­i­tics now, be­fore a crit­i­cal mass is shaped and the will for change pre­vails. The cur­rent sys­tem re­jects out­siders.”

Re­mark­ably, the old sys­tem is work­ing pro­fes­sion­ally even in the new en­vi­ron­ment. A net­work of cronies is in­volved in var­i­ous par­ties that cater to vot­ers rang­ing from pi­o­neers to pen­sion­ers. They tra­di­tion­ally cover the res­i­dents of cities and towns in Donetsk Oblast. Break­ing this vi­cious cir­cle is up to those who is will­ing to be­come the crit­i­cal mass. Wait­ing for the po­lit­i­cal will from above can take a long time, un­til the next Maidan or the next war.

A stan­dard way in pol­i­tics. Maksym Ye­fi­mov, an ex-Party of Re­gions mem­ber, ran as part of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc in Kram­a­torks, East­ern Ukraine, and ended up with a seat in Par­lia­ment thanks to that

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