Migration and mimicry:
Party building in Donetsk Oblast
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-
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
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