Next month, the city of Kryvyi Rih — one of Ukraine’s largest industrial centres — faces a new round of mayoral elections. These elections will be special, and not just because the last round were declared void due to falsifications. While the political battle over a fresh round of elections for this city has only just come to an end, this race has an important symbolic meaning: in a city vulnerable to oligarch control, can residents remove the local clan from power?
The last attempt ended in failure: the current mayor Yuri Vilkul, an influential former member of the Party of Regions, won a close victory in the second round of elections in November last year. These results have since been annulled: after evidence of falsification emerged, Ukraine’s parliament announced that fresh elections would take place on 27 March.
In a city vulnerable to oligarch control, can residents remove the local clan from power?
But that victory, however short-lived, wouldn’t have been possible without the tacit support of the presidential administration in Kyiv. And now it’s not only a question of removing the former municipal administration. What’s more pressing is the lack of a real alternative to the allegedly corrupt leadership of the city.
Iron ore capital
Kryvyi Rih doesn’t make it into national news in Ukraine that often. Until recently, the life of this 650,000-strong working city was oriented around mining and metallurgy, its demands and production cycles. This is hardly surprising: the city is situated within Ukraine’s largest iron ore field, the Kryvbas.
Built during the Soviet era, Kryvyi Rih’s iron ore mines and processing plants provide around a twelfth of Ukraine’s industrial production, and a half of the Dnipropetrovsk region as a whole. (These plants are so big, you can see them from space.) And over the past 25 years, they have acquired private owners.
Today, the majority of the city’s assets are controlled by two companies: Rinat Akhmetov’s SCM and Vadim Novinsky’s Smart-Holding. Indeed, the influence of Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, is thought to be strongest in the city. He owns three processing plants, a mining equipment factory and a nearby power plant, which supplies the city with power. Igor Kolomoisky and Evraz, a Russian company co-owned by Roman Abramovich, also own significant assets here. Kryvyi Rih in its industrial heyday: workers at the KrivoRozhStal metallurgical plant, 1984. Photo (c): Aleksandr Kostin / visual RIAN. All rights reserved.The congruence of capital and politics is nothing new in post-Soviet Ukraine, and the rise of Yuri Vilkul, a native of Kryvyi Rih, is illustrative. Prior to his election as mayor in 2010, Vilkul chaired the Dnipopetrovsk regional authority for five years. As pointed out by Kommersant-Ukraine in August 2006, this appointment happened fairly quickly: “Not a month has passed since Yuri Vilkul joined the Party of Regions before his fellow party members found him appropriate work — chairman of the Dnipropetrovsk regional authority.”
Indeed, Yuri Vilkul is connected to Rinat Akhmetov via his son Aleksandr Vikul, wgo began his career as a manager in Akhmetov’s companies before becoming a prominent functionary in the Party of Regions, the power base of Viktor Yanukovych. (He is now the honorary president of the mining division of Metinvest holding, which is part of Akhmetov’s SCM.)
After Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in 2010, Vilkul junior was appointed governor of Dnipropetrovsk region, and then took the role of vice prime minister in Ukraine’s government.
“You have to pay a bribe just to get a bed in the maternity hospital or a grave at the cemetery”
Local residents have built up a number of issues during the tenure of the Vilkul administration. Vilkul senior’s political opponents aren’t satisfied either, and have made unproven accusations of corruption, embezzling budgetary funds and monopolising sources of income in the city against him. These allegations concern road repair, public transport, private housing management companies and public utilities.
“It’s become absurd,” Yuri Samoilov, an independent trade union activist tells me. “Centralised corruption exists in places like maternity hospitals and cemeteries. You have to pay a bribe just to get a bed in the maternity hospital or a grave at the cemetery.”
Kryvyi Rih’s “Maidan”
Understandably, the events of February 2014 weakened the position of people close to Viktor Yanukovych. And as the Party of Regions, the former president’s power base, collapsed, a new party took it place. Opposition Bloc, which is close to Akhmetov, took 9.4 percent of the vote in the October 2014 parliamentary elections — three times less than the Regionnaires’ results in 2012.
While the Regionnaires were losing a significant portion of their influence in 2014, the Vilkuls maintained their positions both in Kryvyi Rih and inside the party hierarchy. Vilkul junior remains the second-in-command of Opposition Bloc’s parliamentary faction, and is the vice prime minister in the party’s “shadow cabinet”.
In Ukraine’s local elections last autumn, father and son both put their names forward for mayor as Opposition Bloc candidates — in Kryvyi Rih and Dnipropetrovsk, the regional capital. But while Vilkul junior lost a close (and dirty) race in Dnipropetrovsk to a businessman and politician close to Igor Kolomoisky’s team, the face-off in Kryvyi Rih was no less intense.
“Vilkul: a strong thief and a successful liar” reads this defaced campaign poster, November 2015. Video still: Irina Turkovska / YouTube.Vilkul senior’s main rival turned out to be Yuri Milobog, a 33-year-old former university lecturer and businessman from the party Samopomich. This party, set up by the mayor of L’viv Andriy Sadovyi, positions itself as a pro-European reform party, and is oriented towards Ukraine’s small and medium businesses. After the 2014 parliamentary elections, Samopomich became the third largest fraction in the Verkhovna Rada, where they confidently occupied the social conservative niche.
Vilkul’s core campaign message has been “traditional” by Opposition Bloc standards: “trust the technocrat”. Only Vilkul, a “reliable manager”, can protect Kryvyi Rih against the irresponsible “revolutionaries from Galicia”, the “chancers from out of town” who are putting stability at risk.
Part of Kryvyi Rih’s official media, including the Red Miner newspaper and a radio station, supported the current mayor in his campaign. Given the readership of these resources, this support has naturally contributed to the election results. While there are Internet outlets that provide balanced coverage of the campaign, unsurprisingly, the mayor’s opponents don’t have much of a chance getting their message across in local media. “Local journalists literally idolise the mayor,” Evgeny Pavlov, a journalist from Kryvyi Rih, tells me. “All of them write that the world will stop turning without Vilkul.”
Prior to the elections, Milobog was practically unknown in Kryvyi Rih. A former lecturer and now businessman, Milobog took 9.5 percent of the vote in the first round in late October, Vilkul – 40 percent.
This result got Milobog into the second round, and secured the local mobilisation of “Democratic forces”, an informal alliance of Samopomich, UKROP (a “patriotic” political project funded by Igor Kolomoisky), Svoboda (a far-right nationalist party), People Power (a small pro-business party) and others. These forces were behind the “people’s meetings”, large-scale demonstrations held in the city every Sunday by Milobog supporters.
Vilkul’s core campaign message has been traditional: “trust the technocrat”
“These meetings were large by Kryvyi Rih standards, up to a thousand people came out,” Samoilov, the union activist, tells me. According to Samoilov, the election race has divided residents, and affected the unions: while functionaries of co-opted trade unions have taken the side of Vilkul, organising public meetings in his support, independent union activists have come to sympathise with Milobog. “Life here has become noticeably political. Before [the campaign], for example, no one rang people at home to agitate for this or that politician, and now that’s a widespread practice.”
Samopomich has played an important role here, particularly its prominent parliamentary deputies Egor Sobolev and Semen Semenchenko. Sobolev heads up the parliamentary committee on fighting corruption, and Semenchenko made his name as the founder of the Donbas volunteer battalion.
Together with a support team, these two deputies have actively participated in this campaign, often trying to build momentum by raising the stakes. In August 2015, Samopomich accused the Vilkuls not only of corruption and vote-buying, but supporting separatism, too.
Semen Semenchenko holds a rally in central Kryvyi Rih, February 2016. Photo: Facebook / Кривой Рог без Вилкула.Meanwhile, Vilkul has powerful “administrative resources” working for him, including both private factories and mines, as well as public service institutions, such as hospitals, schools and higher education institutions. (The scheme is simple: the administration orders its employees to vote for a certain candidate.) There are also rumours of vote-buying, too: at certain enterprises belonging to former Regionnaires, workers have been offered up to 500 hryvnya (£13) for a photograph of a ballot for Vilkul.
Given the fall in the global materials market, industry-dominant Kryvyi Rih is experiencing hard times. Companies are cutting their expenditure, firing personnel or putting them on “out-sourcing” contracts. As a result, wages are falling and unemployment is rising. Many working people are afraid of losing their jobs. Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to put pressure on them.
The second round of mayoral elections in mid-November saw both candidates receive roughly equal support. In the end, the balance tipped in favour of Vilkul senior, who received a slim majority against Milobog — 752 votes.
As it turned out, neither side were ready for this. Opposition Bloc were counting on a convincing victory; Samopomich didn’t expect this kind of result at all. In their haste, Vilkul’s team declared victory in favour of Vilkul, and the Samopomich team tried to find a means of challenging the result.
On an official level, neither the president, nor his parliamentary faction could support Vilkul, a former Regionnaire. But the team of Petro Poroshenko did this tacitly
The following day, Milobog announced that the city’s election commission had declared Vilkul the winner illegally, without accounting for complaints of vote falsification. As Samopomich saw it, twelve polling stations had complaints against them, and Milobog had had 4,000 votes stolen.
The flag of Kryvyi Rih in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Kyiv, December 2015. Photo (c): visual RIAN. All rights reserved.In this situation, the Central Election Commission took an clear stance in favour of Vilkul senior, stating that he had been legally re-elected mayor. This fact, given that the CEC is basically under presidential control, suggested that the presidential administration was at least satisfied with how the election had turned out.
On an official level, neither the president, nor his parliamentary faction could support Vilkul, a former Regionnaire. But the team of Petro Poroshenko did this tacitly. The behaviour of the local Kryvyi Rih branch of the Poroshenko Bloc is telling in this regard: it recognised the elections as legitimate; only after a scandal broke out did it change its position.
And here’s where Samopomich did its work: it threatened to leave the ruling coalition and, after a series of protest actions in Kryvyi Rih and Kyiv, parliament passed a law on new mayoral elections in Kryvyi Rih. The Poroshenko Bloc, despite its declarations to the contrary, did not rush to support the draft law (the president did not sign the law until late January), and it was voted through with difficulty.
According to this new law, repeat elections will take place on 27 March. In the meantime, Vilkul senior, who is still acting mayor, has resorted to a tried-and-tested method of guaranteeing voter loyalty in Ukraine. After all, there’s not a lot to stop him: many of the new faces sitting on the city council are members of Opposition Bloc.
On Vilkul’s initiative, roughly 100,000 residents of Kryvyi Rih will receive up to 500 hryvnya (£13) in “social assistance” from the city budget. After this programme was announced, thousands of residents lined up at post offices and social welfare offices to collect their payments.
Formally, this “social assistance” is justified: many families in Kryvyi Rih are in a bad situation after the rises in utilities tariffs. But this “sudden” care for those less well-off directly before the elections naturally raises suspicion. As Pavel Mironov, an analyst with the Ukrainian anti-corruption NGO CHISNO, writes: “When the amount of money spent on social payments rises just before an election campaign, election observers all over the world would see this as a sign of misuse of state or municipal resources.”
What separates democratic politicians from the former Party of Regions is mostly rhetoric and style of political fight
Not everyone in Kryvyi Rih sees this “social” initiative in a positive light, either. Evgeny Pavlov tells me that “in a city with such poor ecology, a large number of cancer patients, stray dogs on the street, millions of hryvnya are being spent on pre-election PR for the mayor. This is absolutely unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, new tensions have arisen amongst the mayor’s opponents. The “Democratic forces” cannot name a single candidate for the repeat elections. The candidate was due to be announced at a “people’s meeting” on 7 February, but it didn’t happen. Samopomich, moreover, have now removed Milobog as their candidate, and replaced him with Semen Semenchenko — a surprise not only for Milobog supporters, but Semenchenko himself. Semenchenko declared that no one had discussed it with him beforehand.
From an election strategist’s point of view, it’s hard to call this strategy uncontroversial. Semenchenko is accused of making risky decisions at the front, illegal adoption of a military rank and attempting to hide his past — before Maidan and the war in eastern Ukraine, Semenchenko was known as Konstantin Grishin. Moreover, last year, video recordings emerged showing Semenchenko inside the Donetsk regional authority building during its occupation in March 2014.
At the same time, Semenchenko can wage a more aggressive election campaign, using direct protests and mobilising his supporters against Vilkul’s “administrative resources”. Semenchenko is all too aware of this. As he wrote on 15 February, the Kryvyi Rih elections are a “ticket to war”.
“Dear deputies: do not condemn the people of Kryvyi Rih to hunger and cold!” reads this placard outside Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada. Kyiv, January 2016. Photo: Facebook / Кривой Рог без ВилкулаThe recent political crisis in Kyiv will shape the outcome here, too. After prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk narrowly missed a dismissal last week, Samopomich left the ruling coalition. With the prospect of fresh parliamentary elections more likely, Samopomich are likely to pay more attention to the Kryvyi Rih campaign, and the fight for the mayor’s chair is going to hot up.
Yet this parachute candidate — with his biography — could scare certain parts of the electorate who want to see a leadership change in Kryvyi Rih. Supporters of Milobog are frustrated, too, given that the Samopomich leadership discounted their opinion.
Perhaps a more pressing problem lies in the democratic politicians and activists themselves. While they claim to be an alternative to the former members of the Party of Regions (and the Vilkuls in particular), they have had enough time and opportunity to make their declarations into reality. It seems what separates democratic politicians from former Regionnaires is mostly rhetoric and style of political fight.
All this creates a situation whereby, with support from Kyiv and big business, the old elite are likely to stay in power in Kryvyi Rih — despite local residents’ desire for new faces and a change of leadership.
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