In Ukraine’s history there have never been so many good deeds performed by politicians as there are being performed right now in Dnipropetrovsk, an eastern industrial region that never succumbed to the pro-Russian separatists. There is public transport for 5 cents, a kilogram of potatoes for 14 cents, free water, free summer camp, and even free traffic safety school for children. But this is Ukraine, and the acts are anything but altruistic. They come ahead of the most important mayoral elections in the city’s history, due to take place on Oct. 25. The race is already displaying the worst aspects of dirty politics and, some say, threatening to prompt another Ukrainian revolution.
Gone are the days when Dnipropetrovsk was a closed military city in the Soviet Union known for its rocket production. Now it is the capital of Ukraine’s richest region, the key to eastern Ukraine and a prize for the taking. After ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia, his party with its heartland in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine collapsed, leaving the political playing field wide open. Now rival oligarch clans are battling for control, with mayoral candidate Borys Filatov backed by Igor Kolomoisky and Filatov’s rival Oleksandr Vilkul backed by oligarchs who once stood behind Yanukovych. Because of his feud with Kolomoisky, however, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has decided to cast his lot with his avowed enemy, creating an unofficial alliance with Yanukovych’s former party to keep Filatov from office.
When Kolomoisky was appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Region after the Euromaidan revolution, Filatov became head of his administration. He oversaw the building of fortifications and equipping of volunteer battalions, funded by the Dnipropetrovsk business community, credited with stopping the separatists from gaining a foothold in the region as they did in the neighboring Donetsk. Last October, Filatov won a seat in Ukrainian parliament on the ticket for the Dill party, also backed by Kolomoisky. Then in March, after clashes over the oligarch’s control over key oil and gas assets, Poroshenko fired Kolomoisky, ending his reign as governor.
Now sitting in a luxury restaurant overlooking the Dnieper River, Filatov warns that Dnirpopetrovsk and Ukraine are at risk of falling back into the pre-Maidan status quo. Burly with an intense stare, Filatov cuts the image of a strong man; in fact, he’s a former television anchor and speaks with poise. “This is revenge by the Party of the Regions that has now changed its colors and become Opposition Bloc,” he tells The Daily Beast, referring to Yanukovych’s former party, now under a new name.
Filatov says after Maidan he never expected Vilkul to run for office with his history as a high-ranking Party of the Regions official who was vice prime minister until the collapse of Yanukovych’s government in 2014. Responsible for infrastructure and transport in the region, Filatov and others accuse Vilkul of orchestrating attacks on protesters in Dnipropetrovsk during the revolution by titushki, paid men in track suits usually brought in from the regions to assault protesters.
Filatov’s real ire, however, is for Poroshenko, who he says has chosen to back Vilkul instead of him, allying with the group he came to power opposing instead of with Filatov’s reform agenda.
Sitting in his office in his tailored suit, Vilkul is the image of a modern businessman. He is unabashed about the time he spent working for the Party of the Regions and says the guilty Party of the Regions members fled with Yanukovych. After Kolomoisky and Filatov’s time in the governor’s office, he sees himself as vindicated. “They checked everything I signed for four years and couldn’t find anything to go after me for,” he says. “They were in the regional administration and controlled the police, the prosecutor’s office and the security service. They had everything including battalions and the television station 1+1. In 10 months, they couldn’t find anything.”
Vilkul’s vision for Dnipropetrovsk is a technocratic one, similar to what had been propagated in the old campaigns of the Party of the Regions. He talks about turning the city into a modern “European megapolis” and is proud of his own roots rising from an assistant to an excavator driver. He says he can work with Poroshenko and warns that Kolomoisky and Filatov want to use Dnipropetrovsk and plans for the transfer of power to the local level to build a “feudal state and control it for life to be able to blackmail Poroshenko or any other president.”
Vilkul says it has not been an easy election with his party being targeted by “political technology” and black PR he attributes to Filatov. “Political technology” emerged in the ’90s in post-Soviet countries when leaders had to deal with irritating elections but wanted to include voters in as little of the decision making as possible.
According to Taras Berezovets, an expert in political technology, it includes misdirection and deception via bribery, abuse of government resources and electoral manipulation. This year saw a deluge of so-called clones, individuals with similar names to real candidates intended to confuse voters on the ballot. A “clone” of Vilkul ran with the same name as his deceased brother, who died “twelve years ago from Tuberculosis and for twelve years has been lying in his grave with my grandparents,” Oleksandr Vilkul tells The Daily Beast.
Vilkul also says he has been the target of a new “technological” party meant to steal votes from him. The party called Renaissance set up its office in the same building as Opposition Bloc’s headquarters in Dnipropetrovsk and many candidates previously ran on the Party of the Regions’ ticket. An election camp they set up in front of the regional administration was carefully planned, using tires liked those burned on Kyiv’s Maidan to obscure riot police fire, but was staffed exclusively by pensioners and teenagers more interested in the free tea and food being distributed. According to Berezovets, “Renaissance is 100 percent Kolomoisky’s project against Opposition Bloc.”
Filatov denies any connection to Renaissance, but says he has also been targeted by “political technology.” He says Poroshenko has brought a “technical” candidate against him. Poroshenko’s party, Solidarity, which struggles for support in eastern Ukraine, is running MP Maksym Kuryachy for mayor. Filatov says that this shows Poroshenko struck a deal with Opposition Bloc, the very party he came to power opposing.
Kuryachy talks about fighting oligarchic control of the city. though when asked if he thought he could win said he’d only make it to the second election round. Most experts give him no chance at all of winning.
Further evidence of Poroshenko’s party working together with Opposition Bloc is in Dnirpopetrovsk’s election commission. Opposition Bloc and Poroshenko’s camp have been cooperating, according to Denys Davydov, a long term election observer for the NGO OPORA. The commission refused to register the Renaissance candidate in the election before finally caving to public pressure. They also refused to release protocols about their work and only recently agreed to register election observers.
There has been further evidence of a dodgy alliance in the oligarch-controlled media landscape, where channels historically refuse to give coverage to their opponents. When Poroshenko visited Dnipropetrovsk during the campaign, he was shown on a channel controlled by Opposition Bloc. “Petro Poroshenko should be an opponent of Opposition Bloc, but in the end the the opponent is Dill and Borys Filatov,” says Davydov.
Euromaidan was meant to end the era of corrupt politics in Ukraine, yet voters in Dnipropetrovsk are once again being faced with choosing the lesser of two evils. Most progressives see that as Filatov, although they know that decision comes with an unknown price because of his connection to Kolomoisky. The problem is that the election is not being decided on those terms. Poroshenko is trying to sell Ukraine’s adoption of democratic values to the West, and a break with politics as usual to the eastern regions.
“A country where there has been two revolutions, war and continues with the same methods of political fighting can end with a third revolution,” Filatov said, addressing a neighborhood gathering. He may be right.