The mayoral election in Kryvyi Rih puts the system in agony

Violations during the local elections in Kryvy Rih caused mass protests

Violations during the local elections in Kryvy Rih caused mass protests 

2016/03/05 • Analysis & Opinion, Political News, Politics

The Ukrainian oligarchic system is facing a threat. It comes not from the policy of de-oligarchisation announced long time ago by President Petro Poroshenko, but from the ordinary people of an industrial city with the population of about 700,000. The people of Kryvyi Ryh, in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, are fed up with the eternal rule of their mayor Yuriy Vilkul. The situation in the city is like a small copy of the former regime of the ex-president Victor Yanukovych – all the municipal institutions and enterprises are held by Mayor Vikul’s clan. People in the city can hardly make the ends meet as all the opportunities for development are taken away from them.

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Yuriy Vilkul (left) and Yuriy Milobog (right) got into the second round of the mayoral election

The status quo was shaken after the local election in Autumn 2015 when the candidate from the Samopomich Yuriy Milobog unexpectedly got in the second round of the voting together with the incumbent Yuriy Vilkul. The latter put all the strings win the battle in the second round – bribing of voters, using government administrative offices to campaign, and voter intimidation (threatening to fire people from work, or to expel from a university). Even all this was not enough to provide Vilkul with a convincing victory. In the end, he won by only about 700 votes, most of these votes came from a few special subdistricts. Samopomich complained about the violations and called for another election. Thousands of citizens gathered at the town square. Local activists also went to Kyiv to lobby for an early election. The difficulties they have faced demonstrate that the old system will fight the changes in all possible ways and that the old system has a lot of allies in Kyiv. Nevertheless, the first battle was won by the people. The election is scheduled for the 27th of March, 2016.

Read more about the second round: http://euromaidanpress.com/2015/12/13/86663/

Why Kryvyi Rih is important

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According to Sobolev, 8% of GDP of Ukraine is produced in Kryvyi Rih

What is so special about Kryvyi Rih that such a big political fight is taking place there? Unlike the election in Autumn 2015, Yuriy Vilkul is now running as a self-nominated candidate for the March 2016 election. However, his political views are not secret. He was a longtime member of the Party of Regions (the party of the exiled ex-president Victor Yanukovych) and then a member of its successor party the Opposition Bloc. More importantly, it is also not a secret that Vilkul is a proxy of the Ukrainian #1 oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. The Deputy Head of the Samopomich faction Egor Sobolev described the importance of the city for oligarchs in an interview with EuromaidanPress:

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Egor Sobolev, Samopomich

“Kryvyi Rih is very rich city with great  potential. For your information, 8% of the gross domestic product of Ukraine is produced in Kryvyi Rih. This is a unique area, that is why it is valuable for Akhmetov, and perhaps also for Putin, who in my opinion is standing behind Akhmetov. On the one hand, it has large deposits of ore, which are the basis of our industry. It is also a strategically important region in a strategically important part of Ukraine, with its own mentality, temper and habits. If one were to to put everything to rights there, the people’s standard of living would rapidly increase. Now all the wealth goes to Akhmetov and Roman Abramovich (a Russian oligarch, the owner of Evraz Group) and partly to Ihor Kolomoyskyiy [another Ukrainian oligarch] who also has his interests in one of the largest enterprises there. Kryvyi Rih is the foundation of Akhmetov’s business empire. For him, Kryvyi Rih is even more important than Mariupol, because of the ore. One can build a new metallurgical plant, but minerals can’t be replaced. He does not pay any real environmental charges and fees for the land there. This production takes up a huge area of land. If the city really received money, the situation would be quite different. Billions of hryvnyas are at stake there. That is why such a big fight is taking place there.”

The difficulties of carrying out an early election

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Kryvyi Rih activists came to Kyiv to demand the passage of a law on an early mayoral election

The real fight for the city started after the second round when the city election commission hurried to introduce Vilkul as the mayor elect the next morning and did not even examine the election violations found by Samopomich. This led to large scale protests in the city. Samopomich called for holding another election, but could have hardly find any allies for this decision in the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament). The bill on the early elections initially failed to gain the majority and they only succeeded on the sixth try at the end of December. The next step was also reached with difficulties as a representative of the Opposition Bloc disputed the voting on the bill. It took a long time for the Verkhovna Rada to painstakingly consider all the aspects of the bill. Eventually, the Verkhovna Rada passed the bill and the Opposition Bloc’s complaint failed to prevent passage, though it did cause a delay. Then the President delayed signing the bill. According to the law, an election has to be announced not later than 60 days before the vote. This decision has to be published in the official newspaper of the Verkhovna Rada Golos Ukrainy. Samopomich representatives stated that despite the preliminary agreements Poroshenko did not sign the law in time. In the end, under pressure from Kryvyi Rih activists who even went on a hunger strike, the law was signed. Even though this small detail might set a bad precedent that could later be exploited by anti-democratic forces, people in Samopomich say that nevertheless it is better than having Vilkul as an illegally elected mayor.

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Kryvyi Rih activists went on hunger strike because of the delay in signing the law on the new election

Egor Sobolev is confident that Poroshenko’s behavior is nothing less than a proof of his friendship with representatives of the old Yanukovych regime:

“Sure enough they have an old union which revealed itself during appointment of the General Prosecutor Victor Shokin. During the voting for the amendments in the Constitution on features of local government which are called “occupation of Donbas” and in Kryvyi Rih they have also shown unity and harmony. I think, they had several plans (about Kryvyi Rih.) The first one was not to hold an election at all, despite the law which was passed by Parliament. Together with Volodymyr Hroisman [the Parliament speaker] they lead the situation towards conditions when the President would not have time time to sign the law.”

The Legal Question

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Bills of complaints for violations during the election have not been considered in courts

As soon as Samopomich began talking about the bill on an early election in Kryvyi Rih, the party was accused of making these actions for purely political, not legal, reasons.

“In fact, it is a philosophy based on human rights. When all rights are taken away from people, the only one right left is the right to an uprising. I am proud and think that this is an example of implementation of the law of protection of human rights by the community of Kryvyi Rih. Their rebellion is an example for the whole of Ukraine,” says Sobolev. The politician also empathizes that first of all it is possible to solve the core problem through the law:

“There is no need for any street protests and even no need for early elections. Investigate the (election) falsification. This will lead you to Pavlo Hivel [the head of Kryvyi Rih territorial election commission] and Hivel will lead you to Vilkul and to Dmytro Kolesnykov, the former governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast from the Yanukovych era, who organized the beating of people in the Dnipropetrovsk Euromaidan.

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Egor Sobolev took an active part in the protests in Kryvyi Rih

“These crimes must be investigated and they will solve all the problems in an absolutely legitimate way. Don’t create Maidans, do not seize the the town hall. An investigator has to come there and put handcuffs on all of those responsible for these abuses. The problem is that Valeriy Lyutiy is the head of the local police there. Previously he used to work as an assistant of Hennadiy Kernes [the odious Kharkiv mayor, a long time member of the Party of Regions]. So far they are (instead) investigating the case of Semen Semenchenko [the candidate from Samopomich], who allegedly attacked the police, and also the alleged crime of the Automaidan leader Anton Kravchenko, who supposedly did the same thing. My assistant Vitaliy Chernyavsky also has an unclear status there. However, everything which is related to the falsifications during the election, everything related to the theft from the city coffers have stayed in place just as it was during Yanukovych’s time.”

And speaking of legal boundaries in Ukraine, it is also worth to mention that the legitimacy of the Central Election Commission itself is a moot point.

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Mykhailo Okhendovsky

Before the early Presidential Election in 2014, the Verkhovna Rada passed several amendment to the law on the Central Election Commission. In the old version, the law stated that the term of office for members of the CEC ends after 7 years. In the amended version they are suppose to stay in office until a new CEC is appointed. Back in 2014, this decision was reasonable because of the urgent need to elect a president. Also it provided legal security in case anybody doubted the election results. However, the old body continued to work during the Early Parliamentary Elections 2014 and during the Local Elections 2015. After the mayoral election in Kryvyi Rih the head of the CEC Mykhailo Okhendovskiy, who is a symbol of the Yanukovych era, congratulated Vilkul three times for the victory in November 2015. On the question of why nobody is trying to change this tainted CEC, Sobolev again pointed to the President:

“The thing is that this nobody is being nominated by the President of Ukraine. According to the current legislation, only he has the right to submit a proposal to the Verkhovna Rada on dismissing or appointing the members of the CEC. He is actually sabotaging his own duty by not submitting documents  to the Verkhovna Rada to dismiss Okhendovsky and other members of the CEC from the Yanukovych era. Several times we have talked about it to the President in person. We have publicly called on him to do it many times. We have urged him, denounced him, cursed him, and put forward our own nominations for the CEC, because at one point the President’s people said that he was ready to make nominations, but the political parties do not submit candidatures to him. In fact, the law does not state that political parties should submit candidatures to him. However, in order to not even have any hints of obstacles we asked civil society whom they want to see in this position. If Poroshenko held Ukrainian land in the same way he hold onto the Yanukovych people in the CEC, neither Debaltsevo, nor Donetsk Airport nor other important parts of our land would be occupied. The answer to the question as to why Mr. Porosenko is keeping Okhendovsky is the same answer as on the question of why Yanukovych kept him. It is a comfortable fit for a President who does not want to have fair elections and does not want to have real rules of the game, including for himself, to have a pet falsifier (in the CEC) who is afraid of losing his authority.”

A personal fight with the system

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A local court is looking for the way to detain an Automaidan activist Anton Kravchenko during the period of pretrial investigation, which would keep him behind bars for the early election.

For young Kryvyi Rih activist Anton Kravchenko this fight with the system is not only philosophical. It has became personal. Anton is the leader of the local Automaidan which had a lot of things to do in the city after the events of 2014. Among other activities the Kryvyi Rih Automaidan is revealing cases of corruption and embezzlement with municipal finance. Anton told Euromaidan Press, that during 2014 they found around 20 cases of money laundering of an amount of around UAH 20mn (US $751,880). Water filters, snow cleaning tenders, elevators for the train station, a pedestrian tunnel – the city’s rulers used any excuse to enrich themselves. Anton does not belong to a political party and tries to stay away from politics. Nevertheless, he is already hated by the Vikul faction. During the local election Anton was an active election observer. Now, he reaps the fruits of this in the form of criminal procedures against him. Despite the fact that there have been dozens of criminal cases in the courts since the election, only Anton’s case moving very fast. So far Anton’s accusers have been unsuccessful the accusations are rather muddled. However, the court is still in the process of finding a way to implement this “preventive” punishment.

“In my case they wanted to put me in detention for the 65 days of the pre-election period, so that I would not hamper them during the election. There are very few skilled observers. People in Kryvyi Rih are volunteering and want to help. However, when they are working in a polling station, they do not know what to do. Even when they see that some mess is going on, they can not do anything about it. In such cases I make a fuss, call for police, and write up documentation of the violations,” says Anton.

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Anton Kravchenko, Kryvyi Rih Automaidan activist

However, only one experienced observer is not enough for the election where there will surely be a large amount of violations. We asked Anton how the activists are preparing to resist the local regime:

“For example, Samopomich said that they have sent requests for more or less qualified observers from the whole Ukraine for the Kryvyi Rih elections. And people are registered in advance considering the previous mistakes. The last time, one of the main mistakes, in my opinion it was a trick of Vilkul, was that a week before the election almost all the potential observers were suddenly refused election observers status after being told they could work as observers and also prevented from being on election commissions. I used to cruise between four polling stations last time. This time I want to take the whole of the Ingulets district (the most problematic), and to give my phone number to the commission members, so that they are able to call me if something happens. We did so during the presidential elections. We allocated mobile groups across the city, because the police were inactive. We will do the same thing this time. It all depends on the people. From our side we must not permit fraud like stuffing the ballots boxes at the polling stations. Our main task is to provide every polling station with at least with one man who at least will be able to call for a support group to deal with a particular case.”

Vikul’s permanent campaign

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People standing in line to receive a one-time handout in amount UAH 500 from Vilkul

Vikul’s violations for the early election were started long before the law on the elections was signed by the President. For the whole time since it became clear that another vote was in the offing the city government has conducted a dirty campaign. Vilkul has used all available means  – the local media which are controlled by him, local municipal enterprises, public transport, the city budget, and in case of Anton and other activists local courts (which are also under his control.)

“I just suggest that you watch TV channel http://rudana.com.ua/ and to read the newspaper Chervoniy Girnyk. These are unforgettable experiences. There is no difference between this and what Putin is doing in Russia with his citizens. Second, Vikul has started to openly bribe voters, which the Committee of Voters of Ukraine and Opora [both NGOs] have reported on. At first Vikul allocated UAH 50mn (US $1,879,70) and then UAH 30mn ( US $1,127,820) of taxpayers’ money to pay UAH 500 (less than US $19) to every person in the city. These were accompanied by a message saying that Kyiv had raised utility prices, which in fact is not true, because it is the local government which sets the local prices. However, Yuriy Vilkul is so good and caring. So 100,000 people and later another group of 60,000 stood in a queue to get UAH 500 from the wise Mr. Vilkul. Meanwhile all the other members of the election do not really have the ability to campaign because they are not registered (as candidates),” Sobolev said.

Unfortunately, for poor people in Kryvyi Rih UAH 500 is still an persuasive argument and people are really standing in queues to receive it. Anton confirmed the words of Egor Sobolev:

“Many elderly women who are not informed about the issue, think it is his [Vilkul’s] achievement, his money. To spread this info they use their administrative offices. First days there were only a few places to get the UAH 500. There were lines 200-300 meters long. They could not cope with it, so they announced a school quarantine and involved the idle school teachers work in new distribution points.”

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This advertisement in a local city bus is saying that ticket prices were reduced because of an agreement between mayor Vilkul and the transport operators.

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Mandatory taxi campaign sign: I love Kryvyi Rih, I am voting for Vilkul!

Also Anton speaks about advertisements in shops and supermarkets, trams, and trolleybuses which say how and where people can receive the money and reminding the people who is giving it away. When Anton asked a shop stuff why they put up the signs, he was told that they were ordered to put these signs, if not they would have serious problems with the city executive committee.

Another story is that Vikul is using his control of the local taxi monopoly. The authorities are forcing taxi drivers to put a sign reading “I love Kryvyi Rih, I am voting for Vilkul!” on their cars. If a driver refuses to do it, he is not allowed to work.

Similar absurd examples of such campaigning can be found in every corner of the city.

Who are the candidates?

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Semen Semenchenko, who took an active part in Kryvyi Rih protests, will run for the election instead of Milobog

The March election in Kryvyi Rih is just another battle against the existing regime which would not give up easy. The activists as well as politicians understand this. However, pro-democratic forces did not manage to coalesce around a single representative. On the 3d of March 15 candidates were officially registered, and 2 were excluded. 10 people were registered as self-nominated, including Oleh Boychenko, a member of the party Svoboda. 5 others represent political parties – Ukrainian Patriots Association – UKROP, Civil Movement People’s Control, The Party of the Ordinary People of Serhiy Kaplin, Power of People and Samopomich.

“I am very sad because of the actions of Svoboda and UKROP. They’re not in the city, they can not understand whom they are helping by diffusing our power.” says Sobolev.

Talking about his Samopomich party, the rotation of candidates also came as a surprise. Kryvyi Rih citizen Yuriy Milobog who unexpectedly became the main competitor to Yuriy Vilkul during the Autumn election withdrew his candidacy and suggested the MP and the combat of Donbas Battalion Semen Semenchenko (Kostiantyn Grishyn) as a nominee. Semenchenko was surprised by such a suggestion, but took up the challenge. Semenchenko has been an active and devoted leader of the election protests in Kryvyi Rih. His political comrades consider him a motor for the movement in Kryvyi Rih. However, the politician has an ambivalent reputation in Ukraine. Will people tolerate this switch?

“I am outraged Milobog’s choice to departed at the very last moment,” – says Anton. According to the activist, the main problem for Semenchenko will be the propaganda machine of Vilkul. In recent days it introduced the new trend – spreading disappointment among citizens:

“Many people do not understand the situation with Milobog and Semenchenko and the situation (that we lack a) single strong candidate. Ordinary people who do not dig deep into these problems started wonder whether it was right to vote for Milobog. The next trend was introduced [by Vilkul’s people]: an old thief is better than a new one, an old thief would steal less. So now people are afraid that a new mayor will steal even more.”

However, Kravchenko as well as Sobolev are confident that Semenchenko makes a good fit as a candidate for mayor: “The thing is why Semenchenko is better than Milobog because he is active and decisive. Milobog would wait and think. That is why Semenchenko is a better fit.”

The work of the city council

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Despite the fact that pro democratic parties won the majority in the city council,  the is not enough votes to take pro democratic decisions

While all the attention of the city is focused on the mayoral election, the new city council has already functioned for more than 3 months, and it already demonstrates the tight bonds by which the system has entangled the city.

Despite the fact that, taken all together, the pro-democratic parties won the majority, leaving behind Opposition Bloc behind, one would hardly realize this based on the activity so far.

Just after the last mayoral election the national Batkivschina party had to dismiss the bureau of the city organization and later expelled the members of the Batkivschina faction in local city council from the party. The party explained the decision by the fact that the local deputies took part in the first session of the Kryvyi Rih city council which left the process of counting votes unfinished. The Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko also had to admit that their local party organization was collaborating with the local former members of the Party of Regions and the Radical Party also dismissed its local leaders.

So in reality there are not enough pro-democratic votes in the city council of Kryvyi Rih to make any important decisions.

“Among democratic forces who were not false and are actually pro-democratic there are Syla Lyudey… but there are also a few deputies who actually care about the city in Petro Poroshenko Bloc, also Samopomich and to some extent UKROP.”

Democratic forces do not have enough votes to block senseless decisions or to advance their own projects. For example, the adoption of the new Electronic procurement system “Prozorro” can’t even be put to a vote. So far city tenders are still nothing more than a means of enrichment, says Anton.

As long as there is insufficient attention and support for Kryvyi Rih citizens from the authorities and the media in Ukraine, the activists’ main instrument in fighting the system is their conscience. The 27th of March is just one more battle against the system.

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