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Thousands protest vote-rigging in Kryvyi Rih, demand to change oligarchic rule

Protests at the election committee in Kryvyi Rih. Photo from social networks
Thousands protest vote-rigging in Kryvyi Rih, demand to change oligarchic rule
Article by: Olena Makarenko

Kryvyi Rih is an industrial city in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast with a population of more than a half of a million. For many years the city was considered to be totally loyal to the Party of  Regions (the former party of the disgraced pro-Russian ex-president Yanukovych). After the Euromaidan revolution the same people remained in power in this city. The mayor of the city is Yury Vilkul, a member of Opposition Bloc (the reborn Party of Regions) who is close to the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Yuri Vilkul has been the mayor since 2010.

Pro-Russian protests in the aftermath of Euromaidan (based on wikipedia map).
Pro-Russian protests touched Kryvyi Rih in the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution

The results of the local elections in the city came as a bolt out of the blue. Several pro-democratic forces now will be represented in the local city council. All together they earned more votes than Opposition Bloc:

  • Oppostion Bloc – 39,06% (29 seats),
  • Samopomich – 9,58% (7),
  • UKROP – 9,02% (7),
  • Solidarnist – 8,48% (6),
  • Batkivschina – 7,61% (6),
  • Radical Party of Oleg Liashko – 7,16% (5),
  • Syla Lyudey – 5,95% (4).

Moreover, the representative of the Samopomich party Yuriy Milobog got the second place in the first round of the mayoral election, which let him run for the position in the second round. The second round which was held in November 15 also came as a surprise.

What happened in the second round

“I was an observer and I could not believe my eyes. I saw that Milobog was winning and started to call friends from other districts. They told me that they were seeing the same thing,” says Anton Kravchenko, coordinator of the pro-reform movement “Automaidan” in Kryvyi Rih. The final result showed that the candidate from Samopomich won 6 out of 7 city districts. However, in the end a difference of only 752 votes provided victory for Milobog’s opponent Vilkul.

“The vote gap between the candidates is most visible on the special voting districts – hospitals, mental health facilities, prisons, where the overwhelming majority voted for Vilkul, and in fact did not vote for the Samopomich candidate. So we went to the police and demanded to know who was in the hospital at that time. Almost 200 people voted in one of them, but in fact there were only 10 people in the hospital,” said Yehor Firsov, the MP from Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc.

Among other violations, ballot stuffing, observers noted the inclusion of election commission members in voting lists after the deadline and the traditional use of the local government’s administrative resources to drum up votes. Anton says that a lot of people are still dependent on the places they work or study. So when they are told to vote for Vilkul or to take part in schemes that break the law, they really believe that not participating will cost them their job or their place in a university. Anton estimates that 12 thousand votes were delivered to Vilkul using illegal means.

Samopomich complained about several violations. However, they were not considered by the territorial commission. The newly elected mayor could not wait to take the office. The election committee refused to consider bills of complaints and appointed the city council meeting at 18 of November.

How the citizens reacted

This time things were different. People did not just follow along and did not accept the situation as was usually expected. For three Sundays in a row after the second round, citizens gathered at the main square. These gatherings had an estimated 5 to 10 thousand participants, according to activists. The numbers provided by local media are different. Some even reported that there were just two hundred – but unfortunately local media outlets are not objective sources of information.

“As far as I understand, all the media outlets are taking the information about the amount of people from the original sources [local]. All municipal media in Kryvyi Rih act like Russian TV, as they distort the facts so much. During two years after the Revolution of Dignity there were always some “Maidans” and meetings in Kryvyi Rih. However, as most of the municipal media belong to Vilkul’s family, such events in Kryvyi Rih were not covered,” said Anton.

The amount of people at the meetings after the election were not even as large as they could have been. Anton explained that those who came are just normal non-confrontational people, but activists are also keeping in touch with the youth, workmen and soldiers who are waiting until the situation worsens and their help becomes really needed as the position of this people is more desperate. Activists admit that they were not expecting that the the people of the city would dare change the status quo and not support Vilkul in the election.

Activists made Vilkul leave the building of the city council when they occupied it in protest. Afterthe  activists went to Kyiv to petition the national parliament, Vilkul came back and continues to work as the mayor.

The events in Kryvyi Rih serve as a signal to the current government and the remnants of the previous Yanukovych regime, (which often co-exist in a quite friendly way) that people are not going to submit to the old unwritten election rules that institutionalized corruption and vote-rigging and will take a stand for justice and their future.

“At the last meeting in Kryvyi Rih, a some people came up with the idea: ‘Let’s go to Kyiv and blockade the Parliament’.”

We answered “Why blockade? Let us first try do it positively.” Yehor Sobolev, an MP from the Samopomich, party wrote at his Facebook page.

Yuriy Vilkul (right) with his son Oleksandr

Who is Yuriy Vilkul

Activists are saying that in these circumstances who exactly the second candidate is is unimportant. The main message is that the citizens just want to get rid of the power of Vilkul which is the bane of the city. The results show that people put a lot of hope on the elections.

Yuriy Vilkul as well as his son Oleksandr are instruments for maintaining the empire of the oligarch Renat Akhmetov. 

Akhmetov has a special interest in Kryvyi Rih. The city plays an important role in the Ukrainian mining and smelting business, so it is an important city for Akhmetov’s company Metinvest, which is also the largest player in the field. The majority of shares of Metinvest belong to Akhmetov’s company SCM group. Key mining and processing plants are located in or near Kryvyi Rih. The local government has a huge leeway in tax collection in the city, including real estate taxes. After losing a big part of his national influence after the shift of political power in Ukraine in 2014, it is important for Rinat Akhmetov to have local political support in this economically important region. Yuriy Vilkul is just a convenient person for him.

Apart from Akhmetov’s interests, the Vilkul family is associated with other large businesses connected to construction and real estate. In March 2015, the family was accused of involvement in a corruption scheme that embezzled local government funds of revenues from outdoor advertising.

“As a result of corrupt schemes during the past 5 years the city budget of Kryvyi Rih has not received more than 40 million UAH (USD $1,680,680), which led to declines in health care, education, social security, physical culture, sports, and so on,” stated the MP from Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc Vitaliy Kupriy.

Anton observes that Kryvyi Rih has not developed at all over the past few years. For example, in an oblong  city sprawling over 126 km, public transport does not operate late in the evening. “There is nowhere to go. It seems that in the city people can only sit in the yard, drink and watch TV. So therefore it is easy to control them.” All attempts by activists to collaborate peacefully with the local government have failed.

What the activists achieved

An activist briefing in Parliament

In the end, the voice of society in Kryvyi Rih was heard. The city election commission appealed to the deputies of Verkhovna Rada [Parliament] of Ukraine to hold another election. Later, a temporary special committee of the Verkhovna Rada on verifying violations of the election of the mayor of Kryvyi Rih decided to propose a re-election in Kryvyi Rih to the Parliament. This decision was made because it was impossible to establish the results of the election accurately. A draft law on a second election in Kryvyi Rih was submitted to leaders of parliamentary factions on 10 December 2015.

The falsification of elections, against which Kryvyi Rih rose, brought the possibility of a real change of power throughout Ukraine. First of all, this change should take place in the capital. In particular, the Central Election Comission should bear responsibility. It is the direct political responsibility of Petro Poroshenko, who during one and a half years avoided carrying out his Presidential duty and had not introduced new candidates for membership in the CEC to the Parliament, although the authority of 12 out of 15 members ended in June 2014,” stated Sobolev when Maidan in Kryvyi Rih just started.

Expectation and reality

The activists led by the MPs from Samopomich went to Kyiv full of hope. At the beginning, they expected that the Parliament would call for the March elections to be done again. Previously the deputies from the pro-European camp have promised to vote for such a bill. However, the very next day several attempts to vote for this bill failed. After this Samopomich MP Yehor Sobolev stated that the Samopomich parliamentary faction would not to vote for any parliamentary decision until the question of conducting a new election of Kryvyi Rih’s mayor is resolved. According to him, negotiations were held with all coalition partners in order to find common solutions. Meanwhile, Yuriy Vilkul is considered the acting mayor of Kryvyi Rih and another Samopomich MP Semen Semenchenko called for another protest in the main square of Kryvyi Rih on Sunday, December 13.

This year elections were run twice in two cities of Ukraine – Mariupol and Krasnoarmiysk. The reason for conducting re-elections in Mariupol were extra bailouts which were printed by the private enterprise which belongs to Akhmetov. So that the real number of printed ballots was hard to control. In Krasnoarmiysk, the reason for another election was also faulty ballots, which were printed in a way that broke the law in several ways. The Donetsk regional court, located in Sloviansk, admitted the violation, but later the CEC decided to conduct an election in Krasnoarmeysk immediately. However, the election did not take place and voters who were coming to the polling stations just saw closed doors. In the end, the results of the second election in Mariupol gave victory to the independent candidate self-nominated Vadim Boychenko who is also associated with the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. In Krasnoarmiysk, the victor in the mayoral race was Ruslan Trebushkin, the ex-mayor of a neighboring city in Donetsk the region. Trebushkin previously called the new Ukrainian government a “junta” and spoke about the annexation of Crimea as if he was thankful to  Putin “for all that he did.”

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