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Billionaires and Bogus Ballots: Welcome to the Elections in Eastern Ukraine

Sunday's local elections are the first chance for Ukraine's powerful oligarchs to regain political power after the regime shift in 2014. So VICE News checked out the atmosphere in conflict-riven Mariupol.

by Jack Crosbie and Alex Lubetkin
Oct 23 2015, 4:40pm

Newspaper employees check and sort freshly printed ballots in Mariupol, Ukraine. Photo by Jack Crosbie

The election workers sat at chipped tables, dusty light filtering into the room through windows blocked out with cardboard and sheets of newspaper. They peered at piles of pink ballots, checking for mistakes. One worker fed the rejected stacks into an industrial shredder, which slammed a heavy guillotine blade through whole reams at a time.

On Sunday, the accepted ballot papers will go out across the greater Mariupol area, a once-prosperous region of southeastern Ukraine divided by the country's ongoing conflict and plagued by economic depression.

Around the corner from the printing house, soldiers in body armor and balaclavas loitered in front of a government building, bored but nevertheless prepared for any resurgences of the violence that divided the city between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia rebels in May 2014. Pro-government forces led by the infamous Azov Battalion eventually took back full control of the city, but it remains politically divided.

Watch the VICE News documentary, Under Fire with the Azov Battalion: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 76):

When Ukrainian citizens vote on Sunday, they will choose mayors and city councils from an enormous list of political parties and candidates. They vote for candidates, but not for the men who own them. Ukrainian politics is largely ruled by powerful, multi-billionaire oligarchs who made their fortunes during the chaotic dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

In Mariupol, the reigning oligarch is Rinat Akhmetov, a steel tycoon whose plants and companies employ over half of Mariupol's 500,000 residents. Akhmetov's wealth — now an estimated $6.9 billion, down from $22 billion in 2013 — played a key role in the rise of ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych. 

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Yanukovych's fall from grace and the war in the Donbas region have put Akhmetov in a difficult position, caught between his business interests in Russia and rebel-held Donetsk and those in government-controlled Mariupol and Kiev. For the oligarchs and the remnants of Yanukovych's largely pro-Russia political allies, Sunday's elections are the first chance to regain political power after the regime shift in 2014.

"The local elections are seen kind of as a springboard, as a testing ground," said Dr. Nadiya Kravets, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. "If they [Yanukovych's old regime] succeed at a local level, then they can make further headway and push for either the collapse of the current coalition — they can potentially push for change on the national level."

Vadim Boychenko is the current frontrunner and overwhelming favorite for mayor of Mariupol. His offices, on an upper floor of the Akhmetov-owned Mariupol TV building, are immaculate. Boychenko wears expensive, tailored suits, and elegant rectangular eyeglasses. He is pleasant and welcoming, traits well suited to his former career as director of personnel at Metinvest, one of Akhmetov's largest companies. 

Vadim Boychenko, the Opposition Bloc candidate for mayor in Mariupol, is the Director of Personnel and Social Issues at Metinvest, one of Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Ahkmetov's biggest companies. (Photo by Jack Crosbie)

His assistant juggled his two iPhones while he spoke to VICE News at the head of a long chocolate-brown conference table. "I do not know him [Akhmetov]," Boychenko said. "But I have heard of him. I have a lot of respect for him."

Boychenko is running as the candidate for Opposition Bloc, a political party rife with former Yanukovych supporters. But he emphasized that his allegiances were to the metalworkers and people of Mariupol, despite his financial backers.

"Our country is made that way, that politicians are mixed with businessmen. But I cannot prove that Akhmetov sponsors Opposition Bloc, just like I cannot prove that [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko sponsors Solydarnist [his political faction]."

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Proof of anything is difficult in Ukrainian elections. Earlier this week, angry protestors stormed into the ballot printing building, claiming Opposition Bloc operatives had failed to destroy extra ballots marked as mistakes, which they could use to cast fraudulent votes for Bloc candidates.

Akhmetov owns the printing press building, whose employees also print his Russian-language newspaper. He agreed to let in representatives of any party to observe the printing process, but installed four high-definition video cameras across the room to observe the observers. 

A surveillance camera set up by Rinat Akhmetov's employees to watch observers from other parties. (Photo by Jack Crosbie)

Konstantin Batozsky, an advisor to the former governor of Donetsk, told VICE News that printing extra ballots off the press was a common trick in local elections. A court later cleared Akhmetov and the printing facility of any fraudulent activity.

Power of People, a smaller, populist party has taken an active role in monitoring the presses. Without the financial backing that Opposition Bloc and other major players like the Fatherland party or Poroshenko's Bloc have, Power of People has to take a grassroots approach to publicity. Its candidate for mayor, Maxim Borodin, is a former computer programmer with a thin goatee and a wrinkled beige sport coat. Borodin runs his campaign out of a two room office dotted with pens, flyers and an empty pizza box which was hastily cleaned up to make room for reporters.

'He has a nice image. But he's a puppet'

"We don't have the ability to make speeches on TV," Borodin said, adding that his two appearances on Akhmetov-owned Mariupol TV were edited heavily. "We try to get creative. We don't have a big staff. We have to go out and talk to the people."

Unfortunately, creativity isn't enough to reach some voters. Despite their middle-class-focused campaign message, Power of People doesn't have much traction or name-recognition in the steel working industry, one of Mariupol's biggest demographics. One steelworker, who asked not to be identified, told VICE News that Boychenko was the only candidate who had visited the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, one of two Akhmetov-owned plants that anchor Mariupol's economy.

"Most people will vote for Boychenko," the worker said, "He has a nice image. But he's a puppet."

A newspaper employee puts a stack of "bad" ballots into a slicing machine to destroy them. (Photo by Jack Crosbie)

During long days at the blast furnace, the steelworkers listen to the factory radio station, which is peppered with ads for Boychenko. When they go home, they tune into Mariupol TV. According to Batozsky, Akhmetov has virtual control of Mariupol's electorate.

"His [Boychenko's] campaign is pure propaganda, he's on all media, everywhere, he has no chance to lose," Batozsky said. "His campaign doesn't even need a candidate, it's so aggressive that it works on its own."

Batozsky, who claimed to know Boychenko personally, said that the Metinvest employee didn't even want the candidacy, but was ordered to take the job and play the part regardless.

'You know who the mayor is going to be a week before the votes are counted'

"Akhmetov… doesn't really have an [political] affiliation, he just does whatever ensures his business success. His strategy is to bring his people to power in every city where he has his own plants."

Press representatives for Metinvest and System Capital Management, Akhmetov's two biggest holdings, did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment.

Employees check and sort freshly printed ballots. (Photo by Jack Crosbie)

Alexander Yaroshenko, the Fatherland Party candidate for mayor, has the weight of a major political machine, and most likely an oligarch, behind him. But even he seemed doubtful of beating Akhmetov in the latter's own city: "You know who the mayor is going to be a week before the votes are counted."

But Kravets said that in regions like Eastern Ukraine, many voters may see corruption as an inevitable reality.

"What we've seen in Moldova and a lot of other places is that people are willing to sacrifice [putting up with] things like corruption if it means economic growth. Akhmetov is someone who may have had a lot of corrupt practices, but he has delivered [jobs and economic growth] before."

Katiya, a 20-year-old student at Pryazovskyi State Technical University in Mariupol said she acknowledged the economic benefits Akhmetov — and his candidate Boychenko — represented.

"I think he will make a lot of profitable things for the city," she said, while recognizing the city's electoral history. "Have they ever not been corrupt?" she asked.