In this post you’ll get: comments on Odesa, mourning, Petro Poroshenko’s presidential campaign roadshow, other candidates’ visits to Ivano-Frankivsk, and the new constellation of political posters in the city.
I have been away from Ivano-Frankivsk and Ukraine for a couple of weeks, hence the lack of updates on the blog. However, after a trip to Poland at the end of April, then the Carpathians over the May holiday, I am back in Ivano-Frankivsk. Since the last blog updates, the situation in Ukraine generally has grown more critical and indeed tragic. The horrific events in Odesa, with people burned alive – including youths, as reported here – has begun to draw attention to the seriousness of the threat of civil war. Whereas, perhaps, Luhansk or Donetsk seemed very distant from Galicia, Odesa is a city many here have visited for holidays and is reachable within 12 hours by train, rather than the 24+ needed to reach the east. Although the national media are carrying symbols of mourning – images of candles burning, or indeed real candles on news desks – the narrative being presented is largely one that isn’t willing to fully explore events in Odesa. Meanwhile, some of the reaction on social media has been less than compassionate – even hubristic – given that not all of those in the Odesa Trades Unions building were “separatists”, “pro-Russians”, “anti-Maidan” or whatever other labels are being applied. Some usually sensible people are sharing images such as this one – as well as much more tasteless memes – where ‘the patriots of Odesa’ are being mourned, so those who are termed “pro-Ukrainian” or “pro-Maidan”, with the rest of the victims implicitly condemned.
Before I get misunderstood or accused of being “pro-Russian”, or not understanding “Ukrainian realities”, my point is this: those participating in the protests in Odesa and elsewhere are a mixture of people, ranging from professional soldiers and fighters – including Russians and other non-Ukrainians – to ordinary people on the street. Whether or not you agree with what those on the streets of Odesa, Luhansk, Slovyansk and elsewhere are fighting for, or protesting against, when a mass killing occurs, with a variety of victims, then decorum and respect are dignified responses.
The point of this blog is to record and comment on life in Ivano-Frankivsk, so it is to that which I now turn.
When returning from Poland on Wednesday morning, 30 April, after a week or so away, the most obvious difference in the appearance of the city since the last week of April was the overwhelming number of presidential campaign posters that had appeared (and by-election materials – Frankivsk is exceptional in that there is a by-election for parliament, too, on 25 May as the existing MP, Oleksandr Sych, is now in the Cabinet). It was noticeable that those of Petro Poroshenko, “the chocolate king”, far outnumbered anyone else’s. Indeed, the total number of his posters probably exceeds those of all other candidates combined. He is the wealthiest and currently leading candidate for election. He visited the city on 2 May and we returned from the mountains in time to catch his show and his promise that under his rule people will “live anew”, the main slogan of his campaign.
I call it a show because the meeting – held on the city’s Vichevyj Maydan (Rally Square), by the post office and site of the first gatherings which became Euromaidan – was massively stage-managed and on a huge scale. The posters around the city announced that not only would Poroshenko be speaking, but also the rock performer Taras Chubay and another band would be performing. The event, starting at 18:00, also had two MCs, guest speakers including a poet and a playwright, as well as Yuriy Lutsenko, a politician who was released from jail about a year ago after being imprisoned on political charges. A crowd of several thousand packed the city streets in numbers not seen since Euromaidan to hear Poroshenko and catch his show.
After a brief introduction from the MCs, Taras Chubay took over. In deference to the then ongoing events in Odesa where some deaths had already occurred, he toned down the set and sang two or three songs based on Frankivsk poet Yuriy Andrukhovych’s works. The music, however, was still heavy rock played by a slightly aged but impressively tight band. After some poetry from a local poet Dmytro Pavlychko, with his reading largely appealing to the legacy of UPA fighters, local playwright Maria Matios spoke. I have a grudge against her because her rather depressing, patriotic, pathos-laden plays dominate the repertoire of the local theatre – so much so that they might as well make it her exclusive stage. One of my main passions is theatre, so Matios’ dominance seems to stifle any significant creativity or experimentation.
After the cultural section, Yuriy Lutsenko appeared. Whatever you think of his politics, it is undeniable that he is a compelling and effective speaker. Although a few eyebrows were raised when billionaire (albeit not multi-) Poroshenko was not counted as an oligarch and instead something of a counterpoint to the various oligarchal clans that seek to rule Ukraine. I’m not sure what the technical or legal definition of an oligarch is but even if Poroshenko is relatively less well-off than, say, Akhmetov, Firtash or Kolomoyskyy, then he’s still pretty loaded and has had his fingers in political pies since the millennium at least. He was even a co-founder of the Party of Regions. Lutsenko, though, continued to hold the crowds attention, although it became clear that even his rhetorical powers were beginning to wane as he spoke for some 25 minutes. It turns out that Poroshenko had been delayed in the town of Kalush, after also performing in Kolomyya the same day, so Lutsenko was holding the fort.
Eventually, just before 19:00 the main attraction appeared on stage – but in keeping with his man-of-the-people, definitely-not-an-oligarch persona, he took to the stage by walking through the huge crowd, his image relayed on the massive screens. Obviously he was flanked by significant security, just in case. On the screens, too, there appeared images of crying older women, as if the nation’s saviour had appeared. My wife and I had taken her godson, aged 10, with us – and he seemed transfixed by the celebrity status of Poroshenko, and insisted that we remain to see him. Even seeing Lutsenko in person got the ten year old quite excited. I had to go off to teach a class, but my wife’s report suggests that the message was similar to Lutsenko’s – vote Poroshenko in the first round, he’s the main candidate, get over 50% and avoid a second round of elections and get the country running properly again.
I’m not eligible to vote in Ukraine – but I can see the appeal of this argument. As another two weeks, into June, of campaigning and of temporary rule in Kyiv can only cause further destabilisation. Another appealing aspect of Poroshenko’s campaign is that he is the only candidate to have declared in his manifesto that he will call immediate parliamentary elections. I have been assured, having spoken here to legal experts, that the current government is in place in Ukraine legitimately, at least in terms of the law (however murky it is). However, an election could aid the cause of creating greater popular legitimacy for whoever is in power in Kyiv, with more representation for those living in areas where MPs have resigned or disappeared from parliament.
However, the above comments could all be academic as the most significant doubt in my mind is over whether the elections can be carried out successfully at all. In Ivano-Frankivsk and western Ukraine, sure, the campaigns are going ahead, candidates (at least those with any chance of getting elected here) are appearing on the main squares of cities and towns around the region. But I can’t really imagine the same happening in areas in the south and east of the country where the threat or reality of violence is actual. And, equally, if referendums are planned for those same areas for a week today, regardless of those plebiscites’ legitimacy in law or among the population, they will influence the way the Presidential election is conducted. Obviously, the way things are now is almost impossible, a damned if you do/don’t situation regarding the elections and almost anything else.
The greatest emotion that observing the election campaign in full swing in Ivano-Frankivsk while news of events in Odesa was filtering through was one of incongruity.
Other presidential candidates have also visited the city, although they came while I was away. Yulia Tymoshenko appeared on 1 May, holding a meeting in one conference centre, then appearing in the city centre, too, albeit without the song-and-dance attached to Poroshenko’s arrival. Olga Bogomolets, one of the best known medics from the Euromaidan protests, is standing in the election, too, and she spoke at the university at the end of April, while also holding a press conference in the city. There was very little, however, to announce her arrival in the university or beyond, while her posters seemed to be somewhat shoddy and subject to the elements. Bogomolets has, though, announced an alliance with Maksym Kytsyuk, a Sevastopol resident who was one of the leaders of Euromaidan in Frankivsk and a student here who was badly beaten in December by still unknown assailants. Oleh Tyahnybok, notorious leader of Svoboda, was also in town with his posters more noticeable about the city. Still to come is Anatoliy Hrytsenko, although there is no sign that any of the Party of Regions-associated candidates are planning to head this way.
Meanwhile, with the presidential candidates in town, the mayors of Ivano-Frankivsk and Kalush travelled together to Donetsk region in an attempt to show national unity and hear the voices of ordinary people living in this now conflicted region of Ukraine. With Anushkevychus, the local mayor out of town, another candidate for the parliamentary seat here took his opportunity to mock his rival by taking a walk down Shevchenko Street. Its revitalisation, as I noted here, has turned into something of a farce lasting over a year, with one of the city’s most prestigious streets now largely covered in rubble. The rival candidate, also called Shevchenko, has proposed renaming the street in (dis)honour of the mayor responsible for the farce. Shevchenko’s campaign is the only one that draws on European symbolism at a time when the EU seems increasingly powerless and lacking influence over the situation in Ukraine as the old Cold War powers play out their struggle again.
As well as the mushrooming of presidential campaign posters, and a few by-election campaign tents, political posters have begun to appear again around the city in larger numbers, sometimes creating strange juxtapositions. There was also evidence of attempted sabotage, with Poroshenko not enjoying the support of Right Sector, it seems. It’s a bit baffling, too, as to why they’re putting their stickers in English.
Here various posters compete for space, with Poroshenko’s poster alongside that of Hrytsenko, as well as materials supporting the far-right nationalist OUN organisation, featuring the images of Bandera and Shevchenko.
Here, meanwhile, a poster for a singing competition held over several days in April and May by the central fountain in the city is accompanied by a Poroshenko poster revealing the full bill for his show, as well as a poster of Putin being shot through the head with the caption “This shit will soon die”. The small poster at the bottom right, meanwhile, guides you to a nationalist portal called Neskorena Nacia or ‘The Undefeated Nation’ which wants ‘a Ukrainian Ukraine’. It declares itself to be the ‘leading Banderite portal’ and bears the OUN logo. It is noticeable that although the leader of Right Sector is standing for president, he is not campaigning actively and has indeed declared that his election funds are better spent, he feels, on sponsoring the fight against Russia. The nationalist message here, meanwhile, is one that predated the election campaign and indeed Euromaidan and events in south and east Ukraine.
As for those who declare themselves to be Right Sector, or at least Maidan Self-Defence activists, they seem to have ceased most of their actions in the city now. The campaign against the regional head of police continues, although as something of a symbolic stand-off now with no marches being reported recently. However, the symbolic stand off means that now there is an armoured personnel carrier outside the police HQ. When I passed it on Wednesday, however, it was “staffed” by two young men who looked like teenagers with no one on the door. Obviously, an APC in the centre of Ivano-Frankivsk doesn’t look good and suggests that while Ukraine is under threat, local nationalist activists don’t really have their priorities straight if they think this is the best use of their resources. The report linked to above, meanwhile, continues the unfortunate rhetorical trend of deeming such “activists” the representatives of Maidan, whereas most of those active on Maidan or supporting its aims are now hoping that Poroshenko, or another president, will be able to bring some stability to the country and realise not only security but also the goal of improving everyday life in Ukraine in the long run.
While in Frankivsk everyday life and the election campaign seems to continue almost as normal, on the surface – with the tensions over war or civil war impacting psychologically – I can help feeling that it is somewhat incongruous now that such lavish campaigns are being carried out with the threat that hangs over the country.