Returning from work today, I noticed a poster on a nearby flat advertising a concert sponsored by local parliamentary by-election candidate and businessman Oleskandr Shevchenko. The poster was stuck between various adverts including visas to the USA, a campaign to launch a civil protest (Maidan) against loans in foreign currencies, a garage for sale, seeking a flat to rent and a poster advertising surgery with a local councillor from Svoboda. The chalked graffiti suggests unusually strong passion for Linkin Park.
Nominally the concert was “in defence of the country! Support the Ukrainian army!” The attractive woman in traditional dress was presumably included to attract the male gaze to this patriotic event. A sticker informed readers that they could donate money to the Ukrainian military by texting or calling 565. This is a nationwide campaign that has been running for months and nothing to do with Shevchenko. Still, it was a good way – presumably – to circumvent rules on campaign spending meaning that although, as the top-left of the poster states, this event is supported by Shevchenko, it’s not an electoral campaign event. Even though it displays his campaign logo. And is taking place just four days before Sunday’s elections. Admittedly, the event was first scheduled for 8 May but owing to the period of mourning following the mass killings in Odesa it was postponed.
The electoral candidate who sponsored this concert is a rich local businessman who co-owns the Bukovel ski resort in the Carpathians. The other owners include Ihor Kolomoyskyy’s Privat-Group, so perhaps Shevchenko’s political affiliations are clear thanks to that, although he is standing as an independent. He campaigned in the 2012 parliamentary election for the same seat, but lost out to Oleksandr Sych, the joint Svoboda-Batkivshchyna candidate. Sych is now a deputy PM, so must put his seat up for re-election. This is why Frankivsk is quite exceptional in the current campaign. In the 2012 campaign, Shevchenko used the slogan “a surname you can trust”, referring to the national poet Taras Shevchenko. It seemed like he had little to offer from his own personality.
However, as with today’s concert he wasn’t afraid to dip into his own pocket, offering local residents – but only those registered to vote for the seat he was contesting – free trips to his Bukovel resort. My wife went on such a trip in summer 2012 in the build up to that year’s October elections, with her former schoolteacher then working in Shevchenko’s PR campaign. My wife says that food was promised but never materialised, although those on the trip were allowed to skip the queue for the chairlift – which they used for free – while the Skype connection on a conference with Shevchenko was quite poor, so that was abandoned and she could sneak off for a swim. It seems that this is a man no immune to gimmicks, with today’s concert perhaps following in that vein. Sorry, too cynical – it’s a nice patriotic gesture and in no way related to the electoral campaign.
Earlier today Shevchenko was again at the university speaking to students, although when a debate was held for all candidates a week ago, he did not attend along with nine other candidates, who include the current mayor, an UDAR candidate, local Maidan activists, a student and journalists and others. Instead, he turned up a couple of hours later to have another session alone with students. He has also signed a deal with the Precarpathian University to continue cooperation whereby students can attend his Bukovel ski resort on various apprenticeships and internships. Signing it on 21 May, in the run-up to the election, seems like rather convenient timing, while questions should also be raised about the close relationship the university – which nominally ought to be autonomous – has with Shevchenko, who appears to be the institution’s favoured candidate. However, a local newspaper reports that incumbent mayor and parliamentary candidate Viktor Anushkevychus was speaking at the Tourism Department of the Precarpathian University and posters were displayed stating that attendance was “compulsory”, a violation of electoral – and presumably – university rules.
Shevchenko is also controversial in the city because of his involvement with the bankrupted and now amateur local football team, FK Prykarpattya. It seems he lost interest in pumping money into the club quite quickly. The current campaign has also infuriated locals who have been receiving unsolicited texts from his campaign team informing people when Shevchenko will be appearing on regional television. Suspicions were raised that PrivatBank’s client list was being used, although that is denied. Instead, numbers from the database of Bukovel, the ski resort he co-owns, were the source and a list of “supporters of the candidate”.
* UPDATE, 23 May 2014 * A local newspaper is reporting that Shevchenko has broken electoral rules by giving free gifts to student-participants of an art competition. Presumably a free concert is falls within similar guidelines?
What was truly odd about today’s event was that it took place not in the city centre (perhaps Shevchenko’s rival, current mayor Viktor Anushkevychus put the kibosh on that?) but in a small square between two Khrushchev-era blocks of low-rise flats outside the city centre. Close to where I live, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to experience this provincial electoral campaign – sorry, patriotic event in support of the Ukrainian military that just happens to be organised by a millionaire electoral candidate. I dragged my wife along using ice cream from a nearby shop as a bribe and we went along to watch the campaign show. Sorry, did it again. We went along to watch the concert in support of the Ukrainian army.
The MC made sure that the sparse crowd knew that Shevchenko had sponsored the event between each act, although there was no overt mention of the election. One of the acts, who you can watch on my video here, is apparently a former Ukrainian Voice participant. I’m not sure how far she got, but my wife was convinced – and I’m pretty sure – that she was lip-synching today. Her music is typical of the event which featured, basically, bad Central/Eastern European wedding band backing music with some generally patriotic songs reflecting upon beautiful landscapes, beautiful language or heroism. This guy was an exception, as he forsook the bad wedding music and went for a bit of a crooner vibe. But patriotic. It was hard to stand much more, and the ice cream had been eaten, so we headed home, passing people coming back from a walk around the city lake making comments like “what the hell is that racket?” Even back home it was impossible to escape the electoral campaign – dammit, patriotic fundraising concert for Ukrainian soldiers – as it resounded around the area and beyond. (That link is to another video.)
The concert was sparsely-attended, perhaps no more than 150 people, including loads of kids and the people hanging out of the windows of the numerous flats facing onto the square. Even if children were allowed to vote in this election, I’m not sure this concert would have done much to convince them, with the singers struggling to get their “hands in the air”. And this was the sole trick of which they availed themselves, besides appealing to a kind of sentimental patriotism in the songs. It didn’t help, perhaps, that the sewer covers in the square were not quite tight and on this hot day the stink was pretty awful. Sadly, Shevchenko himself didn’t turn up – but it’s not part of the political campaign, so why would he. Still, no one made much fuss about insisting on calling or texting 565 to support the military.
As to the other candidates in the by-election, they are not immune to gimmicks. Mykola Havryliuk, a young man responsible for the Typical Frankivsk portal, organised on Sunday an event letting off 352 Chinese lanterns. All part of the celebrating the city’s anniversary, not the campaign, you see. Still, at least he is involved personally in his electoral campaign, as he handed me a leaflet on Monday and exchanged a couple of words. Lots of candidates, meanwhile, are having their campaigners gain access to flats and are leaving newspapers and leaflets attached to door handles. This newspaper is a rather impressive effort, although the candidate is unknown to anyone I’ve asked. I say it’s a newspaper, but really its a newsletter all about Mykola Petrunyak. Although he does have an interview with Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh who is much less enthusiastic about the EU than Petrunyak, who promotes – in the title too – a European Ukrainian. Interestingly, he stresses his connections to Ukrainians working abroad, of whom there are very many in this region, sending money back to the city and funding their families, as well as the building boom here.
It is interesting to observe here the different approaches to campaigning, with a real cross-section of traditional door-to-door canvassing, leafleting, meetings, attempts to impress with big events, gimmicks and freebies (that seem to backfire), as well as turning to social media by younger candidates, especially. There are also question marks over the fairness of incumbent mayor Viktor Anushkevychus being still in post while campaigning and thus having access to certain political and media resources, as well as a greater public profile. However the by-election campaign is being conducted, the candidates are likely to enjoy a particularly high turn out owing to the presidential elections.
And, in an update on recent posts about the Armoured Personnel Carrier farce and the stand-off between Maidan Self-Defence and the police authorities in the city (it has been a pleasure to write about something different today, more light-hearted), there was no sign today of any protest outside the police HQ. Everything was cleared up, the doors unlocked, the remnants of the burnt tyre cleared away. It seems increasingly to be the case that these protests are part of a campaign for particular interests in the city to secure “their man” for the police posts rather than a genuine civil movement.
Now who could possibly – after what is now being called the “Revolution of Dignity”, rather than Euromaidan now – be so cynical so as to co-opt apparent patriotic sentiment for political ends?