Ukrainian government touts elections, but not all voters feel inspired

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KIEV, Ukraine — Vadym Stolar runs in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections on Sunday from the riverside Obolon district of Kiev. Vadym Stolyar too. And Vadym Stolyar.

It’s an age-old tactic in Ukraine’s dark political world: find people with names similar to your opponent’s and register them as candidates to divert votes from bewildered voters.

“It’s a dirty trick,” said Mr Stolar, a fledgling Kiev construction tycoon and former member of parliament. “But we are educating voters and even made a special booklet on my clones and how to tell them apart from me.”

Ukrainians will elect their first parliament on Sunday since pro-European protests in Kiev’s Independence Square, known as Maidan, toppled friendly Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych –an uprising which led neighboring Russia to annex Crimea and support a separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government presents the elections as a chance for voters to pursue Maidan’s spirit and usher in a more trustworthy and West-oriented legislature. For President Petro Poroshenko, a solid base in the new parliament will be vital to turn around a plummeting economy and ensure any peace agreement with Russia and the separatist leaders sticks.

The result will certainly be Ukraine’s first independent parliament with an overwhelming pro-European majority, marking a change in the political landscape of a nation long destabilized by a dividing line between warring pro-European and pro-Russian factions. .

But Obolon’s race reveals that old political habits die hard. In some cases, voters feel less than inspired, seeing the same old faces in many candidates and signs of political rot who dominated Ukrainian politics for years.

“I expected Maidan to produce a new leader of the nation, someone without a spot,” Vyacheslav Nazarov, a 46-year-old entrepreneur, told Obolon. “I saw people but not new leaders.

With its mix of working-class Soviet apartment buildings and elite residential skyscrapers, the Kiev neighborhood has become the kind of electoral battleground imaginable only in modern Ukraine.

Mr Stolar, a former MP for Yanukvoych’s Party of Regions, made headlines in 2010 for landing a few punches in a mass legislative brawl, before winning a seat on Kiev city council earlier This year.

It faces competition from Andriy Biletsky, the radical nationalist commander of the Azov Battalion, a voluntary far-right paramilitary group fighting in eastern Ukraine, whose badges and flags feature symbols resembling the neo-Nazi iconography.

The two present themselves as independent. The candidate initially backed by Mr Poroshenko’s political party did not register after nude images of her online sparked a scandal.

A man named Darth Vader is also on the ballot, according to documents from the Ukrainian Central Election Commission.

“It’s one of the most troubled areas in Kiev,” said Taras Chmut, coordinator of the OPORA Civil Network, a US-funded election monitoring body.

OPORA cited violation after violation of electoral rules in Obolon, ranging from voter payments to unauthorized advertising. Mr. Chmut also worries the bands of fighters in fatigues, who having agitated for opposing candidates, could collide in the event of a contested result.

The Ukrainian political arena has long been plagued by corruption, with people often in public office to protect and enrich obscure business interests.

Mr Poroshenko, himself a tycoon, pledged to reform Ukraine and change its policy. His party is almost certain to come out on top – with up to 35% of the vote according to some polls – and form a ruling coalition.

Ukrainians make two choices on the ballot: who they choose in their constituency and which political faction they support. District candidates represent half of the 450-person legislature. Party list candidates make up the remainder. All parties that exceed 5% of the vote receive list seats proportional to the fraction of the electorate they win.

All of Ukraine will not be represented. Authorities say there will be no elections in at least 26 districts of Russian-occupied Crimea and the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The absence of these traditionally pro-Russian districts – combined with the collapse of Yanukovych’s political machine and a dramatic rise in anti-Russian sentiment – promises Ukraine’s most pro-European parliament since independence.

But it’s not clear whether the election will result in any real change. According to OPORA, around two-thirds of Ukrainian sitting MPs are campaigning to reclaim their seats. Other candidates have been in previous parliaments.

Vadym Stolar’s campaign tent, along with two other candidate tents, near Obolon metro station on Thursday.

Nick shchetko

Although he is only 32 years old, Mr. Stolar is already something of a political survivor. When a pro-European party ruled in 2006, it joined it and won a seat in the regional legislature. After Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party took control, he switched teams, winning a seat in parliament on his list in 2010. He left that party two years later.

“The Party of Regions was a huge bureaucratic machine that drove the country into the abyss,” he says. “As soon as I realized the horror of what was going on, I immediately quit the party and decided to campaign as an independent from that point on.”

He ran unsuccessfully in his native Obolon in 2012, when OPORA accused his campaign of handing out small cash payments to senior voters in return for their support. Mr Stolar called the election watchdog’s assessments biased.

This time around, Mr Stolar is expressing his support for Mr Poroshenko and displaying campaign placards that resemble those of the President’s People’s Party. He does not rule out joining the party’s ruling coalition if he wins. But he is not supported by the bloc.

In his campaign biography, the businessman cites his grandfather, confined to a wheelchair after rescuing Chernobyl victims, as a guiding influence. He also says he was forced to work nights to unload frozen fish at the age of 15, an experience that has left one of his hands frozen to this day.

Above all, Mr. Stolar says he’s helping Obolon. Its campaign gives figures: 13 new playgrounds installed and 134 restored, plus 257 new benches, 1,654 new PO boxes and 7,348 meters of new fences.

“I solve the simplest problems for people,” he says.

Mr Biletsky, meanwhile, comes from distant Kharkiv and represents one of the clearest tendencies of the election: the rise of eastern Ukrainian fighters in politics.

His Azov battalion played a vital role in defending the east against an advance by Russian-backed separatists. But the paramilitary group also raised the profile of a far-right ideology that many saw as troubling.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal before declaring his candidacy, Mr Biletsky denied that Azov’s unofficial logos carried neo-Nazi overtones and said he did not believe in theories of racial superiority. But he admitted that the paramilitary group was following the tradition of the controversial far-right organization of Ukrainian nationalists.

Freed from prison by the Maidan protests, Biletsky said Ukrainian authorities fabricated the murder charge for which he had been jailed for political bias.

At a recent rally, he said he would not be painting Obolon’s benches or paving its sidewalks, but would strengthen the Ukrainian army. He is also committed to fighting corruption. “This is the phenomenon that multiplies the success of any country by zero,” he said.

The stampede is in full swing. In an interview with a Ukrainian publication, Mr Biletsky accused Mr Stolar of preparing to tamper with Sunday’s vote. Mr Stolar, in turn, said Mr Biletsky brought a warzone feel to Obolon. “The neighborhood lives in fear,” he said.

Ukrainian reform activists called on the political parties that united on the Maidan to stop bickering and throw their strength behind a single candidate to beat Mr. Stolar.

Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk’s party candidate gave up and backed Biletsky accordingly. But others refused to resign, seeing the nationalist commander as a questionable alternative.

“My heart and soul suffer for all the people who have died, and for what?” Said Ruslan Rudenko, of the Civil Platform party, who remained in the race but resigned himself to a probable victory for Mr Stolar. “If the system doesn’t change, the state will simply cease to exist. “

Write to Paul Sonne at [email protected]

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