Those who are tired of the same old political faces staring from TV screens are introduced to a trio of newcomers, Oleg Riabokon, Vasyl Protyvsikh and Oleksandr Pabat.
Are you tired of the same old bunch of people who have dominated Ukrainian politics since the 2004 Orange Revolution? Desperately in search of alternative presidential candidates?
Well, there are a few new faces registered among the 18 candidates for the Jan. 17 presidential contest. But polls and analysts do not expect any of them to have a serious chance – at least not in this election.
Only two candidates – Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and ex-premier Victor Yanukovych – have a realistic chance of getting into a second round runoff and becoming president, according to recent polls.
If you are not too excited about them or the other dozen candidates who have been floated for months as alternatives, three new faces have cast their hats into the race.
Oleg Riabokon, a 36-year-old millionaire lawyer;
Vasyl Protyvsikh, a 63-year-old pensioner, who hopes his new surname (Against All, in Ukrainian) will muster voter support; and
Oleskandr Pabat, a 35-year-old Kyiv City Council member and self-declared civic activist who drives a Maserati and is allied with the capital’s eccentric mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky.
All three express contempt for the current political elite, long considered to be utterly corrupt and ruinous for the nation’s future. It’s ultimately up to voters. But for now, the newcomers remain unknown on the national scene and their chances of garnering even 1 percent support are considered negligible.
In the notorious 2004 election, 24 candidates ran for president, paying Hr 500,000 to exercise this right in a 120-day campaign. This time, the three newcomers join 15 other candidates in registering and paying five times more to enter the race during a financial crisis. Yet they have only 90 days of official campaigning to deliver their messages.
Are they really out to change Ukraine for the better, or at least provide a viable alternative? Or are they destined to serve as dummy or spoiler candidates only to siphon votes from the more viable contenders?
“I don’t know what compels the majority of candidates to run for president other than serving an ulterior motive,” said Iryna Bekeshkina, research director of Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a Kyiv-based policy center. “Two and a half million hryvnia is a lot to pay to satisfy one’s ego. There are much cheaper ways of doing this.”
But even a fruitless candidacy in 2010 might yield benefits in future races. “The election is a good time to gain name recognition for emerging politicians, a time when the public is more attune to politics,” Bekeshkina said.
A self-made millionaire, Riabokon is fed up with how things are going in his homeland. He wants to become the nation’s top public servant because otherwise he doesn’t see “any future for the country.”
His election program espouses the universally-accepted cornerstones of democracy: ensuring a vibrant civil society, an accountable and transparent government and the rule of law. He wants to see direct representation in government much like how Switzerland functions.
Riabokon facetiously refers to himself as the “technical candidate of civil society,” and claims that while he is a newcomer to politics, he has the necessary experience to change Ukraine.
A Vinnytsia native, Riabokon was educated and trained as a lawyer in the United States. Fluent in English and recognized as one of the world’s top trade lawyers, Riabokon built up the Kyiv-based Magisters law firm, expanding it throughout the former Soviet Union in recent years.
Little known outside of Kyiv’s legal circles, Riabokon’s strategy is to build a grassroots movement from the ground up. He admits it will be an uphill battle, but insists he is committed.
“In Ukraine, the people are slaves in their own country. Government owes nothing to its own people. And we need to reverse this 180 degrees,” he told the Kyiv Post.
Arguably the most educated of candidates, Riabokon said many of his rival candidates have either worked for or are currently part of the corrupt and impotent political establishment, which he likens to an “evil” swamp. “But if I break up a clear stream of clean water, all of a sudden people will reorient themselves and will come to the clean source of water,” he said.
But the onus is on the public, according to Riabokon. Every citizen has to take responsibility for what is happening in the country, from their family lives “all the way up to the state hierarchy.”
Riabokon said the public is ready for a “revolutionary change in mentality.”
Polls have consistently shown this year that 10 percent or more of voters could choose the ‘Against All’ option when casting their ballot. Eager to capitalize on this widespread disillusionment, Ivano-Frankivsk resident Vasyl Humeniuk changed his last name this year to Protyvsikh, which means ‘Against All’ in Ukrainian.
He is no stranger to small-town politics, having served in the Carpathian mountain town of Yaremche as mayor, headed the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast’s customs service and is now heading a trade and industry chamber. But thanks to this PR stunt, his candidacy is now known nationwide and many voters could accidentally vote for him, rather than choosing the genuine “Against All” option.
Humeniuk-Protyvsikh changed his surname to “express the opinions of all those citizens that are against all candidates and the disorder that Ukraine currently finds itself in.”
He earned Hr 234,000 last year and said the Hr 2.5 million needed to register as a candidate was fronted by supporters “in the villages and by friends.”
Humeniuk-Protyvsikh has a history in recent years of going against mainstream candidates, but some of his “friends” are influential members of the country’s political establishment. In 2007, he unsuccessfully ran for parliament. Dubbed as an alternative political movement that could end the political mayhem that followed the Orange Revolution, the bloc was founded and backed by Oleksandr Volkov, a businessman and former chief of staff to ex-president Leonid Kuchma.
Technically the poorest of all candidates with only Hr 245 of declared income in 2008, Pabat’s car collection may be one of Ukraine’s most expensive. It includes a Maserati Spider, Mercedes-Benz and Porche Carrera.
He claims to be the founder of independent civic activist organizations that defend residents of the capital, but opponents call him a loyal ally of Kyiv mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, whose tenure has been stained by a flurry of allegedly corrupt land dealings.
Pabat says he became a civic activist and politician in 2000 after striking success during a 10-year advertising career. In 2002, he became a Kyiv city council member and, in 2006, he joined the pro-Chernovetsky majority coalition with his Citizens Activist Kyiv Party, the same name of a non-profit organization he founded in 2005.
Apart from doling out prized city land, the capital’s council members in the pro-mayoral coalition are accused of grabbing control over the city’s public utilities.
A self-declared defender of civic rights, the Poltava native’s election program says the Ukrainian people are slaves in their own country. “The people of Ukraine live in a Latin American country slaving away to support the richest 50 families,” he told the Kyiv Post. Downplaying his ties to the establishment and alleged role in murky land dealings, Pabat calls the “oligarchic elite ‘terminators’ who know only how to steal, sell and destroy.”
Mark Rachkevych can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.