Voting for Yanukovych, but unenthusiastically

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Nov. 26, 2009, 11:15 p.m. | Ukraine — by James Marson

Presidential front-runner Victor Yanukovych (left) has long been backed by Ukraine’s richest billionaire, Rinat Akhmetov. Both are shown at the new Donbas Arena in Donetsk, a football stadium financed by Akhmetov. While both men have deep roots in Donetsk
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Disgust with all politicians also high in Donetsk. DONETSK, UKRAINE – In the heart of Donetsk, capital of Ukraine’s most populous oblast, huge banners in the Party of Regions’ trademark blue-and-white read: “Donbas supports Victor Yanukovych.” In the Donbas Arena stadium at the football match between Ukraine and Greece earlier this month, the presidential candidate and ex-prime minister was given a rousing cheer, in contrast to the boos for President Victor Yushchenko.

But while Yanukovych is expected to be a shoe-in with voters in the eastern industrial core, where he started his political career as regional governor, there’s a distinct lack of passion for the candidate. However, other candidates may not be able to capitalize on the less than rock-solid support for Yanukovych.

“I will vote for Yanukovych, but only because he’s from here and he’ll be good for our region,” said Anatoliy Rodchenko, who lost his job at a steel mill because of the economic crisis.

Rather than voting for a candidate they feel is going to transform the country, many Donetskites say they are casting their ballots for the lesser of two evils. “Yulia [Tymoshenko]’s team will steal half the budget; Yanukovych’s team will also steal half the budget, but at least they’ll get something done,” Rodchenko said.

The reason for the antipathy toward politicians, including Yanukovych, is their ineffectiveness. Unfulfilled promises from previous election campaigns have not gone unnoticed.

“Yanukovych always promises to make Russian the second state language, but then he gets into power and never achieves it,” said security guard Olexiy Smirnov. “What’s the promise worth?”

This desire to see results explains the adoration many in Donetsk have for Rinat Akhmetov, the powerful home-grown oligarch, billionaire and owner of Shaktar Donetsk soccer club. The recently opened Donbas Arena, for example, the largest and most modern soccer stadium in Ukraine, was financed by Akhmetov.

“I realize he isn’t an angel, but he gets things built and makes things work. He’s effective,” enthused Smirnov.

The main reason for the antipathy towards Yushchenko also has roots in what Donetskites say is his failure to push through improvements to change the country for the better. “We knew in 2004 that he was no different to the rest of them,” Smirnov sighed. “Now the rest of the country knows, too.”

There is little mention of the “anti-Russian” stance that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev castigated Yushchenko for in an open letter in the summer. The boos that rang out at the soccer match had little to do with his push for the NATO military alliance, or attitude to the Ukrainian language and history, locals said. In fact, his commemoration of the Holodomor famine, in which millions of Ukrainians starved to death in 1932-3, has been well-received. “Should we just wave goodbye to the people who died and forget about them?” said Olena Bublik, a teacher.

“People aren’t bothered about World War II, or even Russia; they are interested in jobs,” she added. “Yushchenko has done nothing to improve our lives.”

The often repeated claims in the Russian and Western press that Ukraine is a country divided between east and west hardly hold up. Even politicians are starting to understand: Divisive issues such as NATO membership and the Russian language used by Yanukovych’s backers in 2004 are conspicuous by their absence from the current campaign.

And there is one feeling that unites the country more than anything – detest for politicians. Yanukovych and Donetsk are no different.

“Our politicians are all the same. I wish we could send them all to an island and forget about them, because then our problems would be solved much faster,” said Rodchenko, the former steel mill worker.

James Marson can be reached at
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