Ukraine will choose a new president in two weeks in an election considered crucial to the country’s future and even existence. But there is little sign of election fever in the southern port city of Odessa, Ukraine's third largest with more than one million people.
The few posters and billboards encouraging people to vote are more likely to be for the city’s mayoral elections, also scheduled for May 25. And the booths that usually pop up all over town promoting candidates were entirely absent over the long holiday weekend of May 9-11.
Both mayoral and presidential are snap elections. The local election is taking place after the previous mayor unexpectedly resigned in late 2013, while the national one is happening because of the EuroMaidan Revolution that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22. The votes follow Russia's annexation nearby Crimea by Russia in March.
But the elections are at risk of being overwhelmed by the violent unrest engulfing southeast Ukraine, hitting Odessa when rival factions on May 2 clashed in the street and then later in the Trade Unions House, triggering a fire that - combined with earlier violence that day -- killed 46 people.
In this atmosphere of uncertainty, many Odessans are inclined to turn their backs on national politics altogether.
Odessa voters are not usually very active in all-Ukrainian elections, according to Iuliia Serbina, senior researcher from the National Institute for Strategic Studies’ Odessa regional branch.
The average turnout here is 40-45 percent, compared to the Ukrainian average of 62-67 percent. Traditionally interest is higher in mayoral elections; many people in this multi-ethnic city say their nationality is Odessan rather than Ukrainian or Russian, and their allegiances are more likely to be swayed by who mended the city’s roads or privatized the sea front, than by what is going on in national politics.
The May 2 deaths, which most Odessans blame on the interference of outside political forces, has only reinforced this reluctance to engage in politics outside their home turf.
“What happened on May 2 is unacceptable,” said a 50-year-old woman who would only identify herself as Natalia, as she sat on a bench on Derebasovskaya Street with her daughter, Alina. Neither woman planned to vote for a new president. “There’s no one to vote for,” said Natalia. “I don’t want to even think about who is in power now. They brought huge grief upon us and upon our city, and we won’t forgive them for it.”
Serbina thinks the lack of campaigning here is due in part to uncertainty from candidates as to whether the election will take place at all.
Since Yanukovych fled the country in February, Russia has called the interim government illegitimate and said it will not recognize the presidential election. Meanwhile discontent in the east has flared into violence and calls to secede from Ukraine. Recently Russian President Vladimir Putin backtracked and said Ukrainian presidential elections are "a step in the right direction," but the eastern oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk -- collectively home to 15 percent of the nation -- pressed ahead with a referendum on independence on May 11.
Anxiety about more clashes like those on May 2 has also affected campaigning in Odessa, where any public gathering or display has been discouraged for fear of inciting a repeat of the violence. “It’s the first year it’s been so quiet,” said pensioner Valentina Katerova, who in previous years used to follow election campaigns closely. “There’s so much opposition between people now, Russian and Ukrainian, and all those booths and posters would make the aggression worse, everyone starts arguing.”
Anatoly Boiko who heads the Odessa region branch of the Ukrainian Committee of Voters, said most of the candidates are not new to politics and do not have to do much campaigning, as they can rely on voters’ prior knowledge. But herein lies the main reason why many Odessans are not keen to vote. They have seen all these faces before, and say none of them have done anything positive for the country or for Odessa.
In Europe and the U.S., a free and fair presidential election is considered vital to stabilizing Ukraine and, most importantly, lending the post-EuroMaidan Ukrainian government national and international legitimacy. Odessans’ disaffection with politics, however, remains unchanged after EuroMaidan. Disappointed in Yanukovych, who the majority in Odessa voted for in 2010, they see no improvement since he left power and are disgusted with endemic corruption and with politicians from all sides who line their pockets while ruining the country.
“I really doubt this election will solve anything,” added her friend Andrei Khorev, also 24, “since it looks like most people will vote for [poll front-runner Petro] Poroshenko so as not to vote for [Yulia] Tymoshenko, or the other way round. And Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are people who have already shown themselves from all sides, and I don’t think a new bright side is going to suddenly emerge.”
Serbina points out that despite changes in Kyiv following the EuroMaidan demonstrations, the balance of power in Odessa Region has not essentially changed since February 2014. Local council majorities are still from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, and officials and members of territorial and district election commissions are also unchanged.
Airopetova and Khorev plan to vote anyway, “In case we can influence something,” said Airopetova. They have also registered to be election observers. Along with several other young Odessans, they said they support Darth Vader of the Ukrainian Internet Party, who wears a costume from the Star Wars films and talks about making Ukraine into a galactic empire. Darth Vader’s presidential bid was rejected because of irregularities, but he is running for mayor in Kyiv and in Odessa, where his campaign posters are mostly about closing well-known areas where drugs are sold.
“He’s young, a new face among politicians, and it seems like he might do something,” said Airopetova.
If some are not going to vote out of apathy or disappointment, a small but vocal minority plan to actively boycott the elections because they consider them illegitimate after the current interim government came to power in what they call an armed coup. Following the deaths of many anti-Ukrainian government activists in a fire on May 2, anger with the government has only increased among these people, who held a meeting to oppose the elections on Kulykovo Polye, outside the burnt trade union building, on May 11.
Boiko said that so far preparations for the presidential campaign are running smoothly, with fewer violations registered than usual though there have been some for the mayoral elections. The two leading candidates for mayor, Eduard Gurvits and Gennady Trukhanov, are both well-known in local politics; Gurvits served two terms as mayor but has been accused of election violations. If Odessans cannot cite a single positive thing national lawmakers or presidents have done for them, many at least remember Gurvits for repairing the roads, or Trukhanov for building children’s playgrounds. And for Odessans who are proud of their beautiful city and still reeling from the tragedy of May 2, this is what matters.
Boiko believes that despite the widespread disillusionment among both those who supported EuroMaidan and those who opposed it, the majority of Odessans nevertheless will use their constitutional right to vote in order to legitimise the Ukrainian government and calm the country’s turmoil.
“Even with all the disappointment, people will vote for stability,” he said.
But among Odessans who intend to vote, along with those who do not, few believe there is a candidate who can bring stability to Ukraine. “We need someone who can unite east and west Ukraine, but there’s no one,’ said Natalia. “We have a wonderful state, a wonderful people. But no one who can look after it.”
“I’m just going to vote so that no one else uses my vote,” added former journalist Nelie Yasinskaya. “Someone has to lead us. Let them lead us how they want, just so long as they don’t kill people.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.