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Ukraine’s Diogenes Five

In the coming election, a few young candidates want to prove that honest politics is not an oxymoron in their country. From openDemocracy. by Roman Kabachiy 9 October 2012

Ihor Lutsenko is a public activist and the founder of the “Save Old Kyiv!” initiative, which has taken up the cudgels against illegal construction in the historic part of the 1,500-year-old city on the Dnieper. It opposes the destruction of parks, squares, and old buildings.


Tetyana Montyan is a lawyer who has set up an alternative organization called Condominium Owners Association or The Association of Owners of Apartment Blocks, which has effectively achieved a revolution in Ukrainian local authority housing.


Kostyantyn Usov is a TV journalist for the TVi opposition channel who made a documentary about the living conditions for inmates in Kyiv’s most hated prison, Lukyanivka.


Vasyl Hatsko
Vasyl Hatsko comes from the depressed Donbass area. He set up the Democratic Alliance, a new form of political actor in Ukraine, which unites young progressive Ukraino-centric people across the whole country.


Journalist Tetyana Chornovil scaled a 5-meter fence at the presidential estate, Mezhyhirya, and uploaded photos to the Internet revealing the inexcusable luxury in which President Viktor Yanukovych lives.




All of them have all decided to run in single-mandate constituencies in the 28 October parliamentary elections. The mixed [majority-proportional] electoral system was reinstated a year ago; the last elections of this kind were held in 2002, but after that general elections were run on a proportional-representation system with closed electoral lists. 


The other thing these people have in common is that, apart from Hatsko, they have never had anything to do with politics but have felt compelled by circumstances to become involved. Ukrainians have become so used to the image of politicians as corrupt fat cat oligarchs who buy up everything in sight, that the idea of a politician as an honest man has practically disappeared in the past few years. Paradoxically, it was only the nationalist Freedom Party [Svoboda] that could have represented the new people on the political scene at the last local elections in 2010, but it was unable to put forward enough experienced candidates and was accused of trying to bring uneducated people to power. Vitali Klitschko's UDAR Party [Ukraine Democratic Alliance for Reform] also represents new people in one sense, but the party campaign is one way or another rooted in big business. Our heroes work individually.


Montyan, Lutsenko, and Hatsko are standing in Kyiv. The Facebook opinion about this trio is that if just one of them gets elected to the Verkhovna Rada, then the chances of something useful happening in parliament (by comparison with the last session) will increase tenfold. A Facebook user from Lviv regrets, for the first time, that she doesn’t live in the capital, as she hasn’t found in her city a majority candidate for whom she could campaign and vote with confidence.




Why are people so sure that these singletons could do something? The answer is probably related to Ukrainian society’s longing for real people and reforms, rather than pale imitations. 


Lutsenko explains that he is standing for just that reason, because he realized that it wasn’t enough to be a journalist (he worked in the economics department of the respected Ukrainian Pravda website). He became involved in public life: “In Ukraine words mean nothing: we can proclaim the most appalling truth, but it will change nothing. So I started looking for other ways of making a difference. We invited active and committed people to our protests, and took up legal work – bringing cases and writing appeals, etc. – but then that too ceased to be enough and I realized that we needed new ways of influencing events i.e. representation in various government bodies.”


Konstantin Usov
Usov is a young man of medium-height who wears his education lightly. He decided to take up the struggle in Odessa, where his opponent is the former head of the Regional Council and the Odessa State Administration, Serhiy Hryvnevetskyy. He also supports the decision of other active citizens to stand for parliament. “Renewal is a principle of life, but the Ukrainian parliament has seen no renewal during the past 20 years.”


The outspoken Montyan emphasizes that as Ukraine lived for 10 years with no majority constituencies, a nonprofessional politician has no chance whatever of getting into parliament, other than ‘licking the … boots of the party bosses.”


The exaggerated post-Soviet image of the politician has resulted in ordinary Ukrainians considering the job of the politician as helping the poor, greeting war veterans on public holidays, seeing to the construction of bus stops and organizing the landscaping of public places – out of his own pocket. Usov, for instance, encountered in his constituency a voter who promised him his vote if he could ensure a children’s playground would be built near his home. Usov told the man that he had no money for this, that he was not engaged in any kind of commodity swaps, and that his intention was to “serve society and compel the government to work, rather than looking for resources to buy people’s votes.”




Those same voters who believe in more global change, and more profoundly than just improving the here and now, are hoping that candidates with initiative will be elected. To ensure that there are more optimists, Usov has proposed an unusual relationship between the candidate for parliament and his voter: more than 13,000 people in the Malinovsky district of Odessa have already signed a five-year employment agreement with Usov.  “These agreements are signed with each citizen individually,” Usov tells me. “In that way I have legally certified each of my responsibilities, not in general, but individually to each resident of Odessa.” Usov believes that this is the first step toward compelling each deputy to answer for his promises.


Lutsenko is not signing agreements, but he is also making direct contact with the electorate: he is traveling around the constituency on a bicycle with a “Save Old Kyiv!” flag, handing out his campaign literature.


It is highly likely that not all our heroes will be elected to parliament, but they will at least be able to make their presence felt by making statements about what they do, what they would like to do, and how they might do it. 


In an interview with the Telekritika website, Chernovil said her energy could serve as a focus of attraction for men – “As a woman, I have considerable potential!” She also promised that she would continue working as a journalist – “Please do not refer to me as an ex-journalist” – a field in which she is well-known for her high-profile investigations of corruption. In her opinion corruption has been the main threat for the country since 2005. “Now the main threat is dictatorship and the loss for Ukraine of her statehood,” she says. “When I started writing about corruption in 2005 we were talking about millions, now it’s billions.”


Usov also intends to carry on his professional work. He says he regards politics simply as a way of fighting hard for what he was promoting before, as both a journalist and a lawyer. “I have achieved considerable victories in fighting for human rights, the restoration of justice, the bringing to court of those who are guilty and initiating reforms. I shall carry on doing what I am doing now, but on a scale that will be more difficult for the state to ignore.”


Lutsenko considers that “People feel they can put their faith in the power and energy of a politician, believing that he can do more than an ordinary person.” When asked if he doesn’t feel out on a limb, Ihor answers that he may be breaking new ground, but he hopes that his experience can be passed on to others. “I don’t feel alone, because so many people are following what’s happening to me. Nominally I am going into politics, but I am part of the group (following the line of the ‘Save Old Kyiv’ campaign),” he says.


Montyan is sure of victory (“I have the support of so many more people than those party monsters …”). Her view of Lutsenko’s chances is that, even if he doesn’t get elected to parliament, he can be sure of a place in the Kyiv City Council at the next local elections.




Can one be sure that Usov, Montyan, and Lutsenko will not betray their ideals and their voters? Until now the situation in Ukrainian politics has been that when the political climate changed, deputies who had been elected from lists of one particular party changed sides and went over to another because they had been bribed or pressured in some other way. These people are called “carcasses” – headless bodies unable to make decisions for themselves. Thanks to these carcasses, Yanukovych has a docile majority in parliament, but there are still many opposition deputies who remain loyal to their parties. It proved quite difficult to keep people in the parliamentary Fatherland party, whose leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was sent to prison a year ago. The opposition ranks are more likely to be swelled with members of Vitaly Klychko’s party. 


People like the five we have named have not engaged in such a bitter struggle with corruption and post-Soviet boorishness only to go over to the opponent. Usov has ensured for himself the support of Fatherland and will probably join the ranks of its parliamentary party. Hatsko has his own party, but it’s still not strong enough to get past the 5 percent barrier.  For the remaining three, principles are more important than millions.


Usov’s view of the new generation of politicians in the Ukrainian parliament is that “all our country’s problems could be solved with sustained systematic work, if that work were to be entrusted to people of a different breed, a new model … who have never robbed their country, had no connections with big business, the mafia and officials. People who are ready to serve society honestly and devotedly.” If one is to believe Hatsko’s motto on his Facebook page (If political parties are sponsored by ordinary people, rather than oligarchs, this will be a first!), then Usov’s words will not seem banal either. Every year there are more right-thinking people who want civilized change in Ukraine.


As the Chilean Eduardo Frei said, “If I had to choose between bread and freedom, I would choose freedom. Then I could fight for the bread.”

Roman Kabachiy is a journalist Kyiv and an expert with the Ukrainian Institute of Mass Information. This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.
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