DNIPROPETROVSK -- With Ukraine's parliamentary elections just over two months away, opposition campaigners in eastern Ukraine say their voices are being muffled -- in one case by taking down political billboards featuring gigantic cats.
In the eastern city of Dniprodzerzhinsk, local council deputy Vitaliy Kupriy is crying foul after 15 election billboards he ordered were simultaneously removed from city streets. Kupriy is running for parliament for the opposition Svoboda Party and his billboards had criticized Ukraine's ruling Party of Regions with slogans like "Are you tired of abuses by the authorities?"
On August 16, it emerged that eight of the 15 missing billboards were discovered near an asphalt plant in the Petrykiv district.
The removal of the billboards comes after other antigovernment billboards created by Kupriy's friend Maksym Holosnyy were also torn down.
One of Holosnyy's humorous political advertisements -- which was removed early last week from a site in Dniprodzerzhinsk -- depicted a cat with an elderly woman who says: "I found out my grandson voted for the Party of Regions, so I rewrote [my will] to give my house to the cat."
Holosnyy, head of a village in the region, has gone into hiding after the authorities launched a criminal investigation against him over allegations of theft. He maintains that those charges are politically motivated. But police say the probe has nothing to do with the antigovernment billboard campaign he created.
Kupriy maintains that his billboards were removed on the orders of local officials from the Party of Regions in Dniprodzerzhinsk.
"I think they, the government, just decided to go in with full force so that there is no criticism. The authorities just gave the order to destroy [the billboards]. The police knew about this but they did not give any warning," Kupriy says.
But Andrey Mikheychenko, a local press secretary for the Party of Regions, says his party had nothing to do with the removal of the 15 billboards.
Dnipropetrovsk regional police spokesman Oleksy Shcherbatov has told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that authorities have not yet decided whether the disappearance of the political campaign advertisements constitutes a crime.
Shcherbatov noted that a local court has been hearing a case over who owns the structures that hold up the billboards. He said police must confirm whether the court has issued any order for the removal of the billboards before deciding if a criminal case will be opened.
That court case was raised by Halyna Kuropiatnykova, a deputy in the Dniprodzerzhynsk city council from the Party of Regions who also heads a local communal company called MIS.
Yelena Kondratyuk, a member of parliament from the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, has appealed to Ukraine's prosecutor-general to find whoever took down the billboards.
Meanwhile, photos of the elderly woman's cat are proliferating on social networks used by Ukrainians -- apparently in sympathy with opposition forces who contest the parliamentary elections on October 28.
Written by Ron Synovitz based on reporting by Maryanna Drach in Prague and Yulia Ratsybarska in Dnipropetrovsk.