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Ukraine '10: In Presidential Race, The Biggest Billboard Wins

Dueling billboards for parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn (left) and former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in downtown Kyiv.
Dueling billboards for parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn (left) and former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in downtown Kyiv.
KYIV -- Size does matter. Particularly when it comes to campaign ads in Ukraine's January 17 presidential election.

Here, the guiding principle is: the bigger, the better. In a country where advertising was practically nonexistent during the Soviet era, today the billboard is king.

One of the first things a visitor notices upon leaving Ukraine's main airport, Boryspil, en route to Kyiv is the seemingly endless chain of billboards that escort her all the way to the capital. Currently, it's the slogans of presidential hopefuls that make up the lion's share of this type of advertising.

Vadym Karasyov, a prominent Ukrainian political analyst and director of the Institute for Global Strategies, recently made the claim that Ukrainians are not guided by political programs when they go to the polls. Rather, he argued, they vote for the slogan they like best.

So Ukraine's 18 presidential candidates have their work cut out for them -- and billboards are proving perhaps the biggest and most immediate way of bringing those slogans to the voter.

The 'She' Campaign

Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister and one of the leading contenders for the presidency, launched her billboard attack well before the campaign's official kickoff on October 18.

Candidate advocacy ahead of the official campaign included the distribution of surgical masks at the height of the recent swine-flu panic.
As early as August, signs were already appearing over the capital's streets bearing messages like: "They strike -- she works," "They block -- she works," and "They ruin -- she works." The slogans were unveiled references to the Ukrainian parliament, which has spent the good part of 2009 doing basically nothing because one faction or another was blocking the rostrum.

Despite the fact that the signs bore no identifiable copyright marks, photographs, or indication of political affiliation, it wasn't difficult to decipher that the "she" in question was none other than Tymoshenko.

Now "she" is all over the country, on billboards of all shapes and sizes. And in a clever turn, the "she" has now become more than just Ms. Tymoshenko: Now "she" is Ukraine herself. As a recent ad announces: "She works, she will win, she is Ukraine."

Some political analysts have praised the "she" campaign as memorable. And indeed, the charismatic Tymoshenko, with her ever-present braids, appears to have had little trouble solidifying her public image. Current polls put her in second place, with a healthy lead over her former Orange Revolution partner, incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko.

'For The People'

The man she trails behind is Viktor Yanukovych, someone who has had his share of negative image perception. Yanukovych, leader of today's parliamentary opposition, lost in the last presidential election to Yushchenko.

A tall, imposing figure of a man, Yanukovych is an awkward and undynamic communicator. Twice imprisoned for theft and violence in his youth, Yanukovych continues to be perceived by some as a thug, despite having his criminal record expunged.

Whether the very digitally enhanced image beaming down from his campaign billboards will change that perception remains to be seen. Where Tymoshenko has identified herself as Ukraine, Yanukovych, true to form, is simply himself.

A Viktor Yanukovych election poster in Kyiv
Initially, Yanukovych's billboards boasted that each and every person's complaint, idea, and view would be heard. The next round of ads, logically, suggested the listening period was over and one of action had begun. Last but not least, a third group of Yanukovych billboards proclaimed, in a brusque and seemingly Soviet manner: "Your opinion has been heard. The problem has been solved."

Currently, his leading campaign slogan is "Ukraine for the people." In a recent call-in program with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, political analysts deemed the slogan ineffective and perilously reminiscent of the old Soviet slogan "Everything for the people." One listener even suggested that if Yanukovych really is listening to all views and all people, then he should listen to the portion of the electorate who don't want to see him become president and quit the race.

Misfires And Mystery Men

Another candidate who has taken his campaign to the billboards is the current parliamentary speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn. He plastered Kyiv with bright yellow, anonymous billboards with such mysterious slogans as "Only he is worthy of leading Ukraine," and "Only he can be trusted with our future."

While no one had any trouble identifying the "she" as Tymoshenko, for weeks no one quite knew who the "he" in question could be. Some suspected it was the incumbent, Yushchenko. But then Lytvyn dispelled the mystery and, overnight, his face appeared on billboards.

The youngest of the candidates, 35-year-old former Foreign Minister and parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was initially thought by many to be Ukraine's fresh young hope in these elections. He created the Front for Change, claimed to be a new style of politician, and by spring 2008 he was pulling in 12-13-percent support.

A billboard for Inna Bohoslovska asks voters whether they want five more years of the same.
And then he hired a Russian team to run his campaign. They devised a pseudo-military approach and message for him. An intent-looking Yatsenyuk now peers down from a billboard that proclaims "Ukraine will be saved by new industrialization." Promises extend to a battle-ready army. A productive agrarian sector. Healthy and educated people. Yatsenyuk's youthfulness and new approach have evaporated amid a misguided, khaki-colored campaign that harks back to Soviet ideas and slogans.

Billboard slogans are slowly giving way to television commercials, but the boards still continue to be omnipresent throughout the country.

Tymoshenko's slogans have even inspired witty rebuttals from another female candidate on two of the biggest billboards to date, which claim: "I will win, so she can stop working," and "I will win, so she can have a rest."

Those promises are made by Inna Bohoslovska, formerly of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, a so-called technological candidate with no chance of winning but whose sole purpose is to siphon votes from others.

Irena Chalupa is the director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

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