KHARKIV, Ukraine – Rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk had no problem attracting thousands of screaming fans to Kharkiv’s Freedom Square for a performance with his band a couple weeks back. Getting politically wary Ukrainians amped up enough to vote for his party in the July 21 parliamentary elections may not be so easy.
The challenge came across loud and clear in the contrast between the exuberant crowd at the concert and the far smaller, lackluster group at a campaign rally that proceeded it -- as well as one the next day in the provincial city of Slovyansk, near the front lines in the conflict against Russia-backed separatists that has loomed over politics in Ukraine for half a decade.
There’s a very fresh precedent for a successful shift from big-time entertainment to big-time politics in Ukraine: Comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy parlayed the fame he gained playing an accidental president in a TV sitcom into a landslide win in the real presidential election in April.
Zelenskiy’s victory over an increasingly unpopular incumbent underscored voters’ hunger for change and distaste with familiar faces in politics five years after protesters -- incensed at corruption and determined to avert a turn toward Moscow -- pushed President Viktor Yanukovych from power and ushered in a new era.
The comedian’s swift climb to the presidency might seem to bode well for the musician, who is leading his party – the perhaps aptly named Holos, which means both "voice" and "vote" in Ukrainian – in the snap elections called by Zelenskiy after he ordered the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s legislature.
In an interview on a sun-baked roadside after the rally in Slovyansk on July 1, the rock star took a swipe at established politicians he suggested had abandoned the interests of the people, and vowed to do better.
Like Zelenskiy, who has barred anyone who has already served in the Rada from his party’s ticket, Vakarchuk is turning to people with no government experience to fill the Holos party list.
“We are not here just to speak great words and then say it’s not our responsibility,” Vakarchuk said. “We are determined to come to power.”
There’s a hitch, though, in Vakarchuk’s case: He’s been there before. He won a seat in parliament in 2007 but gave it up the next year, citing infighting among then- President Viktor Yushchenko and his prime minister at the time, Yulia Tymoshenko.
That past, as well as Vakarchuk’s flirtation with a presidential run this year – he was urged to run and polled well, but ultimately decided against it – have left some potential supporters skeptical.
'Finish What You Started'
The rock star’s rallies in Slovyansk and in Kharkiv -- Ukraine’s second-largest city, with roughly 1.4 million people -- were attended by only a few dozen prospective voters.
In interviews with RFE/RL, several of them cited Vakarchuk’s hesitation to enter the presidential race and resignation from parliament as reasons they might tick boxes on their ballots for other candidates.
"I think if you start something, you should finish it," said Yuriy Plastun, 60, a retired army major and Slovyansk resident who came out to see Vakarchuk on the city's central square on July 1, part of a whistle-stop tour of the nation of 44 million.
Plastun said he was undecided and may cast his vote for Zelenskiy’s Servant Of The People party instead. While he likes Vakarchuk, he said he was hung up on the fact that he had served as a lawmaker before, only to quit before the end of his term, asking: "How can we know for sure he won't quit again?"
Vakarchuk says that’s not going to happen -- that he is returning to politics now out of a sense of duty to his country, and he hopes to convince voters that, this time, he is all in.
“It’s one thing to go into parliament as part of a team whose words don’t match their actions,” said Vakarchuk, 44. “It is another thing to have your own political party of like-minded people.”
Physics, Music, Politics
His brief stint as a lawmaker notwithstanding, leading a party into parliament would be a new twist in a career arc that has been unusual even in Ukraine. Vakarchuk was 16 when the country gained independence and the Soviet Union fell apart, upending millions of lives and opening up new opportunities.
Born in Mukacheve, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in far western Ukraine, Vakarchuk was raised by parents who were both university physics professors. Initially, he followed suit, earning a doctorate in physics from Lviv University.
But during his undergraduate studies in 1994, he founded Okean Elzy -- Elsa’s Ocean in English. By the time he earned his PhD, the band -- with stadium rock ballads a la U2 behind Vakarchuk’s gravelly crooning -- had achieved national fame.
Okean Elzy’s popularity only grew over the next decades after the band moved to Kyiv, and Vakarchuk’s songs became anthems for two waves of protest that produced political change: the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan movement -- also known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity -- that drove Yanukovych out in February 2014.
This year, Okean Elzy and its fans are celebrating the group’s 25th anniversary with a series of sold-out shows. And since its success has made Vakarchuk a household name, the timing is right as he tries to reach out to voters.
Concerts And Campaign Stops
Vakarchuk is doing so through a mix of free concerts, which double as campaign stops, and more traditional stumping. He plies the campaign trail in a shiny black SUV with darkly tinted windows, followed by a clutch of candidates and a media team in what they call the Voice “change bus” – a white and orange, 15-person van adorned with the Holos logo.
Vakarchuk claims the concerts aren’t connected to politics, but he brings Holos candidates on stage at the start of the shows to introduce them to the crowd.
The tactic mirrors one used by Zelenskiy, who was criticized during the presidential campaign for touring with his comedy troupe, Kvartal 95, and putting on free performances while giving political speeches.
In Vakarchuk’s case, there has been little criticism, if any. He says that’s because he is not backed by so-called oligarchs despite rumors of support from tycoon Viktor Pinchuk, which he denies. Zelenskiy, meanwhile, has faced questions about his connections to controversial billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskiy, but denies being beholden to the tycoon.
Vakarchuk, 44, speaks English fluently and has studied in the United States twice -- a semester of political science at Yale in 2015 and two semesters at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy and Rule of Law in 2017. He says he is trying to keep it real, something he asserts has been missing from Ukrainian politics for decades.
“People love honesty, people love sincerity,” he said in the interview, adding: “One of the problems Ukrainian politics has now is a total lack of authenticity.”
With long-established politicians so far out of favor that even reformist stars of the Euromaidan movement who are associated with them may be swept out of the Rada on July 21, both Vakarchuk and Zelenskiy – who is 41 – are looking for new blood as they field candidates in the elections.
One recent poll indicated that in the party-list portion of the election, which will fill half of the Rada’s 450 seats, 42.3 percent of decided voters would cast their ballots for Zelenskiy’s party and 7.2 percent for Vakarchuk’s – putting Holos in the fourth position and over the 5 percent hurdle that parties must clear to win seats.
But other polls have pointed to a lower percentage for Holos, including at least one survey that suggested it would fail to secure seats in the party-list voting.
Whatever the result, parliament seems certain to be populated with a large number of new, politically inexperienced faces.
“We are expecting the most ambitious renewal of parliamentary deputies in the history of independent Ukraine,” political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko wrote in a July 7 column for the news outlet Ukrayinska Pravda.
Different From Zelenskiy?
Despite the similarities, Vakarchuk says his party differs from Zelenskiy’s in some ways. While Holos candidates may be young – their average age is 37, younger than any other party -- he suggested they possess more expertise than those Zelenskiy is tapping.
“It’s necessary to have new faces, but it’s not sufficient. What is sufficient is that these people know what to do,” he said. “It’s about new, young professionals -- young not just in age but in attitudes and principles.”
Ivan Prymachenko, 29, a Stanford-educated entrepreneur who co-founded the largest Ukrainian-based open platform for online courses, spoke in the same terms.
“I think that we don’t have any political experience, but each member of the team has a lot of experience in his or her field,” Prymachenko, who is No. 23 on the Holos party list and could win a seat in parliament, said before the Okean Elzy concert in Kharkiv.
Some of the party’s candidates “have influenced political change already without a parliamentary mandate,” he said.
Another difference Vakarchuk points to is his policy on campaign donations, which he said are accepted only from donors who are vetted by his staff and found to be free of connections to “oligarchs.” A dubious donation of 2 million hryvnyas (more than $76,000) was recently rejected, he said.
East And West
As he travels around the country, Vakarchuk said that he is not out “to please everybody.”
“When I come to the Donbas [in eastern Ukraine], I say the same things I do when I come to Lviv -- that Ukraine needs to go to Europe, that we need to join NATO,” he told RFE/RL.
“I say the same things -- sometimes in a different language, literally,” he added in a reference to Ukraine’s predominately Ukrainian-speaking west and predominately Russian-speaking east.
The messages are not always well received, and that’s fine, Vakarchuk said.
In Kharkiv, speaking before a monument to iconic Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and later to a crowd gathered for his concert, his message of closer political and military ties with the West was more or less well received and garnered some applause.
“How many of you want real change? How many of you are tired of old politics?” he shouted to the crowd before the concert, drawing woos and screams.
In Slovyansk, however, a city that has historically enjoyed closer ties with Russia and backed political parties that favor better relations with Ukraine’s huge eastern neighbor – and a former flash point in the war against Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 13,000 people -- a more skeptical crowd received Vakarchuk with crossed arms and narrowed eyes.
Undeterred, Vakarchuk likened his current political struggle to one he faced when Okean Elzy first emerged on the music scene.
Back in the mid-1990s, it was common to lip-synch for televised performances; it was expensive and technologically challenging for Ukrainian studios to air performers singing live. As a result, the band lost exposure and money by eschewing the practice, he said.
“But we were very persistent. It was our principle,” Vakarchuk said. “And after five or 10 years, finally, it was commonplace not to lip-synch.”
It is a lesson he said he keeps in mind when campaigning today.
“If you do what you believe constantly, there’s no 100 percent guarantee that you will win,” he said. “But if you win, it will be very sustainable and probably irreversible.”