KYIV -- In Ukraine, the act of illegally buying votes is known as "grechka," or "buckwheat," a slang term dating from a time when election hopefuls handed out gift bags of the Slavic staple to babushkas in return for their votes.
This year, the practice has hit a trough with fewer Ukrainians prepared to sell their votes in the wake of the Euromaidan uprising and at a time when the state is also cracking down on the practice. And buckwheat itself, of course, has long been spurned in favor of cold, hard cash.
"There's less 'buckwheat' happening," Iryna Bekeshkyna, director of Democratic Initiative, a leading pollster, told journalists this week. "When it does happen, it’s also not buckwheat. There are more subtle methods: direct or indirect payouts of money."
With the ranks of vote "sellers" thinning, the price of a vote has jumped to around 500 hryvnyas (approximately $38) as the country prepares for landmark parliamentary elections on October 26, according to Bekeshkyna, whose foundation on October 22 presented the results of a poll on the practice.
"Eighty-seven percent were not prepared personally to vote in exchange for money. Three percent -- the 'smart' people -- would take money from the person they were going to vote for anyway," Bekeshkyna said. "Four percent were prepared to do it if the price is right. But the price has risen. Now they want over 500 hryvnyas for a vote," compared with around 200 hryvnyas ahead of the last parliamentary elections in 2012.
The findings came just as President Petro Poroshenko ramped up penalties for breaking election law and cracked down in particular on "buckwheat."
The new legislation, published in the "Voice of Ukraine" newspaper of the Verhovna Rada on October 22, prescribes fines of up to 5,000 hryvnyas or even two years' jail time for Ukrainians who sell their votes. Convicted vote buyers can now be punished with up to three years behind bars.
On October 18, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said police were currently investigating 141 cases of vote buying that have been registered since the start of campaigning for the parliamentary elections.
"The barrage of vote buying across the country is snowballing," Avakov wrote on Facebook. "I demand that election law violations be stamped out and reported."
Avakov has named several candidates under investigation. They include Dmytro Dobkin, a politician running in Kharkiv whose brother is Mykhaylo Dobkin, the disgraced former governor of Kharkiv; and Serhiy Kivalov, a former Party of Regions lawmaker now running as an independent for the Verhovna Rada.