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Ballot-Paper Dispute Overshadows Elections In Mariupol

Ukrainian activists block the printing of election ballots at a printing press in Mariupol on October 19. Some fear Ukraine's richest oligarch will manipulate the vote.
Ukrainian activists block the printing of election ballots at a printing press in Mariupol on October 19. Some fear Ukraine's richest oligarch will manipulate the vote.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine -- Six days before Ukraine holds its most extensive local elections since the Euromaidan revolution and the start of a war with Russia-backed rebels, antitank grenades slammed into an apartment house in the heart of this port city.

Nobody was hurt, but the attack was a startling reminder of the conflict that raged for months close to Mariupol, a major target that was hit by shelling several times but eluded the grasp of separatists who hold a large swath of southeastern Ukraine.

With the Kremlin's gaze turned to Syria, a cease-fire has held shakily since September, freezing the conflict in place and creating a faint chance for a settlement -- along with fears that violence could erupt again.

"I'm worried about some terrorist attacks during the actual election," says Olga Illuhena, 18, who plans to go to the polls with a group of friends "to feel safer."

Across the country, voter interest in the October 25 elections is high. After the promise of the Euromaidan protests, which drove President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014 and raised hopes for a decisive turn toward Europe, the war with pro-Russian separatists, Russia's seizure of Crimea, and dire economic troubles have been a bitter disappointment for many.

But fears of war are just one of the worries hanging over Mariupol, undermining hopes that the city of sprawling steelworks and seedy docklands can escape a cycle of corruption and economic struggle that has gripped it since the Soviet era, when it was called Zhdanov, after a henchman of Josef Stalin.

"We thought things would change when new people were elected to parliament," says Nikita Shcherbak, a 20-year-old student at the Priazovskyy State Technical University in central Mariupol, referring to a snap vote for the national legislature a year ago. "But nothing's changed, so most of us have given up hope."

At the top of the university's main staircase stands a wall-to-wall memorial dedicated to the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet term for World War II. In a country desperately trying to erase Soviet symbols -- which many associate with domination by Moscow -- the hammer and sickle still hangs prominently for all to see.

Fellow student Oleg Velkin, 21, fears his vote will make no difference. "Have the elections ever not been corrupt?" he snorted. "We hope they're fair, but what can you do?"

Rinat Akhmetov, who is Ukraine's richest man and controls much of the industrial base in the Donetsk region, is a dominant figure in the vote.
Rinat Akhmetov, who is Ukraine's richest man and controls much of the industrial base in the Donetsk region, is a dominant figure in the vote.

Akhmetov Looms Above All

In Mariupol, concerns about electoral fraud have focused on the ballot papers and the looming figure of Rinat Akhmetov, the billionaire tycoon who is Ukraine's richest man and controls much of the industrial base in the Donetsk region -- including in Mariupol, its largest government-held city.

A company controlled by Akhmetov, Metinvest, owns the printing press that earlier this month was awarded the contract to print the ballots, sparking outrage.

When the printing began last week, protesters -- including political candidates -- stormed the premises, demanding to be able to observe the printing process. One man who protested said police blocked their access for five hours.

A candidate from the People's Power Party, Petro Andryushchenko, said that ballots were being printed and packed solely by employees of Metinvest, Akhmetov's metals and mining holding, without the oversight of anyone from the election commission.

Candidates, activists, and ordinary citizens fear that the printing press could be used to perpetrate fraud by printing extra ballots or premarking ballots.

"They find ways to the elections," Kostyantyn Batozskyy, a former adviser to the ex-governor of Donetsk, said of those who hold the levers of power. "That's just how Ukrainian elections have always worked."

'It's Always Been This Way'

Fraud or no fraud, the favorite to win the mayoral election in Mariupol is Vadym Boychenko, who has stepped down from his job as human resources chief at Metinvest to run as the candidate of the Opposition Bloc -- a party that includes many former supporters of Yanukovych and his now defunct Party of Regions.

Vadym Boychenko
Vadym Boychenko

Widely seen as Akhmetov's man, Boychenko has benefitted from what Batozskyy calls an "incredibly aggressive" campaign, with advertisements permeating the huge Azovstal steelworks and other companies controlled by Akhmetov.

"These companies have their own radio stations, and the only ads they would hear between shows were for Boychenko," he said.

Boychenko dismissed criticism over the ballot printing and said there was no reason to believe the elections would be marred be fraud. "Politicians in this country are mixed with business. It has always been this way," Boychenko told RFE/RL in an interview peppered with frequent expressions of admiration and respect for Akhmetov.

He blamed the election commission for the ballot dispute, saying it had delayed printing, and added that "there was an investigation, and it's already been proven that this is fair."

Oleksandr Yaroshenko, who is running for mayor from former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland party, disagrees. "They have 20 different ways to falsify the elections," says Yaroshenko, who wore two watches -- a big bright one on his right wrist and an Apple Watch on his left to go with his iPhone 6.

The winner of the mayoral race will replace Yuriy Khotlubey, who has been in office for 17 years and at 73 is too old to seek a new term. In addition to that contest, Mariupol residents can vote in elections for a city council and a legislature for the Donetsk Oblast.

'Better Than Violence'

Elections will not be held in the rebel-controlled part of the region. As part of a European-brokered effort to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 7,900 people since April 2014, the rebels recently agreed to call off separate elections they had planned for this autumn and instead conduct votes under Ukrainian law next year.

For Kyiv and the West, the ultimate goal of the peace process is to restore Ukrainian control over its entire border with Russia, about 50 kilometers east of Mariupol, bringing the separatist-held areas back into the fold.

As in other parts of Ukraine, a win for the Opposition Bloc could undermine President Petro Poroshenko's power and play into the hands of Russia -- which observers say hopes the central government will be weakened, leaving Ukraine open to Moscow's influence.

Despite defiance and pride in the face of aggression from the Russia-backed rebels, Mariupol, where the average monthly wage is about $150, may be particularly vulnerable. Jobs have been lost to the war and to severely strained ties with Moscow, and many workers believe a revival of trade with Russia would bring more economic stability.

More than anything, though, a victory for Boychenko would serve the interests of Akhmetov, who one resident says sees Mariupol as his "fortress." Akhmetov "doesn't really have an affiliation" and "doesn't care about politics -- he just wants to put a guy in. As soon as he gets all the key positions, he can do whatever he wants."

The grenade attack and the ballot dispute prompted concerns that the elections could be canceled.

That would play into the hands of the rebels and Russia, says Devin Ackles, a political and economic expert at CASE Ukraine, an independent nonprofit specializing in economic research, analysis, and forecasting.

"Everyone running there is dirty," Ackles says of the Donbas, as the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are known. But he said that calling off the vote would give merit to separatist propaganda espousing the idea that Kyiv doesn't care about the voice of the region or the interests of its people.

"No one good will be elected in the Donbas, but it's better than violence," he concludes.

UPDATE: Polls did not open in Mariupol on the morning of October 25, due to the continuing dispute over the ballot papers.

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