by Duncan Leitch (CREES) with Svetlana Kruglyak (Vmeste Zaporizhzhia)
Zaporizhzhia is regarded as one of Ukraine’s most important manufacturing centres with steel and machine-building sectors which account for 10% of the country’s productive and export capacity. Yet even in Soviet times the region was overshadowed by its more powerful neighbours, Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk, and its local political elites have remained weak and largely subject to manipulation from Kyiv. This tendency reached new heights in the Yanukovich period, when the activities of the notorious Smotryashchiy figure enabled the former president’s ‘family’ to extract extortionate rents from most of the region’s large and small enterprises and earned Zaporizhzhia the unfortunate reputation of being Ukraine’s most corrupt region.
With forthcoming regional and municipal elections promising an unprecedented decentralisation of powers to the local level, and an industrial empire on the verge of collapse following the conflict in the Donbas, it is therefore hardly surprising that the attention of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch - Rinat Akhmetov - has turned to the low-hanging industrial fruit of Zaporizhzhia, and the rich opportunities for rebuilding his fortune that would come with his influencing the political outcome of these elections.
Reliable media reports over the summer spoke of numerous attempts to negotiate with the separatist government of Donetsk on the future of Akhmetov’s immense holdings in the region. Nevertheless, the third quarter of this year saw an almost 50% drop in production at Metinvest, one of Akhmetov’s largest steel combines. It was also reported he made a hasty visit to the Kremlin to try to secure Vladimir Putin’s support in protecting his interests in the Donbas. A parallel attempt to move the centre of his operations to Dnipropetrovsk was rebuffed by fellow oligarch Igor Kolomoiyskiy.
In response, Akhmetov has gradually and deliberately increased his economic and political influence in Zaporizhzhia. It is widely believed that a deal was done with Putin so as to help further the Kremlin’s economic and political ambitions in eastern Ukraine. Akhmetov now owns the city’s (and one of the country’s) biggest steel producers Zaporozhstal and has acquired controlling shares in other large companies in the region. With an eye on the upcoming elections, he also bought outright the regional television station TV5. Overall, he is said to have invested over 10 million dollars in the campaigns for the regional council and the crucial post of Zaporizhzhia city mayor, a sum which dwarfed the resources available to local candidates and figures expended on equivalent elections elsewhere in Ukraine.
In the run-up to the mayoral election in October, local anti-corruption activists were speaking disparagingly and somewhat despairingly of ‘Project Buryak’, Akhmetov’s multi-million dollar campaign to install Zaporozhstal’s chief engineer as mayor of Zaporizhzhia. Similarly, almost all the Opposition Bloc candidates for election to the city council were employed in one or other of Akhmetov’s enterprises, and there were strong rumours during the campaign that their colleagues were being offered up to $1000 each to vote the 'right way'. The results of both mayoral and council elections seem to suggest that Akhmetov’s investment has paid off. Vladymyr Buryak won 32% of the votes for mayor and will now contest a second round with the pro-government candidate Nikolaiy Frolov who managed only 13%. With over 50% of the votes for deputies to the city council also going to opposition parties, the prospects for a Frolov victory look pretty distant. At regional level also, the Opposition Bloc has won over a third of the seats and looks certain to be able to form a coalition with other anti-government parties.
If all this seems predictable and depressing, there is one bright light in the political landscape of Zaporizhzhia which continues to burn with the spirit of the Maidan uprising of last year. Contrary to the widely held view that the anti-Yanukovich demonstrations were largely confined to Kyiv and western Ukraine, there were similar mass rallies in cities like Zaporizhzhia, where a pro-Maidan meeting of over 10,000 people in February 2014 was dealt with very harshly by riot police. Undeterred, leading figures in the Zaporizhzhia demonstrations have since pledged to continue their fight against political and bureaucratic malpractice in the region – it was they who exposed the activities of the Smotryashchiy – and have attempted to fill the vacuum left by a weak and corrupt local political elite. An alliance of thirty or so civic, women’s and business organisations, the non-party Vmeste sees its role as keeping the optimism and popular activism of the Maidan uprising alive, continuing to widely broadcast information about abuses of power, including those in the current elections, and constantly reminding the citizens of Zaporizhzhia that change for the better is not only possible, but within their grasp, as the often distant-seeming events of 2014 have shown.
Commenting on the outcome of the elections, a spokesperson for Vmeste remarked that ‘we can expect a fierce battle in Zaporizhzhia, between a fabulously rich billionaire and the ordinary people of the city. He wants our resources, our land, he wants the city itself, and he has nowhere else to go after Donbas. He’s already installed his puppets in the regional council. His next step, and a much bigger prize, is the post of mayor.’