Inside Ukraine’s museum of electoral trash

What do a children’s playset, bottle openers, blood pressure monitors and posters for concerts by popular Ukrainian singers have in common? These are all in a new exhibit devoted to elections at Kyiv’s National Museum of Ukrainian History. And what else do Ukraine’s politicians do to buy voters’ goodwill? Chesno, a grassroots civic movement that has spent nearly eight years monitoring election campaigns and keeping an eye on officials and politicians, has created a “Museum of Electoral Trash”.

The exhibition shows how Ukrainian political campaigning has changed over the nearly 30 years since the country gained independence – or rather, how it has been transformed from a battle of the manifestos to various forms of vote-buying. Here you can find out about different types of MP – floor crossers, “doubles” and “technical” (paper) candidates and the various “incarnations” of Darth Vader.

Grigory Pyrlik talked to Iryna Vivchar, the museum’s creator and a Chesno activist, about how buckwheat has become an important political tool and what voters can get from the museum.

In a recent interview, now former MP Mustafa Nayem (who didn’t stand in the election) produced the following figures for election campaign costs: according to his calculations, just to be visible in your constituency costs £80,000-£160,000, and a victory will set you back between £400,000 and £800,000. Why do people want to stand for election to the Rada?

Candidates have to work on their visibility. No one’s going to vote for a no name candidate, no matter how good they are. As for motivation, that’s a good question to ask voters as well. A candidate may spend an MP’s salary, which is 17,000-30,000 hryvnia [£530-£935 a month], not including bonuses and benefits, several times over just on TV ads. A monthly outlay of even 50,000 hryvnia [£1,560] is nothing in terms of advertising costs.

Take, for example, Volodymyr Karplyuk, a local candidate in the Kyiv region town of Irpin . He is implicated in an anti-corruption case. I can imagine that for him, a parliamentary seat would mean a chance to acquire immunity from prosecution. I can’t swear to it – in order to avoid a court case – but I can imagine.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the leaders of the Servant of the People party have said they will abolish parliamentarians’ immunity from prosecution. Ukrainian politicians would no longer be able to rely on it. How realistic are these promises?

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In our Museum of Electoral Trash we have a video compilation showing the promises made over 1999-2014 by various parties about ending parliamentary immunity. And not only ending this immunity, but also reducing the number of MPs.

These kind of slogans are popular now.

Political memory is very handy for reminding the people who have already been in power that “you promised this, two elections ago. Why haven’t you done it?”

It’s important to remind voters that if a candidate is trying to obtain votes dishonestly – the Verkhovna Rada passes the state budget and creates and monitors the government – this same candidate will control the taxes taken from your wallets. Are you prepared to trust your money, intended for the building of hospitals, schools and roads, to a candidate whose financial transparency and integrity are suspect?

Your exhibition shows that in the early 1990s, candidates based their election promises on political manifestos. Former Soviet dissidents Vyacheslav Chernobol and Levko Lukyanenko, for example, ran campaigns with substance. When did meaning get replaced by trashy slogans?

The turning point was probably the elections involving Leonid Kuchma, who was the first politician to organise mass star-studded road shows. In first-past-the-post constituencies, candidates found it very useful to hand free buckwheat out to constituents – which is where we mostly get to talk to them as well.

I call this mini-feudalism when you have a constituency with just a couple of thousand voters. Concerts are put on, food parcels distributed, but the central media rarely notice. I hope that the 2019 parliamentary election will be the last time we use a mixed electoral system [half of MPs elected from national closed party lists distributed between the parties, the other half elected from constituencies using first-past-the-post voting].

On the last day of the last Rada, MPs adopted a new Electoral Code, as promised by Ukraine’s 2014 coalition agreement. This introduced a unified proportional representation system with open candidate lists.

Our exhibition includes posters from the early 1990s, to show the transition from normal campaigning to “trash” we have now. This kind of campaigning is perfectly lawful in itself, but the challenge is to avoid a situation when form and creative approaches replace meaning.

How much attention do you think Ukrainian voters pay to politicians’ manifestos?

Opinion polls have been run, and 40% of voters claim to have seen them, although it’s difficult to say whether they have actually done so.

A manifesto is effectively an agreement between voter and candidate, a document the candidate submits to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). But there are no criteria for this document. During the election campaign, we found a manifesto that contained four words, even three. There are manifestos where you can read about cows, kebabs, dreams of Ukraine – they all sound like school essays.

What recurring issues in Ukrainian candidates’ campaigns do you see?

Apart from ending parliamentary immunity, there’s also the pressure on people who are socially vulnerable. I remember seeing a video about an ambulance coming to save the life of a pregnant woman: in the video she dies, because our medical system is inefficient. She is supposed to give birth, but the soundtrack is a requiem.

Fear is a popular tool. We still find the phrase “Gas price genocide” in first-past-the-post candidates’ manifestos, citing the rising cost of fuel. But it’s a very cynical ploy to compare a price hike with the heinous crime committed against Ukrainians in the 1930s. How cynical is it to describe a situation where people aren’t dying of hunger, even though they can’t pay the rent on their communal flat, as “gas price genocide”?

Your exhibition follows the evolution of current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from his time as an entertainer, when he campaigned for various politicians. Who has President Zelenskyy supported in the past?

When Volodymyr Kaltsev stood for mayor of Zaporizhia, Zelenskyy supported him as part of the 95 Kvartal production company. Kaltsev is currently standing as a candidate high up in the “Opposition Platform – for Life” party list. And according to Zelenskiy, he has a new exhibit to give the museum – his old campaign script for the Party of Regions.

What does Ukrainian law say about campaigning for candidates?

The law is clear on this. Gifts or services with a value of more than 3% of the national minimum monthly wage – 57 hryvnia [£1.80 – ed.] – are considered to constitute vote-buying. In Vinnitsa region, one candidate, Oleh Meydich, treated locals to frozen pizza and chicken wings. These may well have cost less than 57 hryvnia, but it’s hard even to read about it.

How do people get around the law? In the first place, there are state subsidies. MPs write that they managed to use their constituency funds. This is, of course, taxpayer money. If they spend it on some work project or other, a plaque will appear with the relevant MP’s name on it. It’s free PR at the taxpayers’ expense. The alternative is to set up a charitable foundation. There are not usually any candidates involved in this, and the foundation can use any name – from the candidate’s to Hermione Grainger’s. And although election funds have to account for every contribution made, charitable ones don’t have strings attached.

What kind of gifts from candidates are the most popular – both in the past and today?

Our museum showsthe evolution of “buckwheat” as a social phenomenon. This is a situation when a healthy, useful grain becomes a quasi-political term and gives a name to a whole phenomenon. It was always buckwheat that was doled out free to the masses – why not rice or pasta, I don’t know. First it was just buckwheat; then it was parcels of various food products, generally cheap and of low quality: tinned meat products and sunflower oil, as well as presents for children.

I personally don’t like the whole “social buckwheat” thing. We know that many people in Ukraine live below the poverty line. MPs can give out blood pressure monitors as gifts – for an elderly woman with a monthly pension of just 1,500 hryvnia (£47) this would be a large item of expenditure, but one necessary on a daily basis, like medications and a first aid kit.

We approached one pensioner about giving a first aid kit she’d received from a candidate to the museum. She didn’t want to give hers away, but we bought the same medications and a bag to put them in, just without the label “The Aleksandr Tretyakov MP Charitable Foundation” on it. In the constituency of MP Anton Yatsenko, for example, there are “social” hairdressing salons, and spectacles were also given out for free.

This is all very sad, but how can you blame a voter who accepts all this? It’s the most vulnerable people who take the gifts. Creating a children’s playground or buying spectacles for elderly people is no trouble for a candidate. But they will use state money for it, which will indirectly affect pension rates and social policy.

There’s a children’s playset in the centre of the museum. Why?

Children’s playgrounds are popular: they are relatively inexpensive, bright, look good on photos – and they’re for children. But our playset has a particular history. An MP from the People’s Front party decided to help fellow MPs win some local election and built a children’s playground in a village. But then the MPs lost the election, and the next day the playground disappeared. It wouldn’t have mattered so much, but it had been bought by “political philanthropists” and built by either local residents or the village council. In other words, it wasn’t the donors’ money that had been spent.

The battle of the playground continued for six months and it was rebuilt after the media got hold of the story – the explanation given was that the playset had been broken and needed to be repaired to avoid anyone getting hurt. We can’t be sure whether they actually removed it for rebuilding, but at any rate it has been reopened.

Have candidates reacted to their names being seen in the museum?

Not yet. We’re not worried, because the facts are all documented. If it’s a question of reconstruction, it’s been done on the basis of photographs taken by us and our colleagues. And if there are real cases of corruption involved, we’ve photographed these as well; otherwise it’s a matter of real things donated by people.

We approached one of our heroes in the Verkhovna Rada, MP Ihor Kononenko – a prominent member of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and a friend of ex-President Poroshenko. There’s one exhibit we really need – a towel and shampoo set that was presented to teachers from the Obukhov district, with a label reading “Have a good day! Ihor Kononenko”. So you get up in the morning, have a wash – and there’s an MP in your bathroom. We searched for that towel but didn’t find it, and asked Kononenko to send it to us if it was lying around. We even have a hook to hang his towel on, but he hasn’t got back to us so far.

You’ve also got an exhibit on MPs who cross the floor to join another party, the so-called tushki. Tell our international readers who these are.

They are politicians who stand as candidates for one party with one manifesto, and then, under pressure of circumstances, radically change political direction. It could be a matter of corruption – these MPs are basically betraying their voters. In Ukrainian politics they say: “he changed his clothes” or “he changed his shoes”. We have taken the concept literally and dressed our museum mannequins in clothes bearing symbols of the political parties to which one or other MP belongs. So we have a mannequin with a Fatherland [party headed by Yulia Tymoshenko – ed.] raincoat and a Party of Regions umbrella, holding a Resurrection party leaflet. And this exhibit tells the story of an actual MP who followed this political road.

Your “technical” (paper) candidates are symbolised by a Darth Vader figure. Why him?

“Technical candidates” are used, in the first place, to take votes away from political rivals. In this election, for example, there might be a candidate from the Servant of the People political party, the Servant of the People private company, the Servant of the People civic organisation and the Servant of the People charitable foundation. The voter sees four “Servants of the People” and gets confused. Technical candidates can also be used to influence local electoral commissions or run smear campaigns. They aren’t running to win the seat, after all, and their reputations aren’t at risk.

The last kind of technical candidates are those who turn the election into a show. They may have other aims as well, but they are there to persuade the voters that the whole thing is a farce. We have two of these: one is a man in a Super Mario costume – a fairly well known blogger who has turned up at press conferences as a candidate in the company of Spiderman and Wolverine. The candidate with the more interesting back story is Darth Vader. He is not just one person: various people have dressed in his costume to stand as MPs, mayors of Odesa and even presidents.

Anyone in Ukraine can change their name and be an election candidate. And people take advantage of this right. At the last elections there was a Darth Nikolayevich Vader, and now there is a Darth Viktorovich Vader. We, the Chesno movement are proud of one small victory: we persuaded the Election Commission to publish candidates’ photographs (they submitted them with the rest of their electoral paperwork). With just dry details from the Election Commission, it used to be hard to identify anyone, but now we have a photo of candidate Darth Vader and want to find him and get in touch. He’s not in the least like the Star Wars character. And the same goes for all the technical candidates and clones.

The CEC, it turns out, queered their pitch: they thought they would play some dirty tricks, earn some cash and remain unnoticed, but it didn’t work.

What should voters take away with them from the exhibition?

There are voters who have never tolerated corruption or trash. But we are noticing that our visitors come as fans: they like trash and memes, especially the millennial generation. They want to remember, have a laugh and be nostalgic about diaries with photos of “Tigryulya” [the Bengal Tigress presented to Yulia Tymoshenko in 2009]. But when they’ve finished their stroll around the museum, their emotions are very different. It’s either sadness or anger – concentrated “trash” is good medicine. People say: “No, we can’t be treated like this.” If a voter who used to say “I’ll take the gifts, but vote according to my conscience” is now less likely to approve of vote-buying or rejects it completely, and if they begin to feel a sense of their own worth, the museum’s mission will be accomplished.

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