An Introduction to Democracy with Ukrainian Characteristics

With the leader of the opposition in prison, the elections in Ukraine produced an unsurprising result. A leader of the ruling party explains to TIME why this is all good

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Gleb Garanich/Reuters

A member of a local electoral commission counts ballots at a polling station in Kiev on Oct. 28, 2012

Boris Kolesnikov, Ukraine’s powerful Deputy Prime Minister, spent the last day of the election season, Oct. 26, nursing a bit of hangover in his office with a pack of Marlboros and a bottomless cup of espresso. The day before, he had celebrated his 50th birthday in his home region of Donetsk, the coal-mining heartland of the ruling Party of Regions. So he did not have much energy left for campaigning when he went back to Kiev, the capital, the next day. The press conference he was scheduled to give at the InterContinental hotel, where the Party of Regions had set up its campaign headquarters, was forced to proceed without him. The reason was the traffic, his aides explained. Kolesnikov did not feel like slogging through it to go meet the press. And besides, his party knew that these elections were a lock.

Their outcome had pretty much been decided last year, when Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the opposition, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Her trial for abuse of office was condemned as a political sham throughout the West. But however painful the blowback has been for President Viktor Yanukovych, the political dividends at home were worth it. “It was a question of survival for him,” says Vadim Karasyov, a political analyst in Kiev. “Sure, he lost face in Europe, but if Yulia had been free, she would have long organized an uprising against him.” With his rival locked away, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions faced competition from a fractious cluster of newcomer parties — one led by a boxing champion, another headlined by a famous footballer — none of which posed much of a challenge.

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So when the votes were tallied on Monday, the Party of Regions held on to its majority in parliament. What remains of Tymoshenko’s party took a distant second place under the leadership of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who has struggled to match her charisma. “This opposition poses no threat to us,” said Anna German, the leading spin doctor for the Party of Regions, who stood in for Kolesnikov after he failed to show up at the InterContinental. She then hopped into her black Mercedes to deliver Kolesnikov his birthday present, and she invited me to go along. The traffic, it turned out, wasn’t all that bad. It took us all of five minutes to get to his office.

We found him there in his shirtsleeves, the cuffs weighed down with heavy gold links, and he invited us to a private room in the back of his office to talk. His lighter and cigarette cases, both gold, were lying on the table in front of him, alongside a button that he used to summon his butler, who emerged from a side door wearing a tuxedo. “Do you have that new chocolate?” Kolesnikov asked. The butler bowed. “Good, haul it over.”

Back in the 1990s, chocolate made Kolesnikov his first million, and his confectionery business placed him among the young industrialists who emerged in Donetsk after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Last year, when Forbes pegged his fortune at $230 million, he became one of the few senior political figures ever to accuse the magazine of lowballing him. “I’ve spent $200 million just on breeding livestock!” he declared.

The heyday for him and the Donetsk clan began when Yanukovych, another native of the region, became President in 2010 and began easing his allies from back home into senior posts across the country. When I was in the region of Crimea this summer, talk about “the Donetsk invasion” had gotten so rampant that a joke was going around about a homeless man sleeping on the streets of Donetsk. A group of policemen run over and bundle him into a van. “Where are you taking me?” the man shouts. “The Crimea,” they tell him. “A mayoral post has gone vacant.”

The main financial backer of the Party of Regions since its inception has been a mining tycoon from Donetsk named Rinat Akhmetov, who is now Ukraine’s most powerful oligarch. Kolesnikov is one of his oldest friends, and in Kiev’s political circles, he is seen as the oligarch’s man in government. During our interview, he referred to Akhmetov as “my close friend,” and quoted the multibillionaire as though his words were holy writ. When I asked about the party’s platform, he said, “Going back to Rinat — not just because he is my friend but because he said a smart thing — the goal of the Party of Regions is for Ukraine to take the title of the greatest country in Europe.”

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During these elections, Kolesnikov was put in charge of ensuring the vote’s transparency. His main achievement was the installation of web cameras at all 34,000 polling stations, costing the federal budget $125 million. It seemed like a cosmetic exercise. In the region of Odessa, fraudsters still managed to tamper with the vote, police said, by placing pens with disappearing ink inside the voting booths. But even if there had been no fraud, how could the ballot be fair if the ruling government had jailed the leader of the opposition? “I don’t want to get into semantics,” Kolesnikov said when I asked him this question. “But who decided that she is the leader of the opposition?” Well, Tymoshenko’s career decided it. In 2004, she was the heroine of the Orange Revolution that blocked Yanukovych from taking power. She then served as Prime Minister and, in 2010, ran a near-miss campaign against Yanukovych for the presidency. But Kolesnikov was not convinced. “Who gave her the title of opposition leader?” he demanded. “It’s not the U.S. State Department, is it?”

The jab at Washington was unusual. Kolesnikov proclaimed himself an admirer of the American system and quoted as freely from Woodrow Wilson as Vladimir Lenin. “I learned more from the Obama-Romney debates than from all of our opposition campaigns put together,” he told me. The spread of the Donetsk clan around the country, he said, is no different from what happened after President Barack Obama took office. “This is a law of life,” said Kolesnikov. “Obama is from Chicago, so his whole team is from Chicago.” Likewise, the role of the oligarchs in Ukraine is a copy of the American model, except with a delay of about a hundred years. “How is Carnegie not an oligarch? He built U.S. Steel, then went into communications,” Kolesnikov said. “Old business never wants to see new business come in … But I think that too will pass.”

Taking out Tymoshenko was a step in the right direction, he said, because it allowed new opposition leaders to emerge. These were men like Vitali Klitschko, the world boxing champion, who founded a party called UDAR to run in these elections. The name means punch, and his campaign consisted mostly of boxing gimmicks — “It’s time to deal a punch to the ruling party” — without much substance. When most of the votes were tallied on Monday, UDAR was in fourth place, behind the Communist Party, which is allied with the Party of Regions.

These are the kinds of growing pains, said Kolesnikov, that are part of moving away from the old “worn out” opposition and moving to new political “brands” in Ukraine. “It’s like Gucci and Armani,” he said, referring to Tymoshenko and the Orange Revolutionaries. “They’re out of style. So let’s try something that the kids are into, like Diesel.” And while these trends come and go, the Party of Regions is hoping to become something like the Republicans in Washington. “They have been around for 80 years,” said Kolesnikov. “They are eternal!” The only difference, of course, is that the Party of Regions has no counterpart, no eternal Democrats to create competition.

With time, said Kolesnikov, that too will change, and his birthday present was meant to help. Carrying it into his office with her arms extended, German, the spin doctor, produced the gift from an elaborate leather box — a little bronze head of Abraham Lincoln with a door in the back of it. If you open the door, German explained, you can put a note with a wish inside. Although the obvious question was hard to utter with a straight face, I had to ask: What would Kolesnikov place inside Lincoln’s head? He thought about it for a moment, snuffed out his cigarette, and answered: “I will stick a note in there hoping that our nation, maybe not right away but eventually, will reach the achievements that Lincoln’s nation reached.” It sounded very noble, but under the circumstances, I have a feeling that Honest Abe would cringe.

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