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Feature Story September 17, 2004
Ukrainians In the Mist
Gorilla tactics in the campaign for Ukraine's highest office By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 5 of 6
The most interesting event of the day, and the only one that at all approached real politics, was a meeting organized with Vinnitsa minibus drivers. These men, who provide a vital transportation service to the city, were being threatened with a thuggish attempt by the city government to extort money from them. Basically, the city wanted to hold a tender for its 300 routes. Currently, the routes are controlled by independent operators who own and operate their own vehicles. Corrupt politicians want to give their friends a piece of the pie by selling the licenses to a single entity and forcing the drivers to become sub-contractors. Without providing any service, the license holder would be able to skim 20-30 percent off of the drivers' net. This was being done in the name of competition, although a tender had already been held some four years ago. As Rzhavsky succinctly put it, "I know why they have to have beauty competitions every year -- the contestants get old and ugly. But this?"

The drivers, threatened with having their livelihood taken away, had formed a union and were prepared to strike. They were appealing to Rzhavsky as a Rada deputy and well-connected person in Kiev to intervene in a last ditch effort. He quickly understood the dynamics of the situation and said he would try to help. Then, in the only really political maneuver I saw all day, he asked what it would cost to put up ads in all the minibuses. The drivers were, understandably, nonplused initially; here they were facing the destruction of their business and Rzhavsky was talking ads! But they quickly realized it was the price of enlisting a politician's help. They soon agreed to the following: Rzhavsky would report back to them the next day about their prospects, and they would then plaster their vans with his posters.

This was the old Tammany Hall approach at work -- provide services for your constituents in return for support. It's Civics 101. Sure it lends itself to accusations of minor corruption and favoritism, but it actually creates a constituency, the one thing totally lacking in post-Soviet politics. You're not supposed to pay the kids to hand out newspapers; they ought to do that in order to get integrated into the political and civil society. Parties help on a neighborhood level and in return are given control over larger spheres of influence. Amazingly, one of Rzhavsky's campaign workers, seeing me scribbling notes furiously during this meeting, came up to me and said curtly, "This discussion isn't for the newspaper." Even if there was minor corruption involved (free ads), it doesn't mean anything because a service was actually being rendered. The drivers were supporting a politician who supported them. The politician was answerable to his constituents. How foreign is that in post-Soviet politics?

Of course, the problem is that minibus disputes in small cities aren't supposed to be decided by presidential candidates. But since there isn't a single political party other than the Communists in Ukraine, that's the way things work. Parties are little more than cults of personality, and without that personality nothing gets done. Strikes like this always peak in an election year, when workers with grievances have hope of gaining a national candidate's attention.

On a certain level, Rzhavsky is like the elections and even Ukraine itself -- hopeless, completely ignored, and a bit eccentric. While Ukraine boosters will tell you there's a myriad of reasons that Ukraine should matter (geographically it's the largest country wholly in Europe, it's got a huge border with the new NATO/EU territories, the 48 million people who live there are among Europe's poorest...) even the staunchest patriot doesn't confuse how much Ukraine should matter with how much it actually does. Most of the world never really accepted that it's independent. It took until Atlanta for them to be granted their own Olympic team and even now Ukraine has about as much name recognition as Togo.

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