This was a speech to a group of abandoned children at an orphanage and the first of four stump speeches he'd give that day. Ah, orphans... a great way to establish himself as a compassionate candidate. Except I was the only member of the press there. So he recited his stump speech to a collection of raggedy 8- to 15-year-olds who, in the best of Soviet pedagogical tradition, sat quietly at attention. The only rise he got out of them was when he presented the orphanage with a VCR. Then, at the end of his speech, his campaign manager inexplicably distributed Rzhavsky's visitki (business cards) to the kids. Underage kids with no parents.
I heard the stump several times that day in Ukrainian, so many times that I found myself understanding it. Perhaps it helped that Rzhavsky's Ukrainian isn't perfect -- he also comes from the Donbass region -- but I imagine I'd have understood it even if it'd been in Swahili after so many repetitions. The speech had several main points.
In his most radical proposal, Rzhavsky said that, in exchange for security guarantees from Russia and the US, he'd do away with the entire army. Honestly, it's a pretty good idea. A group of nomadic sheep herders would put up more of a fight than the Ukrainian army. They are primarily known for their screw-ups -- several years ago they mistakenly blew a hole through an occupied apartment building with an errant missile, killing several people. Then there's the time they downed a Sibir passenger jet during military exercises. Both times they denied involvement even long after everyone knew they were guilty. The Ukrainian army (the largest non-NATO contingent in Iraq) also made news several months ago when they skipped town rather than face a little Iraqi small arms fire in Kut. It's not much of a fighting force.
However, Rzhavsky's not content leaving well enough alone. "I would turn Ukraine into an international peace center, an eastern Switzerland," he said on the stump. One time, during a particularly passionate rant, he told me, "If I'd been in office, there'd have been no war in Iraq. I'd've told Saddam, 'You can have whatever you want -- palaces, gold, girls -- just so long as there's no war.'" Apparently, Rzhavsky thinks the diplomatic failure was just a question of using the wrong carrot in the carrot-and-stick game. A couple of long-legged Ukrainian girls and a Crimean dacha would have done the trick!
Get on board the Magic Bus
Other items in his platform include (surprise, surprise) populist ploys like raising pensions and stipends and a system of distributing 250 billion hryvna ($50 billion) in privatization money. The system, which he would illustrate whenever there was a chalkboard handy, involved several arrows, a few stick figures, Sberbank and the internet ("to keep things transparent," he said). He also called for dealing with Ukrainian oligarchs the same way that Putin took care of Russia's.
Rzhavsky seemed to see himself as a Ukrainian Putin -- I imagine him singing "Takogo Kak Putin" in the shower. Only his plan for the oligarchs didn't involve jailing or exiling opposing oligarchs but rather forcing them to become socially conscious. He held up Vladimir Potanin's conversion -- which most of us were unaware of -- as an example. "Children all over Russia now can play football in new uniforms thanks to Potanin," Rzhavsky claimed. Potanin is the owner of Norilsk Nickel and Prof-Media, which owns a large stake in the Moscow Times' parent company, Independent Media.
Rzhavsky's speeches are laden with references to family (his party's name, Edina Rodina, means One Family), and he believes that Ukraine should be run like one. Basically, most of his platform is just fluff.
But none of this answers why he is running in the first place. Many journalists in Kiev -- at least the independent ones -- assume that most of the marginal candidates are being financed by Yanukovich to siphon votes away from his primary opposition, Viktor Yushchenko. Only such ploys don't work here as easily as in the US, where Republicans are financing Ralph Nader to steal votes from Kerry. Ukraine has a two-stage election, in which the two front runners go head-to-head in the second round.