Saakashvili cries foul play in Odesa elections

By bne IntelliNews October 26, 2015

Graham Stack in Odesa -

Odesa mayor Hennady Trukhanov "should be investigated" for electoral manipulation, Odesa region governor Mikheil Saakashvili claimed on October 25, as local elections were held across Ukraine and first exit polls were conducted.

"If [Trukhanov] wins in the first round or the second round it will be for the same reason – electoral manipulation," Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who was appointed Odesa governor in the summer to oversee reforms in the key - and corrupt - coastal region, told bne IntelliNews.

Saakashvili's words are the first sign that he could deploy allies placed in local police and prosecutor's office to oust the incumbent mayor, a former close ally of Ukraine's ousted ex-president Viktor Yanukovych.

The outspoken governor's candidate in the elections was the second-place candidate Oleksandr 'Sasha' Borovik, a former lawyer for Microsoft who has been living outside of Ukraine since the end of the Soviet Union, mainly in Germany.

"There should be a criminal investigation into such manipulation in favour of Trukhanov," Saakashvili said, adding that "of course, I cannot answer for the prosecutor". However, close Saakashvili allies from Georgia hold the posts of prosecutor of Odesa region and head of Odesa police, meaning that the governor's governor's threat of criminal investigation is real.

Some exit polls showed Trukhanov taking 51% in the vote on October 25, enough to see him re-elected mayor  – and arouse the fury of Saakashvili. The most respected exit poll, that of the Savik Shuster Studio gave Trukhanov only 47%, with Borovik on 30% and a former mayor Eduard Gurvits on 9%. Turnout was just under 30%.

Diverse regional picture

Overall in Ukraine, voter turnout stood at 46.62%, according to the country's Central Election Commission (CEC), with higher participation in the western regions and less in the war-torn East. A total of 56.5% of voters took part in the western Lviv and Ternopil regions and above 50% in regions of Central Ukraine. The lowest number of voters came to the elections in Donetsk (31.65%) and Luhansk (35.27%) regions, the centre of the separatist conflict against the government in Kyiv for the past 18 months.

Second-round hopes

In Odesa, if no candidate takes 50% of the vote in the first round, a second round will be held on November 15 between the two leading candidates.

Saakashvili said he expected there to be a second round, in which he said Borovik would win. He called Borovik's performance "phenomenal", considering he had "come from nowhere" as a candidate only six weeks previously.

In an interview with bne IntelliNews in early September 2015, before his announcement as candidate, Borovik said he "did not have enough local support" to consider a candidacy.

His performance was all the more surprising because both Saakashvili and Borovik remarked to bne IntelliNews that they had received little support from President Petro Poroshenko's eponymous party, despite Borovik officially running on the party ticket.

"Borovik has been really an opposition candidate," Saakashvili told bne IntelliNews, claiming that "some people in local BPP staff had been working against him", a reflection of the fact that "all of the local clans" opposed Borovik, Saakashvili said.

Members of Borovik's campaign team told bne IntelliNews that Bloc Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv had proposed a different candidate, and it was Saakashvili who had insisted on Borovik's candidacy.

Borovik himself said he had felt a groundswell in his favour and that "we have specific evidence of Trukhanov running electoral carousels" [when voters are bussed from polling station to polling station to cast multiple votes]. A staff member showed a photo of a local passenger bus with a sign "elections". However, the bus was simply one of those laid on by city authorities to help voters from outlying districts reach polling stations, a spokesperson from city hall told bne IntelliNews.

Exit polls also gave Trukhanov's local party the lead in simultaneous elections to the municipal assembly, with 28.6%, according Savik Shuster Studios, ahead of BPP on 20% and on 15% Opposition Bloc, a successor to the Party of Regions of the ex-president Yanukovych.

Local strongman

There is little doubt that Trukhanov has a very large constituency in Odesa, despite a controversial past dogged by organised crime allegations made by opponents. Legal moves to unseat him in the event of re-election would be seen as politicised, given Saakashvili effectively runs both the local prosecutor's office and local police via his informally dubbed 'Team Georgia'.

On election day, a bne IntelliNews reporter went to the huge north Odesa housing estate of Kotovsky Poselok, considered the heartland of support for Trukhanov, to talk to local voters.

Most of those who voted said they had ticked the box for Trukhanov and his local party 'Trust in deeds', referring to Trukhanov's perceived success in building city infrastructure, in particular for their high-rise housing district.

"I'm 100% for him," said Aleksander Dimov, a 28-year-old electrical engineer by profession. "He has built roads and hospitals, he's not a politician, he's a manager." Sasha, a 27-year-old welder who declined to give his last name, said Trukhanov "gets on with things", especially building better road connections between the housing district and the centre of Odesa.

"He's done a lot for the district," concurred Igor, 57, an ex-army officer who also declined to give a last name. "He's good for continuity, he's a pleasant, clever guy."

However, even in this Trukhanov heartland there were dissenting opinions. "I don't want any of the old people," said 60-year-old Nataliya Loskova, who said she actually comes from Kyiv but is registered to vote in Odesa. "I voted for Borovik to support Saakashvili," she said.

Odesa humour strikes back

Odesa is famous as a sketchy port city with an organised crime problem, but also for its trenchant humour. These local elections were absurd enough: pitting incumbent Trukhanov, a consumate Odesa insider, who forrmerly ran a security firm, and is president of Ukraine's Thai boxing federation, against the boyish Borovik. Borovik is an obscure former Microsoft lawyer based in Munich, who originally trained in the KGB in Moscow, graduated from Harvard, was fired after three months work by Ukraine's Lithuanian economy minister, then hired by a former Georgian president turned Ukrainian governor.

Heightening the air of absurdity was the participation in the electoral race of the Ukrainian incarnation of Darth Vader, villain of the long-running Star Wars Hollywood franchise. Not only did a statue of Lenin in central Odesa mysteriously metamorphose into a Darth Vader statue during the election campaign, but a house facade opposite the Borovik campaign headquarters bore a huge banner of Darth Vader pictured together with US President Barack Obama, below the slogan "Dark forces rule the world".

"This is a violation of the 'day of silence' before elections [when electioneering is forbidden] and it is also racist," Vasil' Arbuzov, a member of Borovik's campaign team told bne IntelliNews. "We will demand an investigation," he added. Exit polls gave Darth Vader only around 1% of the vote.

Officers in Odesa's new Georgian-style police force, the brainchild of Saakashili, were filmed detaining a larger-than-life Star Wars character Chewbacca, during an altercation outside a polling station, when Chewbacca failed to produce valid ID.

"I intended to vote for Darth Vader, because if we don't laugh we would have to cry," said Kotovsky Poselok local Denis Shepelev, adding that he finally ticked the box for local Odesa opposition candidate Svetlana Fabrikant. "We all understand that with Trukhanov's past not everything is above board," he said.

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