For anyone who's been paying an unhealthy amount of attention to the Ukrainian presidential election campaign, Aleksandr Rzhavsky is the "honest" candidate. That's because Rzhavsky is the only one among a field of 26 politicians, character assassins, thugs and clowns running for president who posted an even remotely believable figure in his tax declarations. He declared an income of about 373,000 dollars last year, five foreign cars (including a Cadillac De Ville) and various other properties. By comparison, the second richest candidate -- current prime minister and presumed winner Viktor Yanukovich -- declared an income of 8000 bucks (only slightly more than his 6300 dollar government salary), an apartment and a garage. Rzhavsky's statement was a clever PR move that got him mentioned in several papers when the Central Election Committee released the figures.
Unfortunately for him, it didn't do much good. For most people, Ukrainians included, Rzhavsky's a nobody. The real race is between Yanukovich, the candidate backed by current president Leonid Kuchma and Ukraine's most powerful oligarchs, and Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and central bank chief who leads opposition party Nashe Ukraina (Our Ukraine). Yanukovich hails from the Donbass in the heavily Russified east, where the country's most powerful clans and economic strength (such as it is) are based. Yushchenko is the favorite of Ukrainian nationalists and the West alike (he is married to a Canadian who worked for USAID). Meanwhile, polls have Rzhavsky running neck and neck with 19 other candidates, below the radar at somewhere less than 1 percent. His name recognition is about the same. That's probably why he agreed to let me tag along with him for a day on the campaign trail last week. He welcomes any press, even the eXile. But, unlike most of the other marginal candidates, he actually seems to care, spending lots of time and money campaigning. The only question is, why?
Rzhavsky diagrams his E-Z economic program
I traveled with him to Vinnitsa, a small city about three hours west of Kiev, to try to find the answer. While a day of campaigning didn't leave me with any new insights into Rzhavsky's motivation, it did reaffirm one truth: politics in post-Soviet space are monkey business. Politicians here are like Koko the sign-language-talking gorilla; they might mimic the right gestures sometimes, but it doesn't mean they've got the hang of participatory democracy. Kissing the baby doesn't mean jack without a mechanism behind it to bring it home to the public. And it's this mechanism that is totally lacking in Ukraine and the rest of the CIS.
This lack of a party apparatus is more apparent tracking a minor candidate like Rzhavsky than with the serious players, because it is counterintuitive that a small player would run without structural support. What's the point of campaigning unless a. you have a chance of winning or b. you've got a party backing you up? While nationwide party politics in the States has become choreographed beyond recognition, on a micro level political parties and organizations still matter. Minor figures in a real democracy are grassroots politicians trying to forward their agendas. They range from crazy Christians to Greens, and through concerted action they manage to get their agendas, if not their candidates, into the discourse. But in Ukraine's pseudo-democracy, they're either agents of the powers that be or, like Rzhavsky, aferisty, adventurers, with nothing but money behind them.
I arrived in Vinnitsa with a bus full of university students campaigning for Rzhavsky. These agitatory were getting paid 75 hryvna (about $14) for the day to hand out newspapers. No volunteers, just college kids earning spending money. They were sent off to the market to distribute propaganda, while I went to see Rzhavsky's first engagement of the day.