BEREZHANI, Ukraine — Vitaliy Shabunin grabbed the microphone and strutted back and forth on the stage, trying to convince his rapt audience of agriculture students about the importance of young voters’ participation in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections.
“We can be a trigger for change,” he told the room of about 150 college students in late September. “Thanks to Maidan, we have an opportunity to bring new blood into the parliament with new methods, new ways of thinking and a desire to change things. This is how we will break the old system of corruption.”
At 29, Shabunin has made a name for himself as one of the country’s young reformers, a group of 20- and 30-somethings who emerged from the Euromaidan protest movement that ousted Kremlin-favored President Viktor Yanukovych. Shabunin heads the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kiev, where from 2011 he has overseen projects that exposed and blocked $100 million in state procurement scams initiated during Yanukovych’s presidency.
Shabunin is the youngest candidate running on his party’s ticket in the Oct. 26 elections — part of a political trend in which parties have put the heroes of Maidan on their tickets to tap into Ukrainian voters’ newfound patriotism.
“These heroes are seen as a symbol of a strong Ukraine, and that is very attractive to public opinion now,” said Viktor Sokolov, the vice president of the Gorshenin Institute, a think tank in Kiev.
Ukraine’s parliamentary elections are seen as the next crucial step toward resolving the country’s 11-month old crisis, which has left the state nearly bankrupt and struggling in an expensive military conflict with pro-Russian rebels in the east. Voters — and international donors — are hoping a new government will tackle much-needed political and economic reforms, which the current parliament has made little progress on.
But the elections are fraught with complications, namely if and how the disputed Crimea and rebel-held eastern districts will be represented in the new government. Russia annexed Crimea in April after an independence referendum the Ukrainian government and most Western leaders have dismissed.
In the east, an estimated 14 districts in Donetsk and Luhansk under separatist control will not be able to vote. The rebels in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic last month announced that it would hold elections for its own parliament, the Supreme Council, on Nov. 2.
A fragile cease-fire is in place, but sporadic firefights continue. Many Ukrainians say they are digging in for what they believe will be a long, hard struggle against Russia’s tight political and economic grip on the former Soviet republic.
In a recent poll conducted by the Gorshenin Institute, 60 percent of Ukrainians said they did not believe the fighting with Kremlin-backed separatists in the east would end soon, Sokolov said.
President Petro Poroshenko last month granted the rebel-held areas a special status with greater autonomy for three years, a move that has been criticized as capitulation and cost him in his approval ratings. Other polls have shown society split almost evenly on whether Ukraine should continue its military actions in the east. Fighting there has claimed more than 3,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, according to the United Nations.
With patriotism a driving force in the campaign, political parties’ candidate lists read like a who’s who of the Euromaidan revolution.
Anti-corruption activists, war heroes and investigative journalists are featured in campaign commercials and billboards around the country, tagged with slogans such as “Ukraine will win” and “Time for unity.”
Yuliy Mamchur, an air force colonel who rose to fame when he refused in March to leave his post on Ukraine’s main air base in Crimea despite being surrounded by Russian forces. He’s now running on a ticket for Poroshenko’s party.
Nadiya Savchenko, an air force pilot, is also on a party list. She is currently in a prison in western Russia, where prosecutors have accused her of killing two Russian journalists covering the conflict in Ukraine. She has denied the charges, and her captivity has made her a national hero back home. Ukrainian media have portrayed her as the “Ukrainian G.I. Jane.” Videos of her standing trial in Russia wearing a T-shirt bearing the Ukrainian national symbol and speaking only Ukrainian in court have gone viral.
Meanwhile, Russian media have deemed her a “killer in a skirt.”
How Savchenko would participate in parliament from her cell in Russia if she is elected remains unclear, but her party, Fatherland, has placed her at the top of its list of candidates and featured her image — and a moving promotional speech from her mother — in campaign ads.
Other Maidan activists-turned-politicians include two investigative journalists, Mustafa Nayyem, 33, and Serhei Leshchenko, 34. Nayyem is largely credited with being one of the main initiators of the Maidan demonstrations in November 2013 because of his social media posts calling for Ukrainians to gather on Kiev’s central square to protest Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union.
Poroshenko signed the association deal soon after he was elected in May.
The country is in desperate need of large-scale political and economic reforms, which will be unpopular and difficult to pass without a decisive parliamentary majority. Some analysts see the election’s outcome as either moving the country forward or throwing it back into chaos if a ruling coalition is not able to solidify quickly.
According to early polls, pro-reform, European-leaning parties are poised to gain a solid majority of seats, particularly by Poroshenko’s party.
Yanukovych’s Party of Regions deputies are not likely to win back their seats, although a few deputies have joined other parties. Analysts say their association with past corruption schemes has discredited them in post-Maidan Ukraine.
“Ukrainians are looking for a complete reboot of the system,” said Oleksiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv-Mohyla University in Kiev. “The current parliament does not reflect the moods of the people at this point.”
But the stark reality is that even if the new parliament sees in new faces, today’s tickets still list many previous members who are likely to retain their seats. Campaigns have already been marred with allegations of fraud, including one by a candidate who said he had to pay $6 million to get on Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s party ticket, which harks to a practice used by Ukraine’s wealthy and powerful business elite, the oligarchs, to buy political influence by financing candidates’ elections. The allegation has been denied.
“The young reformers have the will to fight these corruption schemes, but they lack the political experience to know how to go up against the old guard to do so. And unfortunately, the old guard have the political experience but lack the will to change things,” Sokolov said.
Shabunin said rebooting Ukraine’s political system could only succeed with a package of strict anti-corruption laws.
At a campaign stop at an agricultural college in Berezhani in western Ukrainian, he tried to put Ukraine’s struggle with corruption in perspective for his young audience.
“You're going to laugh, but listen to this,” he said to the students as he stood on the edge of the auditorium stage. “In the last three years, how many high-ranking public officials do you think have been sued by the state for corruption? Anyone want to take a guess?”
A few students shouted out a few figures. Fifty, one suggested. Zero, another one said.
“Only four in the last three years have been brought to a Ukrainian court,” Shabunin said. “In America, you know how many they have had? Six thousand cases in one year alone. So what do think that means? That America is more corrupt than us?”
The audience laughed at his sarcasm and nodded in approval as he continued his tirade on the importance of Ukrainian youths’ demanding democracy in their country.
“Remember that it's your task to ask your politicians what they have done for you,” he said. “That's each of our responsibilities now.”