Old guard tries to hold back tide as Ukraine moves on

Revolution, war and the tilt to the west have left Yanukovich’s former allies reeling

There is no grand sign on the building, but the Kiev taxi driver knows who his passengers have come to see. “If you want Rabinovich,” he says, drawing to a halt outside the entrance, “then this is the place.”

Vadim Rabinovich is one of Ukraine's most colourful survivors, having come through political and business battles, a Soviet jail term, a suspected assassination attempt and bloody revolution to fight another day.

A further chance will come on Sunday, in snap elections that many Ukrainians hope will sweep away an old guard strongly linked to Russia and the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovich, and confirm the troubled nation's pivot to the west.

For supporters of last winter’s “Maidan” uprising, members of Yanukovich’s now-defunct Party of Regions bear huge responsibility for the revolution’s victims and a war in the east that has killed more than 3,600 people.

Yanukovich and many of his associates are now in Russia. Some of his old allies have disappeared or popped up in rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions, while others have formed an alliance called Opposition Bloc.

In a Ukraine battered by revolution, economic crisis, and now war with Russian-backed separatists, Opposition Bloc candidates have not had an easy ride, with several being beaten, branded political trash and dumped into rubbish bins.

In this poisonous and occasionally violent arena, the garrulous Rabinovich has become the fast-talking, wisecracking, outspoken face of the fledgling alliance. “I’m the nicest one in the group,” he says, “I’m a star on television because I tell it how it is, and I win all my debates because I talk straight.”

Failing the country

Rabinovich says the government is failing the country in countless ways: for letting Russia annex Crimea; for suffering heavy losses in the east and then proposing a ceasefire that offered the rebels “twice what they asked for” months before; and for imposing brutal but ineffective economic “shock therapy” on a weary people.

If he wins round interlocutors, it is through force of personality rather than power or consistency of argument. He denounces President Petro Poroshenko and his political allies as a "party of war", then complains that Ukrainian troops didn't fight Russia for Crimea and advocates a nuclear deterrent as a defence priority.

He says he did not support the Maidan movement, but then recalls seeing footage of riot police beating student protesters last November and realising that “we had crossed a line” and that Yanukovich had to go. Now the businessman – who has his own party – is sharing a political platform with long-time allies of that disgraced former leader.

“Of course they share some guilt for the situation the country is in,” he says. “But who should decide how much? Should we kill and bury people like the communists did? . . . The system should punish people, not guys with clubs.”

"And no one is guilty just because he drives a Bentley, " Rabinovich adds, before claiming that Ukraine's current leaders are "not billionaires but trillionaires". He also says that the bribes are bigger and the corruption worse than ever in Ukraine, and that Sunday's vote will be the "dirtiest election" in its history.

Battling Bloc

Opposition Bloc is battling to cross the 5 per cent threshold to enter parliament, which will be dominated by parties hostile to Yanukovich and to a Russia that backed him and is allegedly fomenting war in the east.

Poroshenko’s party is expected to win well on Sunday, and among its new deputies, and those of several pro-western groups, will be a new political generation of journalists, activists and military figures.

“In this election all parties have access to media, there is no persecution, the police are not repressive and the courts are not blocking candidates,” says Svitlana Zalishchuk, who is running with Poroshenko’s party. “But some districts are hell. There is still lots of manipulation and falsifications through which the old guard hopes to be elected. Local elites still abuse their power and give bribes, and people are poor and can’t control them.”

Zalishchuk, who is campaigning with prominent journalists Mustafa Nayem and Sergii Leshchenko, says the elections are desperately needed to create a new parliament reflecting the Ukrainian people's desire for radical change. "The street wants new rules, not just new faces. Old faces will have to play by the new rules. And if the prime minister or president fail to do that, they will be kicked out like Yanukovich, though perhaps in a more gentle way."

Zalishchuk also delivered a warning to Ukraine’s oligarchs that they are now needed to “help fight Russian aggression” but would ultimately also have to accept a new order. “To save the country, we now have to use the oligarchs’ power, authority and resources . . . But it is for the short term, and they will also have to change their ways.”

All sections of society

Zalishchuk insists that the new deputies will represent all sections of Ukrainian society, including the millions of Russian speakers targeted by Opposition Bloc, and be far more professional than the “corrupt, ‘experienced’ old guard, and their masseurs, drivers and the rest that sat in parliament”.

Rabinovich disagrees, and is scathing about journalists- turned-politicians, such as Nayem. “What he has learned to do in life is write,” he says. “He’d be better off sticking to journalism – he wasn’t bad.”

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