Threats, vulgarity win you votes in Ukraine

Bad language and threats win voters' favour in rough and tumble politics of ex-Soviet nation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 3:27am

Parliaments can be boisterous places and elections are often heated affairs. But the frosty exchanges of an Obama-Romney debate or prime minister's question time in London pale in comparison to the rough and tumble of Ukrainian political discourse.

With the country poised for elections today for seats in a parliament renowned for violence and vulgarity, the tone has fallen still further. This is a place where parliamentarians do not refer to each other as honourable friends. They are more likely to threaten to kill each other.

In recent weeks, President Viktor Yanukovych blasted economy minister Petro Poroshenko by promising to "rip off" his head after they disagreed on tax policy; Kharkiv mayor Dmytro Kernes told a subordinate at an official meeting: "I'll multiply you to zero,"; and Kerch mayor Oleh Osadchyi called journalists who criticised a new monument "morons" and "bastards".

Observers say the bad political manners partly derive from Soviet times, when communication between bosses and their staff was often marked by humiliation and the use of swear words. "It was a joke that mat (bad language, in Ukrainian or Russian) was a main tool of Soviet management," political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said.

The legacy of the 1990s - when the transformation to capitalism after the Soviet collapse was marked by rampant criminality - is also a contributing factor.

Pundits blame the brutality on the internecine warring between the country's political elites, which led to the opposition bloc leader and former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko being jailed for seven years.

Political talk shows are another venue for abuse. "You talk about the courts that jailed Tymoshenko and why she is in jail. And you, a black-mouthed witch, were running around those courts," Oleh Liashko, a former Tymoshenko bloc deputy, told Inna Bohoslovska of the pro-government Party of Regions at a popular talk show. "Should I hit him in the face?" Bohoslovska asked the studio audience.

Some experts admit such an exchange could boost the pair's popularity, as both are running for parliament. "This way, politicians try to seem closer to the people; they are flirting with the electorate speaking this kind of language," said social psychologist Oleh Pokalchuk.

About two in five Ukrainians consider brutality and obscene language acceptable, according to a poll by the Gorshenin Institute think tank.

In a country where politics in recent years has focused almost entirely on the bitter rivalry between Yanukovych and the jailed Tymoshenko, the world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko is now emerging as a serious new force.

The acronym for Klitschko's party, UDAR, spells the word "punch" in Ukrainian, and polls show it surging into second place. Klitschko has denounced corruption among the authorities and insisted that pensions and salaries should be bigger and living standards better. "Six million Ukrainians … are looking for jobs abroad, 70 per cent of young people want to leave the country," he told a crowd of about 250. "What future can we talk about?"

The precise make-up of parliament, called the Verkhovna Rada, will not be known until several weeks after today's voting because half of the 450 seats will be filled by individual candidates not required to declare a party affiliation, while the other half are filled proportionally through voting for party lists.

The vote is being watched closely as a gauge of the state of democracy in Ukraine. Control of Parliament will also have an influence on the higher-stakes presidential contest in 2015.

Additional reporting by The New York Times