If, as looks likely, Petro Poroshenko loses his bid for re-election as President of Ukraine, he will have gone out in style. On Saturday night, the eve of the vote, his home town staged a huge public concert at the venue he created and sponsored: a state-of-the-art sound-and-light fountain complex just a short walk along the bank of the River Bug from one of the two big confectionary factories his company operates here.
There were bands and spectacular waterworks, and, like much that Poroshenko’s company, Roshen, sponsors, it all had a distinctly wholesome, rather American, family air. Through the morning, cleaners wielding brooms were sweeping every inch of every step in preparation for the extravaganza. A notice at the entrance of the children’s playground, just by the viewing area for the fountain, sets the tone. The playground, it says, was built and sponsored by the Roshen confectionary company, and everyone should respect the facilities and behave courteously, so that everyone can enjoy it.
Vinnytsia, with its population of around 350,000 is two and half hours away from Ukraine’s capital Kiev on the fastest train and is considered part of western Ukraine, but it is not as far west in either geography or spirit as Lviv. To a Russian-speaking visitor, such as myself, it seems less assertive about the use of the Ukrainian language than Lviv has become, but also more at ease with itself, despite the many ghosts that haunt its past century: famine, the Stalin Purges, and Nazi occupation, to mention but three.
Like much of Ukraine outside Kyiv – and surely not unrelated to this experience – Vinnytsia seems reticent about its politics. When I asked people, on the morning of the TV debate between Poroshenko and his front-running challenger, Volodymyr Zelinskiy, whether they were going to watch, they were non-committal. I asked at a few bars and restaurants in the lively centre whether they were going to show it, they said No; it would be the usual music and dance videos – unlike in Kyiv, where young people flocked to cafes and bars to watch the show.
But it wasn’t that Vinnytsia wasn’t watching; it was. I overheard conversations about the debate on the bus beforehand, the streets were deserted for the duration, and I caught the concierge at my hotel glued to the TV behind his desk. But when I asked what he – and others thought – there was the stock answer for outsiders: it’s just showbiz, isn’t it?
Well, maybe it was. But it was a first for Ukrainians (and by the way for most of the former Soviet world) in so many ways: that it happened at all; that the contenders – one of whom, let’s not forget, was the incumbent President – were so spontaneous and outright dismissive of each other; and that the whole thing passed off as a political event, with barracking, but without violence, and with vast amounts of airtime devoted to post-debate analysis.
If Vinnitsa was typical of Ukraine in its response to the debate, as a city, it is also special in ways that may explain why even his strong personal connection to the city failed to guarantee him victory this time around. While he topped the first-round poll in most of western Ukraine, Poroshenko came second to Zelenskiy in Vinnytsia, albeit by a hair’s breadth -22.4 to 23.4 per cent – in Vynnitsia, for heaven’s sake, essentially his fiefdom, where he had taken almost 70 per cent of the first-round vote in 2014.
Vinnytsia certainly has reason to be grateful to Poroshenko – his chocolate factories have provided not only jobs, but also facilities and patronage that is visible throughout the city, and it hardly harmed the city’s profile – or probably its exchequer – when he became President five years ago. Vinnytsia’s infrastructure, at least in the centre, seems in markedly better state than in many other provincial Ukrainian cities.
But Vinnytsia has advantages that predate and transcend Poroshenko. And while his investment may have helped put the city back on its feet after it languished in Soviet times and the early years of Ukrainian independence, Vinnytsia may now have outgrown his patronage.
In recent years, its proximity to Poland – and the visa-free travel regime with the EU that Poroshenko has (rightly) claimed as a big achievement of his presidency – has brought new investment and remittances. It is Poroshenko’s misfortune that while most Ukrainians are too poor or too far away to benefit from the new visa-regime, those who do (including in the grey area of unofficial working in Poland) are not giving him his due.
Vinnytsia’s advantages, though, go much further back. In the last two decades of the Russian empire, the combination of its situation as a river and rail transport hub and a progressive mayor who was interested in modern town-planning, gave the city a charm, liveability and civic pride that helped it withstand at least some of the exigencies the Soviet system imposed.
With confidence and civic pride now returning – it has erected new memorials that betray a liberal bent, for instance, to a Jewish dissident poet, the victims of Chernobyl, and Vinnytsia natives who died in the Soviet Afghan war – the city may feel it owes Poroshenko less than it did. And while Poroshenko’s campaign clearly hoped to reverse his fortunes here after the first round – there were more Poroshenko posters and more activists handing out literature in the run-up to the second round than I saw in either Kyiv or Lviv, and none whatsoever for Zelenskiy – Zelenskiy seemed to have entered even Vinnytsia’s consciousness in other ways – through his TV series about a fictional president, ‘Servant of the People’, through social media, and by word of mouth. And if the actor turned anti-politician politician can win over Vynnitsia, he can win Ukraine.