Kyiv feels far away and everywhere else does too.
This town in the southwestern corner of Ukraine should be flourishing. A magnificent domed Orthodox church, dating back to 1838, testifies to its glorious past as a town on the edge of the Russian empire. Bolhrad is next to some of the richest farming land in Eastern Europe. It is only a few kilometers from the lower reaches of the Danube, with Romania and the European Union just on the other side of the river (Bessarabia was in fact ruled by Romania up until 1940). Its majority ethnic community has another patron in the EU: they are predominantly Bulgarians, whose forebears settled here from Ottoman lands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Bolhrad should also in theory have a stake in the dramatic political row currently convulsing Ukraine. After all, it is the birthplace of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose father worked here as an engineer and factory director. And, as one of the main towns of Ukrainian Bessarabia, it is part of Odessa Region which was, until a year ago, governed by Poroshenko’s former ally and now would-be nemesis, ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.
The Poroshenko-Saakashvili row is big news. On September 10, the Kyiv media and foreign press were gripped by the drama of Saakashvili’s forced crossing of the Polish-Ukrainian border, six weeks after the government stripped him of Ukrainian citizenship.
It is a fairly desperate fight between two politicians who are trying to reinvent themselves.
A year ago, Saakashvili lost an election in Georgia. He disastrously made the vote into a public referendum on whether he should return to his native country and received the answer “No.” That resulted in his party, the United National Movement, splitting in two, with its most credible figures deserting Saakashvili. Then he resigned as governor of Odessa and embarked on a project to build a new party in Ukraine.
He might have faded away, but Poroshenko then handed Saakashvili another chance to win the limelight, by rashly depriving him of his Ukrainian citizenship on dubious grounds. Poroshenko’s approval rating has fallen to about 16 percent. The decision suggests a man who has decided to start to neutralize the opposition, but may have reenergized it instead.
Big news. But in Bolhrad, it could all have happened in a distant foreign country. The Poroshenko-Saakashvili row elicits at best a shrug.
“Poroshenko forgot that he was born here,” says a local Bulgarian teacher, saying that the school the president attended is in as bad repair as the rest of the town. Neglect is everywhere: factories that have not worked since Soviet times, cracked public buildings, and potholed roads.
Despite serving two years as governor of Odessa Region and making many big promises, Saakashvili barely made an impression here. “Everyone had high expectations for three months, and then no one took him seriously after that,” said a journalist who works in Bessarabia.
Bessarabia’s story is one of post-independence Ukraine: stagnation, self-reliance, and stability. The region is famous for its bad roads which make it more of a cul-de-sac than an international crossroads. They are gradually being fixed. It will take longer to revive agriculture and light industry here. Meanwhile, most of the young people—the women in particular—have left to work in the EU.
In this context, politicians, especially those in Kyiv, are objects of scorn. The absence of central authority is summarized by the plinth of the former Lenin statue, on which someone has placed an empty beer bottle. Since Soviet times (and to some extent during them too) no central government has been properly in charge here.
Instead, control is mostly exercised by local politicians, who are skillful at navigating the complex local politics, keeping Kyiv happy and also managing their own business interests.
Currently that means three Bessarabian parliamentarians, who are colorful even by Ukrainian standards.
In December 2013 Vitaliy Barvinenko strongly opposed the Maidan protests. In 2015, one of his associates headed a failed effort to instigate a separatist pro-Russian Bessarabian People’s Republic. He is now in the Revival faction in the Rada, which is linked to oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.
Alexander Urbansky is a Rada deputy representing the Danube port city of Izmail. His brother is also a local politician and their Georgian-born father, Igor, remains a powerful Odessa businessman. The third—and perhaps most powerful—parliamentarian is Anton Kisse, who is the acknowledged boss of the Bulgarian community and has good political connections in Bulgaria.
Between them, these men currently decide much of what happens or does not happen in the region. They have at various times pledged support to different leaders in Kyiv—including Poroshenko. But he evidently needs them more than they need him.
Bessarabia is a remote multiethnic region with its own peculiarities. But it is only a more extreme version of Ukraine as a whole. Regional politicians still move money, command votes, and deal with the center from a position of strength. Poroshenko needs their support if he is to get reelected—and that means giving them much of what they want. It’s a dynamic that provides Ukraine with stability but also puts the brake on much needed reform. It’s likely to be a major political factor in the country until the next elections come round in 2019.