He has long been a star on the Ukrainian music scene, but now Svyatoslav Vakarchuk wants to make politics. He has founded a party.
Politics and rock: At the concert of Okean Elzy there are both Photo: Alexandr Gusev
So it’s as simple as this. "I’ll give you my vote tonight, and you give me your vote on July 21," Svyatoslav Vakarchuk shouts to his fans in the city park of the Ukrainian provincial city of Poltava on this sweltering July evening. The 44-year-old is casual: jeans, sneakers, T-shirt. He likes to appear before the audience unkempt – today, too.
For over twenty years, the frontman of the group Okean Elzy has been the number one in Ukrainian rock music. Wherever he performs, thousands and tens of thousands await him, listening to his contemplative songs or stomping their legs on the floor in rhythm as the basses of his rock band vibrate the bodies of the audience.
Many Ukrainians have grown up with Okean Elzy. In 1996, the group performed in Kiev with Deep Purple. And in 2018 on Independence Day, August 24, 100,000 came to the Kiev Olympic Stadium for Okean Elzy’s concert.
For several months, musician Vakarchuk has also been a politician. He is the chairman of the Golos (the Voice) party, which he founded only a few weeks ago. At the moment, it looks as if he will enter the Ukrainian parliament with Golos after the elections on Sunday next week. Ukrainian opinion research institutes currently see the party at just under seven percent. That is enough to overcome the five-percent threshold. The singer has particularly high approval ratings among patriotic conservatives and young rock fans.
A concert as an election campaign event
The fact that on this July evening it felt like half the provincial town was at the concert is not only due to the popularity of the rock musician. "I won’t have the opportunity to hear Vakarchuk again so soon. And what’s more, it’s free and practically on our doorstep," says Vitalij, a civil engineer who, at 50, is clearly in the minority among the predominantly young concertgoers that evening.
But Vitalij has to be patient. Because before the music comes a commercial break. The Poltava chapter of the Golos party does the honors for forty minutes, presenting its team and the direct candidates for the parliamentary elections in epic breadth.
"How many of you have someone in your family who works abroad because they can’t live on their salary here in Ukraine?" he shouts to the audience. Half of the audience raises their hands
"I’m a doctor and I’ve delivered several hundred women, sent 500 liters of blood to the front. And I thought to myself that I can help people not only in my profession, but also in politics," candidate Rostislav Sauralsky flaunts from the concert stage. When he heard that honest people were still being sought for Team Golos as direct candidates, it was clear to him that this was something for him. But he admits that he has one shortcoming. He can only speak Russian because he spent his youth in Russia.
Finally Svyatoslav Vakarchuk comes on stage with Okean Elzy. Now the visitors are clapping not only out of politeness. Vakarchuk has a feeling for what moves people. "How many of you have someone in your family who works abroad because they can’t live on their salary here in Ukraine?" he shouts to the audience. Half of the audience raises their hands.
The "Tour of Change"
He and Golos would do something about the fact that many Ukrainians have to seek their salvation abroad, he replies. He can still remember times when Poles came to Ukraine because they had empty stores at home. But now, he says, people in Poland earn four to five times as much as those in Ukraine. Changing that disparity is what he wants to work on, he said. "Do you want a better life?" he asks the crowd again. And again you see a sea of raised hands.
Vakarchuk is running his own campaign. He knows his strengths, but also his weaknesses. And he largely tries to avoid the traditional forms of election campaigning. Once, his opponent, ex-head of government Yulia Tymoshenko, had paraded him on a talk show because he couldn’t answer her question about how much citizens had to pay on average for gas to heat their homes.
So he goes on tour. "Tour of Changes" is the name of the project. He wants to do 21 free concerts with his Okean Elzy until July 19. And each time between 10,0,000 spectators come. There are always two events: he kicks off with a political election event, which is followed by a free concert with a preceding commercial break. It’s the same in other cities as on this evening in Poltava: the political part is attended by a few hundred, the concert by tens of thousands.
But not everyone is enthusiastic about the free concerts during the election campaign. "Even if concerts are allowed during election campaigns, we don’t think it’s a good idea," explains Denis Ribatschok from the "Committee of Voters of Ukraine." "Politicians should compete with each other with programs and ideas. Election campaigns should not become a competition to see who can come up with the better artists."
Against oligarchy and corruption.
Twenty stars from show business are active in the election campaign this time, Ribatschok said. He is particularly puzzled when such concerts are not financed from the parties’ campaign budgets and it is not clear where the money for them comes from.
In terms of content, Golos stands for a national-conservative course that in many respects resembles the "European Solidarity" party of former President Petro Poroshenko. Golos is pro-Western, strives to join the EU and NATO, wants to promote patriotism and sees Russia as an enemy. A central goal of Golos is to strengthen the army and its standing in society. "I don’t want parents to face a draft notice of their son with fear," Vakarchuk shouts to the audience. "Real patriots put state interests above private interests."
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Nevertheless, Vakarchuk, for whom the fight against oligarchy and corruption are important issues, rejects any proximity to Poroshenko. When asked recently by the Internet portal lb.ua to comment on Poroshenko’s efforts to deoligarchize Ukraine, he said, "Only Baron Munchausen has managed to pull himself out of the swamp by his hair."
But despite all the patriotic rhetoric, Vakarchuk seeks an end to the war without violence and advocates talks with Russia. Clausewitz once said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. "I say it the other way around. We must continue the military conflict by other means."
Golos could become junior partner in coalition
Nonchalance in appearance is one thing; the struggle for power is another. Who would be on Golos’ ticket, he said, was worked out by a seven-member committee, the Nominating Committee. Its proposals went through at the party congress, says Inna Sowkun, a party spokeswoman.
The 35-year-old former deputy education minister is herself a member of the nominating committee. This committee is also authorized to remove people from the list after the party congress. This is the case if it turns out that someone has lied or has dark spots in their biography that were not known before, explains press spokeswoman Inna Sowkun.
A similar procedure exists in the "Servants of the People" party of President Volodimir Selensky. There, the procedure is called "post primaries". A small circle around the party executive can remove candidates from the list that the party congress has already voted on.
The latest polls put "Servants of the People" at 47 percent of the vote. However, this will not be enough for a "monocoalition," as a one-party government is called in Selenski’s environment. Therefore, a junior partner is needed. This is where the Golos party could come into play. In that case, the two big names in Ukrainian show business, Volodimir Selensky and Svatoslav Vakarchuk, would not be on the same stage, but they would be in the same boat.
After a good three hours, the band Okean Elzy is still playing like there’s no tomorrow. Vakarchuk seems unstoppable. People are cheering. Slowly, the first ones, visibly exhausted, leave the city park after all. A few kilometers away, on the way to the train station in Poltava, not only the booming bass, but also Svyatoslav Vakarchuk can still be heard. What a voice!