Their outcome hadpretty much been decided last year, when Yulia Tymoshenko, theleader of the opposition, was sentenced to seven years in prison.Her trial for abuse of office was condemned as a political shamthroughout the West. But however painful the blowback has been forPresident Viktor Yanukovych, the political dividends at home wereworth it. "It was a question of survival for him," says VadymKarasyov, a political analyst in Kyiv. "Sure, he lost face inEurope, but if Yulia had been free, she would have long organizedan uprising against him." With his rival locked away, Yanukovych'sParty of Regions faced competition from a fractious cluster ofnewcomer parties - one led by a boxing champion, another headlinedby a famous footballer - none of which posed much of achallenge.
So when the voteswere tallied on Monday, the Party of Regions held on to itsmajority in parliament. What remains of Tymoshenko's party took adistant second place under the leadership of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whohas struggled to match her charisma. "This opposition poses nothreat to us," said Anna German, the leading spin doctor for theParty of Regions, who stood in for Kolesnikov after he failed toshow up at the InterContinental. She then hopped into her blackMercedes to deliver Kolesnikov his birthday present, and sheinvited me to go along. The traffic, it turned out, wasn't all thatbad. It took us all of five minutes to get to hisoffice.
We found him therein his shirtsleeves, the cuffs weighed down with heavy gold links,and he invited us to a private room in the back of his office totalk. His lighter and cigarette cases, both gold, were lying on thetable in front of him, alongside a button that he used to summonhis butler, who emerged from a side door wearing a tuxedo. "Do youhave that new chocolate?" Kolesnikov asked. The butler bowed."Good, haul it over."
Back in the 1990s,chocolate made Kolesnikov his first million, and his confectionerybusiness placed him among the young industrialists who emerged inDonetsk after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Last year, whenForbes pegged his fortune at $230 million, he became one of the fewsenior political figures ever to accuse the magazine of lowballinghim. "I've spent $200 million just on breeding livestock!" hedeclared.
The heyday for himand the Donetsk clan began when Yanukovych, another native of theregion, became President in 2010 and began easing his allies fromback home into senior posts across the country. When I was in theregion of Crimea this summer, talk about "the Donetsk invasion" hadgotten so rampant that a joke was going around about a homeless mansleeping on the streets of Donetsk. A group of policemen run overand bundle him into a van. "Where are you taking me?" the manshouts. "The Crimea," they tell him. "A mayoral post has gonevacant."
The main financialbacker of the Party of Regions since its inception has been amining tycoon from Donetsk named Rinat Akhmetov, who is nowUkraine's most powerful oligarch. Kolesnikov is one of his oldestfriends, and in Kiev's political circles, he is seen as theoligarch's man in government. During our interview, he referred toAkhmetov as "my close friend," and quoted the multibillionaire asthough his words were holy writ. When I asked about the party'splatform, he said, "Going back to Rinat - not just because he is myfriend but because he said a smart thing - the goal of the Party ofRegions is for Ukraine to take the title of the greatest country inEurope."
During theseelections, Kolesnikov was put in charge of ensuring the vote'stransparency. His main achievement was the installation of webcameras at all 34,000 polling stations, costing the federal budget$125 million. It seemed like a cosmetic exercise. In the region ofOdesa, fraudsters still managed to tamper with the vote, policesaid, by placing pens with disappearing ink inside the votingbooths. But even if there had been no fraud, how could the ballotbe fair if the ruling government had jailed the leader of theopposition? "I don't want to get into semantics," Kolesnikov saidwhen I asked him this question. "But who decided that she is theleader of the opposition?" Well, Tymoshenko's career decided it. In2004, she was the heroine of the Orange Revolution that blockedYanukovych from taking power. She then served as Prime Ministerand, in 2010, ran a near-miss campaign against Yanukovych for thepresidency. But Kolesnikov was not convinced. "Who gave her thetitle of opposition leader?" he demanded. "It's not the U.S. StateDepartment, is it?"
The jab atWashington was unusual. Kolesnikov proclaimed himself an admirer ofthe American system and quoted as freely from Woodrow Wilson asVladimir Lenin. "I learned more from the Obama-Romney debates thanfrom all of our opposition campaigns put together," he told me. Thespread of the Donetsk clan around the country, he said, is nodifferent from what happened after President Barack Obama tookoffice. "This is a law of life," said Kolesnikov. "Obama is fromChicago, so his whole team is from Chicago." Likewise, the role ofthe oligarchs in Ukraine is a copy of the American model, exceptwith a delay of about a hundred years. "How is Carnegie not anoligarch? He built U.S. Steel, then went into communications,"Kolesnikov said. "Old business never wants to see new business comein … But I think that too will pass."
Taking outTymoshenko was a step in the right direction, he said, because itallowed new opposition leaders to emerge. These were men likeVitali Klitschko, the world boxing champion, who founded a partycalled Udar to run in these elections. The name means punch, andhis campaign consisted mostly of boxing gimmicks - "It's time todeal a punch to the ruling party" - without much substance. Whenmost of the votes were tallied on Monday, Udar was in fourth place,behind the Communist Party, which is allied with the Party ofRegions.
These are thekinds of growing pains, said Kolesnikov, that are part of movingaway from the old "worn out" opposition and moving to new political"brands" in Ukraine. "It's like Gucci and Armani," he said,referring to Tymoshenko and the Orange Revolutionaries. "They'reout of style. So let's try something that the kids are into, likeDiesel." And while these trends come and go, the Party of Regionsis hoping to become something like the Republicans in Washington."They have been around for 80 years," said Kolesnikov. "They areeternal!" The only difference, of course, is that the Party ofRegions has no counterpart, no eternal Democrats to createcompetition.
With time, saidKolesnikov, that too will change, and his birthday present wasmeant to help. Carrying it into his office with her arms extended,German, the spin doctor, produced the gift from an elaborateleather box - a little bronze head of Abraham Lincoln with a doorin the back of it. If you open the door, German explained, you canput a note with a wish inside. Although the obvious question washard to utter with a straight face, I had to ask: What wouldKolesnikov place inside Lincoln's head? He thought about it for amoment, snuffed out his cigarette, and answered: "I will stick anote in there hoping that our nation, maybe not right away buteventually, will reach the achievements that Lincoln's nationreached." It sounded very noble, but under the circumstances, Ihave a feeling that Honest Abe would cringe.