Old-School Mayor Battles Ukraine's Ruling Party

ODESSA, Ukraine -- The incumbent mayor of the Black Sea port of Odessa faces the political battle of his life this weekend in an election showdown against Ukraine's pro-Russian president.

Odessa Mayor Eduard Hurvits

Polls show mayor Eduard Hurvits is on track to obtain 13 per cent of the popular vote on Sunday, with the candidate nominated and heavily financed by Ukraine's ruling Party of Regions, Aleksy Kostusev, likely to gather in some 32 per cent.

Despite long odds, Eduard Hurvits says he may yet still win. If not, he vows to go down swinging against President Viktor Yanukovych, the Party of Regions head.

'I am a patriot, and these people will destroy Odessa,' Hurvits said in an interview with the German Press Agency dpa. 'I will fight to the end for my city.'

Hurvits, 62, is one of Ukraine's few surviving old-school regional politicians. He entered high politics in the early 1990s and has managed to hang on right up through the present, without having to rely on the support of any of the country's major political parties.

Mayors and city councils in Ukraine's heavily industrial Russian-speaking east and south answer, overwhelmingly, to Yanukovych's Party of Regions.

Elected officials in the more rural and Ukrainian-speaking north and west are, as a rule, loyal to one or more of the country's opposition parties.

Odessa, a multicultural city proud of its Yiddish-tinted dialect of Russian, and with a long-established tradition of ignoring the capital's orders if they interfere with local commerce, is an exception, rejecting both camps to remain loyal only to itself.

Hurvits has been the leading cheerleader of Odessan independence over the years, stymieing central government efforts to gain control over Odessa customs duty revenues. He has even bypassed Ukraine's Foreign Ministry to advance trade links between Odessa and neighbouring states.

One recent row between Kiev and Odessa is over the central authorities' plan to ship 8,500 tons of state-owned hazardous chemicals to England via a railroad line running through the centre of the city. Odessa's city hall's has flatly refused to let the train cars through.

With one week left before the mayoral election in Odessa, Party of Regions billboards and television spots outnumber those of other candidates by roughly three to one. The Regions ads hammer a simple theme: For years Hurvits has embezzled city funds, associated with organized crime, and done little for average Odessans.

Hurvits denies all accusations of wrongdoing and argues Yanukovych and Regions are unhappy with Odessa's traditions of independence and freedom.

Kostusev, a former economics minister, laid out the Party of Regions plan at a recent Odessa railroad managers' meeting.

'My goal is to give, finally, our beloved city the professional government it deserves, a leadership that will work to the public good,' he said. 'Enough of old-boy politics and inside deals!'

Railroad staff applauded politely, although some in the auditorium back rows chatted on mobile phones during a subsequent question-and -answer session. But if some Odessans are lukewarm towards Kostusev, others say that Hurvits 14 years in office should be enough for any man.

Hurvits devoted most of his last Saturday before elections to making stump speeches next to apartment buildings in a working-class neighbourhood and meeting with hundreds of low-income fellow Odessans.

He braved a barrage of unpleasant questions.

'Why is my electricity cut off all the time?' shouted a sailor.

'Can't you do something about cars driving through our courtyard to get around traffic jams?' demanded a housewife.

'How am I supposed to live on a pension of 90 dollars? My utility bill alone is more than that!' complained a pensioner.

Twice groups of potential voters surrounded Hurvits and his three bodyguards to register loud and irate complaints.

'I understand them, they're frustrated, things are difficult, the government doesn't have much money,' a visibly tired Hurvits said later.

'I don't know what I will do if I lose this election,' he said. 'I just don't know.'

Source: DPA