It’s the battle of the billboards. As you head for Kiev’s city centre – whichever approach you take – they line the road at what appear to be rapidly decreasing intervals. And then there are the banners that hang from wires strung across the streets, signs attached to road lights and posters on stakes, which shoot up from crumbling pavements. As the Ukrainian financial crisis deepened last winter, there were few takers for these sites and the imploring “advertise here” signs became a constant reminder of Ukraine’s shattered economic fortunes. Fortunately for the beleaguered billboard operators a new show is in town and with big budgets to boot: the 17 January presidential election.
It all started in August when two words on a stark white background started popping up on freshly plastered posters: “She Works”. Despite the lack of any other clue it was clear that the “She” in question was Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Over the months the “She Works” line has been adapted to “They Strike – She Works”, “They Ruin – She Works” (both references to Ukraine’s notoriously inept parliament) and more recently, “She Works – She is Ukraine”.
As distinctive as the campaign is, it is risky for a politician who has cultivated a personality cult among Ukrainians (even her detractors gush about how beautiful the immaculately turned-out Tymoshenko is) to adopt an advertising campaign devoid of her image and name. And the campaign has given way to comical retorts from opposing candidates, such as that of fellow female candidate Inna Bohoslovska whose election hopes are encapsulated in the slogan: “I Will Win, So She Can Have a Rest.”
Strangely for someone who spent two stints in prison for violence and theft in the 1960s and 1970s (convictions that were later quashed), and who eventually lost out to current President Victor Yushchenko in the controversial election of 2004, Victor Yanukovych (seen by many commentators as the hot favourite to win) has developed a campaign focused on his integrity. A tall and awkward person, his clumsiness is illustrated by the YouTube video of him offering sweets to Russia’s then-president, Vladimir Putin (an offer that was refused by an unimpressed Putin). His posters feature airbrushed images that give him the aura of a Madame Tussauds waxwork and the Soviet-style election slogan “Ukraine for the People”. His bid for power began with an invitation for voters to call a hotline and voice any concerns they might have. After a few weeks the hotline invitation was removed and replaced with another Soviet-sounding line: “Your Opinion Has Been Heard. The Problem Has Been Solved!”
In an election line-up dominated by old hands the campaign of 35-year-old Arseniy Yatsenyuk sparked early excitement. Often presented by the local media as Ukraine’s answer to Barack Obama, Yatsenyuk appeared to take this to heart by rolling out an election campaign complete with monochromatic screen-prints of his image and teams of grassroots supporters wearing his campaign T-shirts at major intersections. Despite this, the campaign has failed to gain traction and those campaigners have all but disappeared. His campaign message is convoluted (“Ukraine Will Be Saved By a New Industrialisation”) and recent posters that have played on an H1N1 virus theme (but substituting the Cyrillic initials for Yanukovych and Tymoshenko) have a sudoku-level complexity that’s far too testing for drivers concentrating on navigating Ukraine’s pot-holed roads.
As the hopes of the Orange Revolution five years ago have faded, the mood of disillusionment among Ukrainians is perhaps best illustrated by another candidate, Vasyl Humeniuk, who has changed his name to Vasyl Protyvsikh (meaning “against all” in Ukrainian). His advertising now joins the others with the line: “Against All: For Life Without Victors [Yushchenko and Yanukovych] and Yulia [Tymoshenko]“.
Whatever the result in January, it’s clear Ukraine’s billboard operators are already winners. But they must be wondering if a newly formed government will be able to restore some hope to the battered economy and bring back the advertisers that will be needed to replace their election-fuelled windfall.