This eastern Ukrainian industrial hub of two million has long belonged to President Viktor Yanukovych and his ruling Party of Regions.
For years, the ruddy-faced coalminers, adamant babushkas and the obedient, middle-aged civil servants of the city, and the Donetsk region in general, formed their reliable, Russian-speaking support base – a clear counterpart to the mostly Ukrainian-speaking scattered opposition.
So when Yury Kirilov, a 70-year-old retiree in Donetsk, seems proud that he voted for the Party of Regions in last Sunday’s parliamentary elections, it perhaps comes as no surprise.
But it does seem strange when he offers a surprisingly mild reply. “At least they’re doing something,” he says as he puffs on a cigarette. “It doesn’t always come together for them, but at least they try.”
While the ruling party, as expected, swept the Donetsk Region with about 65 percent of the vote, experts suggest that some of this support belongs to a clearly discernable trend in Ukrainian politics: voting for the lesser evil.
For years shackled by largely incompetent politicians and feeble parties, politics in Ukraine has chiefly been about choosing the least damaging option. And for now, in Donetsk at least, the Party of Regions seems to represent just that.
Yanukovych, a Donetsk native and former governor of the region, has taken hits from critics both at home and abroad for what they say has been his undemocratic tendencies and taste for corruption.
Even on his home turf, he has been clobbered by an otherwise reliable support base in the region – retirees – for not making good on its key campaign promise: economic stability.
“You know what they added to my pension just three months ago, this government here? One hryvnia and 68 kopeks (about $0.20),” says 76-year-old retiree Raisa Petrovna. “Just so you understand – a loaf of black bread costs 5 hryvnias and 60 kopeks (about $0.70).”
But perhaps the main asset that Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have is that they were cast as the villain during the 2004 Orange Revolution. The democratic alliance born out of those events quickly descended into five years of political infighting and stalled reforms.
“Those who came before and after are basically people who can speak well but do little,” Kirilov says.
After his 2010 election, which observers ascribed to “Orange fatigue,” Yanukovych and the ruling party pulled together a commanding majority in parliament and, in the eyes of their supporters at least, began taking action.
And while the regime’s democratic and economic record may be questionable, some experts argue that is largely beside the point.
“In the eyes of Ukrainians, all politicians are dirt bags,” says Vladimir Kornilov, a Donetsk-born political analyst in Kiev. “But the idea is to vote for your own dirt bags.”
Kornilov, who prides himself on being a seventh-generation Donechanin (Donetsk resident), adds that given the overall low levels of trust in politicians in the country, Donetsk voters cast their ballots along ideological lines, such as support for the Russian language and greater integration with Russia.
Barring that, he said, they vote for what they know: their hometown.
The Party of Regions has long pitched itself as the party of the working class in southern and eastern Ukraine, where conservatism and Soviet nostalgia reign supreme.
A sense of collective solidarity is sewn through the local fabric. The party’s regional headquarters even confidently promised on Wednesday to “mobilize our people” to defend allegations of mass electoral fraud leveled by the opposition.
Opposition forces, which have advocated European integration and the promotion of Ukrainian as the sole state language, have long since given up campaigning in the region. The Party of Regions is the only party to openly support issues that matter to locals.
So in some ways, when voters go to the polls, they go for each other. When asked why he voted for the Party of Regions, 21-one-year-old student Bogdan Kireyev shrugs: “Well, to support my region – to support my people.”
“We’ll see what happens next,” he adds.
Perhaps the best illustration of the social solidarity around the party came during the Orange Revolution, when coal miners flocked to Kiev promising to scatter the pro-democratic protesters from Independence Square.
“And they were ready to do it back then,” says Kornilov.
But those days of heated enthusiasm seem to be in the past. According to Yevhen Stratiyevsky, an independent journalist in Donetsk, many people now support the party out of “habit.”
“There’s no political faith in them [the Party of Regions] like there was earlier, such as in 2004,” he says.
Other locals agree. Ivan Kovresov, a 26-year-old music teacher, says political agitation for the ruling party, otherwise vibrant in the region, has notably subsided.
He points to the conversations among friends, neighbors and the perennially tenacious babushkas as telling barometers of the waning enthusiasm. “It’s visible in people, on the streets,” he says. “It’s just not like it used to be.”