Community News

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bucks Populi: Making Democracy a Going Concern in Kiev

Rent-a-Crowd Entrepreneurs Find People Fast to Cheer or Jeer for $4 an Hour

KIEV, Ukraine—Want to ensure a bigger draw for your lackluster candidate? In Ukraine, just contact Vladimir Boyko and he'll rent you a crowd.

Mr. Boyko says his company, Easy Work, has assembled a database of several thousand students and can mobilize them on a day's notice to turn up at demonstrations anywhere in Kiev, stand for hours at a time, and cheer or jeer on cue.

"We'll do business with any political party. Ideology doesn't matter to us," says the 21-year-old Web-design major at Kiev Polytechnic Institute. "It matters even less to most students," he adds, grinning. "They have become tired of politicians. They will rally only for money."

Easy Work's emergence last summer, described by Mr. Boyko and co-owner Matvey Dyadkov, casts light on a secretive industry of crowd brokers in this former Soviet republic. Those apolitical operatives take cash from candidates' parties and hire students, pensioners and others at roughly $4 an hour to bulk up the candidates' rallies.

The rent-a-crowd business, though not illegal, is taboo in Ukraine. Politicians deny using it, and many people in the business prefer the benign Russian term sobrat tolpu, which means to gather a crowd. But it has prospered amid disillusionment with the Orange Revolution, the massive peaceful uprising that overturned a tainted 2004 election result and ushered in the country's pro-Western leadership.

Dimmed by economic malaise and legislative deadlock, Orange fervor has given way to a mercenary form of activism. Mr. Boyko, a gangly snowboarding techie who took part in the 2004 protests as a high-school senior, has keenly observed the shift and, as Ukraine holds a presidential runoff vote Sunday, is moving to cash in on it.

"If you place an order for a rally, you can have it the next day," he says.

The demand for crowds could soon surge. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko vowed Thursday to "rally the people" in a replay of the Orange Revolution if runoff rival Viktor Yanukovych steals the vote. She spoke after his party pushed through an election-law change to allow vote counting at polling places without the supervision of both candidates' delegates.

Mr. Yanukovych, who dismissed Ms. Tymoshenko's statement as a "sign of weakness," is readying to gather demonstrators to back him in any dispute over Sunday's returns.

Both parties deny they have paid people to rally or plan to do so. But several students say that they and many of their classmates have pocketed cash from both camps after hopping from one rally to another.

Orange protest veterans decry the business, saying it undermines the country's young democracy. Leaders of independent civic groups, which had begun to blossom in 2004, say they find it harder now to attract volunteers for their causes.

"This is part of a more complex problem of corruption at all levels in Ukraine," says Oleksandr Chernenko, chairman of the independent Committee of Voters of Ukraine, an election-monitoring group. "As long as the politicians offer money, people will take it."

Ukraine seemed different half a decade ago when Mr. Boyko and other Orange protesters stood in Kiev's snowy streets night and day, for no compensation, and prevailed.

By the time Mr. Boyko was a freshman in college, however, the country's new leaders were feuding, breaking promises and losing respect. Notices popped up on campus bulletin boards, a marketplace for the city's 600,000 university and trade-school students: Candidates for Parliament, desperate for crowds that would play well on TV, were offering 100 hryvnia, about $12, to attend a three-hour rally.

Messrs. Boyko and Dyadkov, classmates at Kiev Polytechnic, watched the market develop as Ukraine lurched through a series of political crises and elections. Mr. Dyadkov, who had been in high school in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol and missed the Orange Revolution, was drawn into its messy aftermath.

The market, the two men say, came to resemble a pyramid that's supposed to work roughly like this: A political party contacts several crowd brokers capable of mobilizing and paying 1,000 students apiece. Each of those brokers, said to number 15 in Kiev, has a network; he or she contacts 10 acquaintances each of whom contacts 10 more, and so on.

Each broker in the pyramid, many of them students, is supposed to pay off those below, typically after taking a 10% cut. Lapses and thievery abound. After one rally, Mr. Dyadkov recalls, a classmate was besieged after failing to secure and deliver payoffs for several hundred angry residents of his dorm. "I knew there must be a better way," Mr. Dyadkov says.

A supporter of Ukrainian presidential candidate and head of the Regions party Viktor Yanukovych maintains a vigil in front of the Central Election Commission in Kiev.

A plan came together last summer: Easy Work was formed to compete with the chains of brokers, pitching itself as a reliable one-stop intermediary. Instead of phone calls and text messages, traditional means of pyramid recruiting, the tech students used In Contact, a Russian-language social networking site, to build a students-for-hire membership list.

With Mr. Boyko working from his parents' home and Mr. Dyadkov from his crowded dorm room, they created a Web site,, where members can log in with 15-digit codes, view a list of rallies and click to take part. Only members can bring in newcomers after judging them to be reliable.

Easy Work instructs its hired activists to follow rules: If you register for a rally, show up on time and don't leave until it's over. No boozing. No fighting. Smile for the cameras and applaud the candidate. Don't talk to reporters; they might figure out you came for the money.

The co-founders tested their system with two modest political rallies late in the year and concluded that it works. "Students know they can come to us and we'll pay them," Mr. Boyko says. "And the parties know we can deliver a crowd. Everyone goes away happy."

His claim is hard to judge. He won't disclose Easy Work's membership list, payment records, profit, or details of past and pending operations. Two students who signed up for a rally through Easy Work last year confirmed they took part, along with a few hundred others, and were well paid.

Mr. Boyko says the secrecy is necessary to shield members and clients from embarrassment. But he insists his aims are altruistic.

"In principle, we have nothing to hide," he says. "We don't sell votes. We don't get involved in the darker side of politics. Mainly what we do is run an honest, responsible business and give people work."

Mr. Dyadkov added: "As entrepreneurs, we want to earn money. On the other hand, as citizens, we hope this business will fade away. For now, people see the same old politicians and hear the same old ideas. If someone fresh brings a new idea, people will come out and listen for free."

Modern Earth Web Design, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada