Inside Story

Ukraine’s four-cornered contest draws to a close

The post-Soviet country might be more chaotic than some of its neighbours, but at least its election results aren’t clear before the votes are in

John Besemeres 27 March 2019 2957 words

Accidental president? An election placard in Lviv depicting Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy with oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, reading “Servant of Oligarch, Doll of Oligarch,” a play on the name of the TV series in which Zelenskiy appears. Yuri Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the popular Russian-speaking comedian who has been playing an accidental Ukrainian president in the long-running satirical TV series Servant of the People, has stepped onto centre stage in the real-life drama of the country’s presidential elections. With a few giant leaps following a late entry into the race, and despite his lack of experience, he has established himself as frontrunner. Only a sharp turnaround will prevent him from winning this weekend’s first round of voting with a clear majority.

The polls suggest that Zelenskiy will then comfortably defeat either the sitting president, Petro Poroshenko, or the charismatic populist and former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, in the 21 April run-off. Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a pro-Western former defence minister, is the only other candidate with a shadow of a chance of getting through the first round.

Zelenskiy is a one-off, his political success the product of his television popularity. He enjoys support — including heavy television exposure — from the prominent oligarch and TV mogul Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who has also given some backing to Tymoshenko, herself a wealthy businesswoman. Prime minister Poroshenko is an oligarch in his own right, and an enemy of Kolomoyskyi. In the latest sensation, he has initiated a lawsuit against Kolomoyskyi alleging that Zelenskiy’s program is being used to spread lies damaging to the honour and dignity of the president. This manoeuvre might yet get him over the line, despite his recent reverses.

With parliamentary elections due in October, the new president will need to find a way of exercising some control over parliament’s deliberations. Poroshenko will be represented by his own party, the Poroshenko Bloc, which, like many Ukrainian parties past and present, is largely an extension of his political persona. Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) is a well-developed party by Ukrainian standards, and has engaged in significant policy development; it tends to lapse into Tymoshenko’s characteristic populist excesses, though, for which it then suffers in the opinion polls. Zelenskiy would come to the job without any existing parliamentary vehicle, but he has formed a party of his own that could expect to gain at least some seats in October.

Although Poroshenko may still find a way to win, a Zelenskiy victory looks likely, with all the uncertainty that such an outcome would bring. He has said, and recently repeated, that he would like to meet as soon as possible with the Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss bringing the war in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine to an end. Though Zelenskiy is a Russophone from the east of Ukraine, he presents as a pro-Western democrat, and has recruited some able pro-Western and reformist advisers. Putin would no doubt relish the opportunity to bring his dirty tricks department to bear on such a naive novice.

Putin’s central objective is to defeat or destroy Poroshenko. The Russian president’s preferred Ukrainian politicians have been pushed towards the perimeter of public life since Russia seized Crimea and launched its proxy war in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014, and any overtly pro-Russian candidate would have no hope of victory in present circumstances. Much of Russophone southeastern Ukraine is under Russian occupation, meanwhile, and its residents are unable to vote.

Poroshenko has proven to be a formidable military, diplomatic and political opponent. Both Kremlin-preferred alternatives, especially Tymoshenko but also Zelenskiy, have Russian connections that Putin would hope to exploit. Left without a serious horse in the race, he will do whatever he can to eject Poroshenko while taking advantage of any opportunities for further low-risk aggression the election might engender.

Though only days remain before the first round of voting, sudden game-changing developments are still possible, particularly affecting the sitting president. Poroshenko has been damaged recently by a corruption scandal involving a close ally and senior defence official whose son allegedly acquired Russian weapons and sold them to the Ukrainian army at grossly inflated prices. The details of this affair are complex and perhaps less scandalous than they appear, but the alleged actions would be judged a particularly heinous offence in a country where the army had to be largely crowdfunded by the public, at considerable sacrifice, after Russia’s sudden attacks on Crimea and Donbas in 2014–15.

Ukraine’s armed forces were suffering from gross neglect and rampant corruption, a post-Soviet legacy accentuated by the dismal performance of the pro-Russian regime of previous president Viktor Yanukovych. While the neglect has been overcome, corruption in the armed forces, as in other spheres of Ukrainian life, remains a serious problem.

Two dubious court decisions by Ukraine’s notoriously unreconstructed judiciary have also acutely embarrassed the president. One effectively dismissed the respected reformist health minister, Ulana Suprun, thereby clearing the way for the return of corrupt practices the minister had successfully nobbled. The second, by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court no less, struck down a law that required public officials who had mysteriously become wealthy during their terms of office to explain their newfound wealth or risk a custodial sentence.

Both seemingly corrupt decisions were severely criticised by domestic reformers, as well as by foreign diplomats and representatives of organisations that provide crucial financial support to Ukraine. Three leading reformers left Poroshenko’s party in disgust to join Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s presidential campaign, and three reformist presidential candidates closed down their candidacies and subsumed them under Hrytsenko’s campaign.

To make matters worse, Poroshenko (like Tymoshenko) has been accused of vote buying involving government funds. Such practices among well-placed politicians, using what are known euphemistically as “administrative resources,” are still endemic in many post-Soviet countries, including Ukraine and Russia. In Ukraine they are resisted by reformers, voters and media; in Russia they can’t be challenged.

Poroshenko responded vigorously to these setbacks, but some damage had been done. His failure to curb corrupt practices and his growing opposition to reform, and to reformists generally, had already dented his popularity ratings. Within days, new opinion polls pointed to a big swing to Hrytsenko, who lacks charisma but has a reputation for honesty, lifting him into a respectable fourth place. Till then he had seemed too far astern of the leading three candidates to challenge them. Poroshenko, meanwhile, fell behind Tymoshenko, and Zelenskiy maintained his clear lead. After a pause, Poroshenko will probably recover lost ground and be able to use those administrative resources to overtake Tymoshenko and qualify for the run-off.

These events, along with a win in the run-off for Zelenskiy, might seem to point to the strength of pro-Western reform forces and foreshadow the prospect at last for an attack on the scourge of corruption, the main factor impeding Ukraine’s Western integration. But a defeat for Poroshenko will ring alarm bells in Western capitals and delight Moscow; and it is not clear that Zelenskiy or any other candidate can fill his shoes.

Poroshenko has done a very good job in keeping his fragile coalition in place, doubtless making some unedifying but pragmatically useful deals along the way. He has achieved remarkable success in building up the armed forces from less than modest beginnings to become the third-strongest fighting force in Europe, capable of blocking the constant probing of Russia and its proxy militias. He has also been successful on the international stage, acquiring much invaluable experience at the highest levels and maintaining good relations with key Western counterparts, even including the difficult Donald Trump.

And he has almost single-handedly achieved autocephaly (in effect, independence) for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, by dint of concentrated effort with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, adroit diplomacy with foreign leaders, notably Erdoğan in Turkey, and effective liaison with the Ukrainian diaspora. Autocephaly has enraged the Kremlin almost as much as Ukraine’s military defiance, because it threatens Russia’s traditionally dominant position in the Orthodox Church in Ukraine and potentially other Orthodox communities in what the Kremlin calls “the Russian World” (Russkii Mir) — any part of the Tsarist–Soviet empire where Russian is spoken by some of the inhabitants.

More generally, autocephaly weakens the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church internationally. After 1917, the Bolsheviks killed priests by the tens of thousands and converted the church into the tame, secret police–dominated instrument of Kremlin policy that it has remained ever since. Like much about Russia, this is a reality poorly understood by the outside world, allowing the church to enjoy more respect in the world than its steeply declining parishioner numbers in Russia proper would justify.

Poroshenko has declared autocephaly a second independence for his country, a far from extravagant boast, particularly seen in a longer-term perspective. But the outlook for the new church remains clouded by the prospect of clashes in parishes disputed between the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, most of whose administrative structures remain. Russia has threatened to stimulate such unrest. Kiev’s security organs are focused on forestalling any such violence, but doing so over the long haul will not be easy. By one estimate, over a thousand parishes have made the transition to the new Ukrainian church, and the rate of change has been increasing, but that is still less than 10 per cent of the total.

Less judiciously, Poroshenko has also further strengthened the role of the Ukrainian language in education and public life, pushing through an overhaul of language laws to favour Ukrainian over Russian and other minority languages. In the process, he has angered several neighbours whose support Ukraine needs, and made a particular enemy of Hungary, which has repeatedly used its veto in NATO deliberations to block Ukraine’s otherwise increasing cooperation with the alliance. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s policy has been warmly welcomed by his partners in the Kremlin.

Poroshenko has adopted as his central campaign slogan the phrase Armiya, Mova, Vira (armed forces, language, faith) to encapsulate his main achievements. But his failures on corruption and reform have cost him dearly. In November, 80 per cent of respondents to one poll said Ukraine was heading in the wrong direction; another poll found only 10 per cent of respondents had trust in their government.

Despite the fact that he has reportedly put tens of thousands of dollars into supporting national and charitable projects, the mounting success of Poroshenko’s numerous business ventures while in office is clearly galling. Most people in Ukraine have been doing it tough through the years of enforced economic austerity since the Euromaidan, and the sight of their leading politician enjoying ever-increasing wealth is political poison. This alienation makes it harder for the government to lift energy prices, privatise land and make other reforms required in return for financial support from the International Monetary Fund and other Western lenders. Adding to the pressure is the fact that 2019 is a year in which Kiev faces record debt repayments.

But Poroshenko has presided over some very significant national achievements. And they have been carried out without any attempt to convert the country into an autocracy. Since independence, Ukraine has been a rough-and-ready democracy, with regular elections and changes of government. Under Poroshenko it has become much more democratic, despite conspicuous imperfections, including oligarch-controlled television channels that grossly favour the interests of their owners or their business partners. The three presidential frontrunners and pro-Kremlin interests are among the conspicuous beneficiaries of this system.

Poroshenko’s Ukraine is also more democratic than any other former republic of the Soviet Union outside the Baltic states. And on many criteria it may also be more democratic, if much less prosperous and more chaotic, than Hungary or Poland under their present leaderships. The fact that it’s still unclear who will win the presidential election speaks for itself. The contrast with Russia’s stagnant and increasingly repressive regime is eloquent.

The Poroshenko ascendancy has been widely and justly criticised in recent times for one other worrying development: the intrusion into public life of unruly militia formations that are inclined to take matters of civil order into their own hands. They have been implicated in vigilante actions against minorities, notably Roma settlements, sometimes seemingly without any response from the forces of law and order. In the case of units from the notorious Azov Battalion, part of the problem for the government is that this formation played a valiant and crucial role in defending the country against Russian attacks at the outset of the war in Donbas.

During the election campaign, the Ukrainian interior ministry gave two of the more irresponsible Azov units carte blanche to supervise election processes, including vote counting, and to use force at their own discretion, which they did recently in Kiev and Cherkasy, injuring fifteen police officers. Alarmed, the G7 Ambassadors’ Support Group for Ukraine privately told the Ukrainian authorities to put a stop to these scandalous developments. Unfortunately perhaps, that intervention has now become public property, which will give a huge fillip to several of Russia’s standard propaganda themes: that Ukraine is a failed state; that it is run by fascists; and that its presidential elections will be so deeply flawed as to be illegitimate.

Despite their regrettable prominence, hard-right formations have gained very little traction in Ukrainian electoral politics. The political parties closest to them have failed to trouble the scorers in presidential elections or to gain significant representation in parliament. The G7 group has been urging its interlocutors in Kiev to curb the activities of these formations in the short term and consider outlawing them altogether soon after the elections. It has conveyed the message that if the Ukrainian government does not overcome these sorts of problems it will lose Western support.

Such irregularities are not unique to post-Soviet republics. The difference in Ukraine is that they are not stage-managed by an authoritarian regime. Yet much Western commentary on Ukraine overstates the prevalence of hard-right formations and the grip of “nationalism,” the latter being a strange reproach to level at a country that has been under attack for five years, militarily and in every other possible domain, by a neighbour armed to the teeth. Between blows, that neighbour, Russia, has told Ukraine that it is an errant branch of the great Russian nation, and that the Ukrainian nation is a myth. Nationalism, even “hypernationalism,” would seem to be the only healthy response in such circumstances.

Though Ukraine and its largely Moscow-administered travails have rather faded from Australian news coverage, and are less well-covered elsewhere than they used to be, what coverage there is often focuses on the country’s negatives. It is characterised by a marked tendency to naivety and moral equivalence (“Ukraine says that Russia is driving the conflict in Donbas, but Russia denies any involvement”). Often missing is reporting of the corresponding phenomena in Russia itself, where official hypernationalism — whether one terms it far-right or far-left — flourishes and is imposed on the whole nation, and where Neo-Nazi militias are not uncommon.

Five years on from the armed seizure of Crimea, Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine continues, with more than 13,000 dead, 30,000 wounded, well over a million displaced, tens of billions of dollars of losses and damage sustained by the victim nation, and the prospect of further Kremlin-initiated escalation always looming. Last November’s brazenly illegal attack on Ukrainian vessels exercising a legitimate freedom of passage near the Kerch Strait in the Sea of Azov came after many months of systematic trade strangulation carried out by Russia in the region.

While Russian vessels had been harassing Ukrainian cargo ships for months, the sudden use of outright military force on 25 November was unexpected. The attack caused casualties and damage to the vessels, and saw the cavalier confiscation of three more Ukrainian ships (during the Crimean operation in 2014, the Russians had already appropriated at least twelve of Kiev’s seventeen naval vessels). Twenty-four sailors were arrested and taken to Moscow, where they have been imprisoned for an indeterminate period. It was the first time that Russia had overtly deployed military force against Ukraine without any pseudo-justification; nor, of course, was there any prior declaration of hostilities.

This sequence of events was another explicit challenge to the international liberal order, a challenge to which the West has largely failed to react. Both Europe and the United States have responded tepidly. Although Donald Trump has removed several of the key “adults in the room” from his administration, it still contains people who are officially responsible for easing Ukraine’s predicament but feel increasingly constrained. The most senior State Department official in this area, Wess Mitchell, has resigned. Those remaining in the military sphere continue to discuss the prospect of further military assistance to Ukraine (more has been provided under Trump than under Obama), but little has yet been done since Kerch, and time is passing. More serious sanctions, which would have concerned and possibly constrained Moscow, were reportedly under discussion within the administration. But the package finally announced on 15 March was so trivial that the Russian stock market rose in response.

Putin may therefore infer that the time is ripe for a further decisive move against Ukraine and/or possibly elsewhere. His constant boasting about his new doomsday weapons and big build-up of combat-ready conventional forces suggest potential moves. Moscow is attentive to signals and non-signals; and it still has hopes that its man in the White House will be able to deliver a big deal that opens up prospects for better bilateral relations, an easing of sanctions, and perhaps even a strengthening of Russia’s sphere of influence in Eurasia.

The chances of that occurring were less while the shadow of Mueller still hung over President Trump. But now that shadow is apparently dispersing, Trump might see a grand deal with his Kremlin counterpart as feasible, in which case Ukrainian interests could perhaps be traded away for some greater objective. •