Yulia's return

The incumbent president versus the revived Yulia Tymoshenko, ahead in the polls. But an outsider, comedian Volodymir Zelensky, could spoil the party

Yulia Tymoshenko during the Batkivshchyna Party congress. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/Contrast
Yulia Tymoshenko during the Batkivshchyna Party congress. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko/Contrast

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

The presidential elections due to take place on 31 March represent a fundamental passage for post-Maidan Ukraine. Not only because they will determine the way ahead for the next five years, but also because they will be an important test in view of the other electoral event in 2019, the parliamentary elections in October. The context in which all of this is taking place is one in which the conflict in the east of the country is still far from being resolved, the active hostilities between Kiev and Moscow, caused by the latter’s annexation of Crimea, show little sign of waning, while Ukraine’s importance in the plans of western treasuries is slowly diminishing. The election campaign, which began on 31 December, won’t therefore, be without surprises and is set to be played out in more than one arena, in which domestic and international aspects merge.

In spite of the fact that more than 20 candidates are registered to participate, according to the polls the real battle is between the outgoing president, Petro Poroshenko, and another old name in Ukrainian politics, Yulia Tymoshenko. The potential wild card, due also to the high level of indecision amongst the electorate, is Volodymyr Zelensky, a popular actor and comic.

The real news, however, is that the elections are taking place at all. The clash between Ukrainian ships and the Russian navy in the Sea of Azov has been a source of particular concern. Following what was immediately described as Russian aggression, Kiev reacted with the introduction of martial law. Many interpreted the president’s rush to declare a state of emergency as a thinly veiled attempt to cancel or delay the elections, given that the president has been experiencing a crisis of consensus. Things did not turn out this way, however. Under strong pressure from one wing of the parliament, and above all from civil society, martial law was introduced for 30 days only, rather than the proposed 60, thus enabling the election campaign to begin as scheduled.

Nevertheless the flare up of new tensions with Russia has had an impact on the domestic political climate. The crisis in the Sea of Azov has served to distract attention, at least in part, from numerous unresolved political, economic and social problems. In his electoral campaign, in fact, Poroshenko has decided to keep to a minimum any references to economic difficulties, the scourge of corruption and the urgent need for structural reforms of the judicial system. Not to mention the problems caused by the growing pressure exercised by the state apparatus and by the presidential administration through the opaque Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) on the freedom of the press, activists and civil society in general. “Army! Language! Faith!” is the official slogan of the incumbent president who appears reluctant to do anything to move beyond the boundaries meticulously erected by his campaign staff. In addition to Russian aggression, the other topic that has dominated debate at the height of the electoral campaign is that of the autocephaly (the independence from external and especially patriarchal authority) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, an issue in which Poroshenko has played a leading role. All of which passes through the filter of an increasingly tightly controlled press and an ever more aggressive social media strategy involving numerous pro-Poroshenko trolls. A considerable difference to the 2014 slogan: “Live in a new way”.

On the other hand, the popularity of Yulia Tymoshenko is surprising given her ambiguous relationship with the Kremlin and her closet full of skeletons relating to her time as the “Gas Princess” during the phase of privatisation in the Nineties, her close links to the Dnepropetrovsk clan of oligarchs, her alliance and then rivalry with Leonid Kuchma (the father of post-independence Ukraine), her role as Deputy Prime Minister under Viktor Yushenko and then a political prisoner under Yanukovich. Now she promises to resolve the country’s economic problems and retake control of Crimea and Donbass. “How exactly?” She is yet to provide a proper answer.

The fact that Yulia Tymoshenko is currently ahead in the polls in the presidential race represents a kind of litmus test for the political situation in the country. Five years on from the promise and the enthusiasm of the Maidan protests that ousted then president Viktor Yanukovich, many of the chronic problems remain. The mix between politics and economic-oligarchical power, of which Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are perfect examples, remains the key point of every electoral competition. In spite of the return to a semi-presidential system, clientelism is still a dominant practice in the parliament, which today is a still a de facto organ of the president. Political parties continue to serve as simple “electoral instruments”. In a continuation of the past trend, for example, 45 new parties were established between 2013 and 2015. The majority of those no longer exist in practice. There have been some successes, however, such as the not insignificant feat of establishing macroeconomic stability in a time of war, thanks to loans from the IMF and Western partners. Or the partial reform of the chaotic energy system managed by the clay-footed state colossus Naftogaz, or the partial decentralization that has handed greater autonomy to local administrations.

In post-Maidan Ukraine, however, these few successes count for little as long as the political system remains practically in the hands of the usual suspects. Thus, while some polls indicate that around 80% of Ukrainians now think that the country is headed in the wrong direction, the fact that leading the long list of possible outsiders is the actor Volodymyr Zelensky is a worrying sign. While Zelensky may be a new face, his slogans and appeals to the gut instincts of the country remain vague and contradictory. Furthermore, even though he seems capable of catalysing the growing general discontent not only with the current president but also towards the political institutions in general, doubts remain about his real intentions. Many see in Zelensky a pawn controlled by the powerful oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, who is overtly hostile to Poroshenko due to the latter’s nationalisation of the financial colossus PrivatBank, and who some posit could use “his” candidate as a bargaining chip with which to obtain favours from the future president, whoever that may be.

In spite of the great unpredictability of this election, which will lead most probably to two candidates facing off in a second round, the only certainty is the drastic reduction in the importance of the east west divide. Thanks to the war, the loss of the electorate in Crimea and Donbass and the continuing internecine conflict within the only party with an openly favourable stance towards Moscow (the Opposition Bloc), a victory for the pro-Kremlin candidate would appear impossible. While some have speculated that Tymoshenko, if victorious, would barter Crimea for Donbass, such a scenario is a very remote possibility. Regardless of who wins the elections, in fact, the direction of foreign policy seems destined to remain tied to the EU and NATO. And it is exactly the policies of Brussels and Washington that will be key not only to forcing the new president to launch a new phase of reform, but also to mediating a solution, albeit difficult to imagine today, to the Donbass conflict. All of this, however, is taking place in the shadow of a looming presence ready to take advantage of any sign of instability.

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