Ukrainians go to the polls later this week to elect their sixth president, but there’s little to celebrate. Thirty-eight candidates will face off in the first round. A candidate must win at least fifty percent to win outright, so given the large number of candidates and the current polls, a second round is likely to follow.
One could be forgiven for concluding that everything is A-OK in Kyiv after attending just about any think tank event on the election in Washington. Talking heads and experts lavishly praise Ukraine for having “unpredictable” elections, unlike its neighbor Russia.
But “unpredictable” on its own does not boil down to “healthy.” A large field full of green, corrupt, or just plain unelectable candidates isn’t something to celebrate. Only three candidates are truly viable: two well-known politicians—incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko—and an inexperienced comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Poroshenko is an oligarch, and the other two likely have oligarchic interests behind them. In December, most analysts were predicting a second round between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. But Zelenskiy, a satirist who has never held office but has played an incorruptible president on television, has emerged as the frontrunner since he declared his candidacy on New Year’s Eve (a media stunt that would make a talented populist like Donald Trump green with envy).
The two dinosaurs, Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, are struggling to keep up with Zelenskiy, who eschews interviews, prefers to interact with his supporters online, and continues to perform in comedy troupes around the country. Zelenskiy, who plays an ordinary teacher-turned-president gunning down corrupt politicians on his enormously popular television series called “Servant of the People,” appeals to many who are sick and tired of empty promises and sick and tired of corruption. He is brash and crude, but he reflects the public mood. The catch is that his series is shown on the 1+1 channel, which belongs to the notorious oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy. Kolomoisky himself has explicitly championed Zelenskiy’s cause.
The fact that the country is seriously considering electing such an inexperienced comedian says it all. Five years after the Euromaidan, when Ukraine was given a historic chance to refashion its rotten state, Ukrainians are once again being presented with the same old faces. The reformist politicians who emerged after the Maidan protests spent most of 2018 negotiating and couldn’t produce a single charismatic candidate who could compete in the presidential election. The closest they got was rock star Slava Vakarchuk, who had the star power but not the stomach for Ukraine’s dirty national politics. Vakarchuk toyed with the idea all year, raising expectations of voters, but ultimately decided to sit out. In a rare moment of unity, two of Ukraine’s reform parties endorsed one candidate, Civic Position chair and former defense minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, for president in February. But it was too little, too late. Had they merged in 2018, Hrytsenko, who polls fourth or fifth, might have had a chance to make the second round. It’s conceivable, at least, that some of the hunger for change that the comedian Zelenskiy is capitalizing on would have been channeled more constructively.
Others among the reformists who emerged after the Maidan have decided to stay out of the presidential race and concentrate on the fall parliamentary elections. This is a rational strategy. Ukraine, after all, has a presidential-parliamentary system, and parliament chooses the prime minister, who oversees economic policy.
Former U.S. Ambassador Geoff Pyatt was fond of dividing the country into “Old Ukraine” and “New Ukraine.” Poroshenko could have been easily reelected had he embraced the values of New Ukraine. In truth, he continues to represent Old Ukraine, but puts on a good show when the West is watching. Had Poroshenko, known as the “Chocolate King” for his vast confectionery empire, put his own business interests on ice, embraced Ukraine’s anti-corruption agenda, and used the reform energy that permeated Kyiv after the Maidan, he would have been handily reelected this year.
Poroshenko admittedly gets good marks on foreign policy, but mediocre marks on domestic reforms from even his most vocal defenders. In 2014, Poroshenko campaigned on the slogan “Living in a new way.” He won the race outright with 54 percent of the vote. He promised “zero tolerance for corruption” but failed to deliver spectacularly: No high-level crooks went to jail on his watch and experts say that corruption has returned to pre-Maidan levels. He campaigned on an anti-graft platform, but got richer in office while his country became the poorest in Europe. While he has held a variety of offices for more than twenty years, he is a wealthy businessman. Formally, he has put his businesses in a blind trust, but sources say that as president he still spends several hours per day managing his business affairs.
He is prickly with the press and holds only one annual press conference. And even then, he refuses to answer questions from critical outlets like the Kyiv Post. On the campaign trail, he condescends to ordinary people. In January during a campaign stop in Cherkasy Oblast, he told a man who asked how the president would fight corruption, “Go to church, light a candle, for you are a non-believer. And the Lord will soothe you”—a tone-deaf response in the best tradition of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Analysts have noticed that Poroshenko’s strategy has changed over the years. This year, his slogans have focused on the army, on faith, and on the Ukrainian language, all of which are not-so-coded appeals to central and western Ukrainians, whose support, he is betting, will put him into the second round.
Beyond the clumsy politicking and the broken promises, a recent scandal involving one of Poroshenko’s close friends threatens his reelection bid. A crusading investigative team has alleged that Ihor Hladkovskiy, the son of Poroshenko’s deputy head of the Security and Defense Council, engineered a scheme to sell smuggled Russian parts to Ukrainian defense factories at inflated prices. The elder Hladkovskiy has since been dismissed.
Another recent court decision may also hurt the president. On February 26, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine ruled that an article in its criminal code on illicit enrichment was unconstitutional. Officials with expensive cars and property who didn’t have the official income to purchase these luxury items got off scot-free. At least sixty-five cases against crooked officials were dismissed. It’s not a good look.
Poroshenko’s most ardent boosters have taken to the press to defend him in a tight race. They claim in breathless fashion that the West loves Poroshenko and that he is the only one who can defend Ukraine and stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the second claim is debatable, the first is preposterous. Consider just the most recent examples: On March 4, the G-7’s ambassadors called Ukraine’s decision to revoke illicit enrichment “a serious setback in the fight against corruption.” And on March 5, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine said that “Ukraine’s once-in-a-generation opportunity for change. . . .has not resulted in the anti-corruption or rule of law reforms that Ukrainians expect or deserve.”
On foreign policy, however, there is more of a case to be made. Poroshenko is openly running as a staunch nationalist, and whatever his shortcomings in domestic affairs, he at least does have real experience dealing with Russia on a war footing. Tymoshenko has of course dealt with Putin while she was Prime Minister, but the gas deal that landed her in prison hangs over her reputation. Some even suspect that she might try to cut a deal with the Russians over Crimea and the Donbas. Zelenskiy, for his part, has said he would be open to negotiations with Putin, and has promised to put Ukraine’s NATO membership to a referendum.
In reality, however, the foreign policies of the three main candidates would probably be constrained by public opinion: All three would be forced to pursue EU and NATO membership and vigorously defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the east. A country that has lost 13,000 people to Russian aggression and has an enormous number of armed and trained men at the ready won’t tolerate any kind of deal with Russia, and majority support for NATO membership remains a fact of Ukrainian politics.
The real difference between the candidates is on domestic policy. The most urgent issue for the next president is to negotiate a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund or the economy will contract. Ukraine’s crippling Yanukovych-era debt starts to come due in 2019.
A second-term Poroshenko is likely to be more conservative and less reform-minded. “Poroshenko will be much worse in the second term,” former Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk told me. “They [the business community] think Poroshenko is stability but he’s actually stagnation.” The previous IMF agreement, negotiated on Poroshenko’s watch, stopped disbursing funds for almost two years because the country didn’t fulfill its reform pledges. If past performance is anything to go by, most of the legislative gains that were made since the Maidan will be fought over and many will be overturned.
Tymoshenko’s domestic policy is also easy to predict. Her team has put together a thick document called the New Course for Ukraine that economists have analyzed. The reform-minded publication Vox Ukraine has dinged her economic program for its “mix of plagiarism, semi-plagiarism, nonexistent sources, and mistakes.” On substance, the plan is not much better: Tymoshenko favors massive social welfare handouts and wants to cut gas prices in half for consumers, something the International Monetary Fund actively opposes. She says she will fight corruption, but her long public record leaves many doubts.
Zelenskiy’s domestic views are less predictable but given his lead in the polls and the blank slate nature of the candidate, three prominent reformers see him as more of an opportunity than a threat. The above-mentioned former finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk, former Minister of Economic Trade and Development Aivaras Abromavicius, and MP and former investigative journalist Sergiy Leshchenko are bringing him up to speed.
Abromavicius, an investment banker with an impeccable reputation, quit Poroshenko’s administration because he says he was pressured to hire a crooked deputy minister. The banker has pressed for deoligarchization of the economy, massive privatization of state-owned enterprises, and liberalization of the land market. Abromavicius is cautious by nature and not someone to enthusiastically endorse a candidate without experience.
The fact that Danyliuk is considering backing Zelenskiy is also extraordinary. As minister, one of Danyliuk’s greatest foes was oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky who owned Privat Bank. After an independent audit showed that Privat Bank had committed large-scale fraud to the tune of $5.5 billion, Ukraine nationalized it in late 2016. Danyliuk moved his family to London for safety. For Danyliuk, backing Zelenskiy is a big personal risk, but he is convinced enough with what he has heard to continue doing it: “Everyone has relations with oligarchs,” Danyliuk admitted.
The reformists’ influence may be having an effect. Zelenskiy has said a few notable things that hint at his developing views: He wants to strip members of parliament of their immunity; he supports Ukraine’s new anti-corruption institutions; and he has pledged to clean up the notoriously unreformed General Prosecutor’s Office. And in a rare interview, he even explicitly said that he won’t give Privat Bank back to Kolomoisky, and that that everyone is equal before the law.
The problem of oligarch pollution in Ukraine is real and troubling. Kolomoisky and Poroshenko, two of the titans of Ukrainian oligarchy, have become bitter enemies over the past few years, and people have speculated with some cause that Kolomoisky is backing both Tymoshenko and Zelenskiy to get back at Poroshenko. It’s true that Zelenskiy’s television shows and sketches appear on Kolomoisky’s television station, that Tymoshenko gets airtime on the channel, and that Zelenskiy’s show has started to aggressively bash Poroshenko.
The picture is far from perfect, and these elections hardly inspire hope. Ukrainians are angry enough with the status quo that they just may elect an experienced comedian with links to a prominent oligarch. And most analysts expect the next parliament to be made up of a coalition of disparate parties, making it fragile and subject to collapse. There are few reasons to be optimistic about the new government that will form in 2020.
But despite the gloomy outlook, there’s every reason to be optimistic about Ukraine’s long-term prospects. Despite the grim choices before them, Ukrainians repeatedly say they are not satisfied with what’s on offer. They tell pollsters they want new faces.
It’s just that these new faces can’t seem to break through. The medicine is difficult to administer, but obviously necessary: Ukraine needs electoral reform, it needs to remove political immunity for parliamentarians, it needs to get rid of oligarchic ownership of the media, and it needs to build real political parties.
Ukrainians are active in public life and every reform that was put into place since the Maidan is the direct result of pressure from civil society, Western governments, and international financial institutions. The West must continue to vocally support civil society activists who face massive pressure and physical threats, as well as its small but powerful independent media outlets like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Schemes and Bihus.info.
It’s not a satisfying or complete answer, but the fight to free Ukraine will take decades—and then some.