Ukraine’s May Presidential Election and the Politics of East and West

The May elections will once again be dominated by the East-West question, with the usual suspects as front runners.

Ukraine’s Central Election Commission has officially registered 23 presidential candidates for the elections scheduled to take place on 25 May 2014 – though the registration deadline was just extended to 7 April. Only 7 have registered as party nominees, whilst the remaining 16 are self-nominated, although many belong formally or informally to political parties. As of 26 March, reputable polls indicated that Ukraine’s ‘Chocolate King’, Petro Poroshenko, was leading at 24.9 percent. Other frontrunners were Vitaliy Klitschko, Yuliya Tymoshenko and Serhiy Tihipko at 8.9, 8.2 and 7.3 percent respectively. Klitschko recently withdrew his candidacy in support of Poroshenko, and a more recent poll on 2 April showed that Poroshenko’s ratings have since soared to 38.3 percent. Although Tihipko is a senior member of Viktor Yanukovych’s former political party, the Party of Regions (PoR), he is standing as an independent. The only official candidate endorsed by the PoR is Mikhail Dobkin, who was trailing far behind at 4.2 percent in the 26 March polls, and his ratings have since fallen back even further, whilst Tihipko has made significant gains, and is now polling at 17.9 percent.

In spite of the Euromaidan movement and the fall of Yanukovych’s regime, which promised change in the rules of the game, the frontrunners are once again “the usual suspects”. Most are either present or former oligarchs, or are supported by them. Poroshenko and Tymoshenko stood for change during the Orange Revolution in 2004, but largely failed to deliver. Tihipko also presented himself as an alternative candidate during the 2010 presidential election when he came third, only a short time later to merge into the PoR structure. None of the new Ukrainian Nationalist parties and (in)famous activists of the Euromaidan movement, such as the leader of the Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, or the leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok, have yet made any real impression in the polls. Similarly, supporters of the anti-Maidan movement, such as Dobkin, a patron of the radical pro-Russian All-Ukrainian Front, and Petro Symonenko, leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine, are far behind in the running.

Given the most recent developments in Ukraine and the confrontation with Russia, the underlying East-West question once again dominates the contest. Although the issue has been manipulated as a political tool in the past, an East-West divide has been a salient feature of electoral politics since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Support for closer links with Russia or closer EU integration is of course regionally skewed, even if it is a simplification to say that the Ukrainian west always favours the West and the east always looks to Russia. Under Yanukovych’s presidency (2010-2014), the government cemented the country’s neutral status, preventing it from seeking membership in NATO. In the current crisis, Russia has pressed the international community to ensure Ukraine’s sustained political and military neutrality. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s current interim government, led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, signed the key elements of the Association Agreement with the EU on 21 March and is adamant on progressing with the economic part in the near future. Although the interim government has thus far rejected claims that it is seeking to join NATO, insecurity amidst the confrontation with Russia has brought the debate to the fore.

On the basis of such polls, and provided the elections are held as scheduled with no major disruptions (which is a huge “if”), Poroshenko would be expected to win. Poroshenko owns one of the largest confectionary businesses in Ukraine, ‘Roshen’. He was the leader of the “Solidarity” political party that merged into Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party in March 2013. However, Poroshenko and Klitschko’s support is concentrated in the centre and west, which coincides with Tymoshenko’s traditional stronghold. They have some support in the ‘soft’ south-east, but very little in the Donbass or Kharkiv.

Poroshenko is not the Kremlin’s ideal candidate. He is unequivocally pro-EU and has recently declared that Ukraine could become a member of the EU in 2025 – whereas Russia recently proposed to the US to enshrine Ukraine’s neutral political and military status in the new constitution a way out of the crisis. Moreover, the relationship between Poroshenko and the Kremlin since last July has been quite tense. Wielding a “stick” against Ukraine’s pro-western oligarchs, Russia imposed trade sanctions against ‘Roshen’ in August/September 2013, resulting in substantial losses for the business. More recently, the Kremlin targeted Poroshenko’s assets in the city of Lipetsk, Russia. 

Despite numerous assertions by some of Ukraine’s political elites that Tymoshenko is a ‘politician of the past’ who stands no chance of winning, she still represents a formidable force. Tymoshenko’s control over “administrative resources” is currently one of the strongest. Most key governmental positions in central government, such as acting President, Chair of Parliament, Ministry of Interior, Presidential Administration are held by people who are closely associated with Tymoshenko. In the regions, Tymoshenko also has the upper hand, reportedly controlling at least nine governorships.  In her most recent press conference, she declared that she possesses unique experience as a victim of political injustice following her imprisonment from 2011 to 2014, and knows better than anyone else how to fight the “old rules” set up by the oligarchs, though her rhetoric was similar in 2004 and 2010.

Tymoshenko is more firmly pro-EU and has called Putin ‘enemy number one’ of Ukraine. However, it was Tymoshenko who signed the 2009 gas agreement with Russia, making Ukraine pay a much higher price. Also, it has been reported that Tymoshenko has been conducting negotiations with the PoR’s pro-Russian wing. Although Tymoshenko has denied any such meetings, she has a history of conducting such negotiations with the PoR before whilst still representing the ‘Orange’ coalition. Moreover, Tymoshenko’s potential appeal to voters in the south-east is in long-term decline.

Dobkin, the Party of Regions’ candidate, is a former Governor of the Kharkiv region, and explicitly pro-Kremlin. The PoR changed leadership on 29 March, when Boris Kolesnikov took over. Since Kolesnikov is close to Rinat Akhmetov from Donetsk, the wealthiest Ukrainian oligarch, the party has in effect returned to its original set-up in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a regional political machine. Other influential groups within the PoR, such as the “gas lobby”, the Firtash-Lyovochkin-Tihipko group have been given the cold shoulder. Despite Tihipko’s considerably higher rating in the polls than Dobkin, the PoR refused to endorse Tihipko’s candidacy and even urged him to withdraw his application. Having effectively reprivatized the party and endorsed the pro-Kremlin Dobkin, questions must be raised as to Akhmetov’s motives. Is he playing along with the Kremlin too? Does he support the federalisation of Ukraine?

The PoR is not the same as it was even two years ago. In 2012 the party meeting was attended by 656 PoR delegates from all the regions. But, since many of the PoR’s regional branches have dissolved in the past three months, especially in the centre-west, the recent party meeting hosted just slightly more than half the number of delegates than the last such meeting two years ago. The majority of party delegates represented Donetsk (120 delegates), Kharkiv (90), Luhansk (60) and Dnipropetrovsk (60) regions.

Tihipko, a PoR member, is traditionally associated with the Dmytro Firtash group, which has had considerable clout within the PoR since the late 2000s. However, Tihipko’s presidential candidacy was supported by only 35 PoR delegates, against 315 for Dobkin and nine for former Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko, another politician with a controversial pro-Russian past in the energy sector. With Akhmetov’s tightening of the party leadership and endorsing Dobkin, Tihipko is likely to set up or revive his own party ‘Strong Ukraine’ which merged with the PoR in 2012.

The balance of power in parliament is a bit more even. At the last count, 120 MPs remain in the PoR, but that includes both Akhmetov’s and Tihipko’s groups, which will now split. The new ‘Economic Development’ faction has 37 defectors, largely those who are prepared to work with Tymoshenko. The second new faction ‘Sovereign European Ukraine’ contains 36 relative moderates, many of whom who were coerced into siding with Yanukovych since 2012. Fifty eight MPs are independent.

Tihipko would be better placed than Dobkin to appeal across regional divides. He came a strong third in the 2010 election, behind Yanukovych and Tymoshenko, after presenting himself as an alternative third force. However, following the cooptation of his political party “Strong Ukraine” into the PoR and having worked in Yanukovych’s government, Tihipko has lost much trust in his electoral stronghold – ironically much of it to Klitschko before the recent events.

Firtash’s position appears ambivalent. On one hand, it has been reported that Firtash has endorsed the Poroshenko- Klitschko tandem. Those who publicly disowned Yanukovych and pushed for a more European direction for Ukraine, such as Tihipko and many others in the PoR, are linked with the Firtash group. Yet, at the same time, Firtash became one of the main beneficiaries when Yanukovych and Putin sealed the deal in December 2013, granting Ukraine a substantial gas discount. The supplies of Russian gas would have come to Ukraine through Firtash’s intermediaries. Also, Firtash is reported, in several places, to have funded the ‘Russian Unity’ party in the Crimea. Finally, his recent arrest by Austrian police on behalf of the U.S. suggests that Firtash may be wanted by the U.S. to collect compromising information on Putin’s circle.

It matters little if Poroshenko is way out front if there is massively differential turnout in the May election (ie. much lower in the east and south), or another form of sabotage. Akhmetov’s pushing forward of Dobkin, a more radical figure, may serve the Kremlin’s interest of keeping the turnout down. On the other hand, radical Russians like Aleksandr Dugin, have declared that anybody who takes part is a “traitor”. The PoR in its current state seems to want it both ways. It clearly wants to win back power: but it can either use the threat of supporting Russia’s “federalisation” proposals to try and restore the status quo ante, or it can push them more seriously and try to cement its power in some new entity in the south-east.

Oleksandr Andreyev is a PhD candidate at UCL SSEES

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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