Ukraine is already in election mode. The president and parliament that came to power in the tumult of 2014 will run for a new term in 2019 – the president in March; parliament in October. However, President Petro Poroshenko is currently trailing in fourth or fifth place in the polls. He also has the highest negative rating of any candidate: 45% of Ukrainians would not vote for him under any circumstances.
Rise of the populists
Four years after Euromaidan, the overall picture is bleak. Former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko has established a lead in the polls – but she has done so by profiting from social and economic problems rather than addressing past faults. Three other populists follow her in the polls. Oleh Lyashko is the loud-mouthed Ukrainian equivalent of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In 2014, he peddled easy solutions to the war in the east; now, he leads on anti-corruption rhetoric while quietly doing favours for oligarchs in parliament. Vadym Rabinovych is an oligarch. His new For Life party is campaigning on a single message of peace in eastern Ukraine, and has the support of Viktor Medvedchuk – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine. Former energy minister Yuriy Boiko is more straightforwardly Russophile.
Populism overlaps with nationalism. The far right is divided and still marginal, though it makes a lot of noise on the streets. Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the Freedom Party, leads the nationalist pack because he is prominent on oligarch-controlled television.
Even the wild card candidates tend towards populism. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the singer in popular Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, is not yet officially a candidate, but insiders may try to co-opt him if he runs. Strangest of all is Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor who plays a history teacher appointed as president – after ranting against corrupt politicians online – in hit television series Servant of the People. In real life, Zelensky’s appeal stems from a mood of anti-politics reminiscent of Italy’s Five Star Movement – a mood that, in Ukraine, oligarchs and government political technologists can easily exploit. Zelensky and Vakarchuk both poll at around 8-9%.
Volodymyr Hroisman has been prime minister since 2016. Originally a Poroshenko loyalist, he has sought to carve out his own political niche – only for Poroshenko to subtly undermine him when he goes too far. This leaves only two possible reform candidates: former defence minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko and the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovy. Neither has convincing credentials as an outsider: Sadovy’s party has received money from oligarchs; Hrytsenko has stood in the last two elections.
Poroshenko’s re-election strategy
Poroshenko’s advisers think that this proliferation of rivals suits him in the long term, because competition between several populists could prevent any one of them from gaining a decisive lead. They also think that he can co-opt nationalist rhetoric. As a consequence, Poroshenko is likely to engage in various stunts designed to burnish his image as a strong commander-in-chief. The government will exploit its continuing “de-communisation” campaign to paint Boiko and other pro-Russian opponents as neo-Soviets. Poroshenko has appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul to grant autocephaly (self-rule) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church this summer, shortly before the 1,030th anniversary of the Christianisation of Kyiv. Poroshenko could even revive his quixotic idea of a referendum on joining NATO – and perhaps get some initial response from the likes of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Wess Mitchell, the US assistant secretary of state for Europe. And Poroshenko will blame Russia for interfering in the elections on a massive scale – a genuine threat that Kyiv and Western capitals will need to address.
These techniques fall within a strategy known locally as “switching the target”, which involves shifting attention away from uncomfortable subjects and trying to jump from one important constituency to another. It is a risky approach: Poroshenko may lose his original base and fail to gain another.
A nervous Poroshenko administration is playing dirty. Several technologies have made their debut in Ukrainian politics under Poroshenko. Trolls and bots are increasingly common, to the extent that pro-Poroshenko trolls now have their own nickname: Porokhoboty. The presidential administration also covertly employs undercover “experts” to talk up its image on social media and television. And the authorities have set up attack sites such as National Interest of Ukraine – which features suspiciously professional English – to discredit reformers in the eyes of their foreign supporters.
Moreover, the government has levelled aggressive criminal changes against anti-corruption activists. In April 2018, a Kyiv court accepted Member of Parliament Boryslav Rozenblat’s claim that the new National Anti-Corruption Bureau had secured a bribery charge against him through entrapment. Vitaliy Shabunin, head of the Anticorruption Action Centre, has been charged with assaulting a blogger who goaded him online.
The Poroshenko administration has amassed a considerable campaign fund. Although Kyiv’s relations with the International Monetary Fund remain frozen, state bonds have been successfully sold on international markets – albeit at high interest rates that could wreak havoc with state finances in the future. Seven by-elections in 2016 showed how the ruling party is slowly reviving the practice of using state funds and state services to win votes.
The second round
Poroshenko may only need to gain a vote share of between 10 percent and 20 percent in the first round of the election. The final part of his strategy is to face an opponent who can be easily defeated in the second round. As recently as two years ago, Tymoshenko was such a candidate. At the time, most observers believed that her record as prime minister before the 2010 election would limit her vote share. But, if the polls are accurate, Ukrainians seem to have short memories: her stock has continued to rise. In response, the Poroshenko administration has shifted to using kompromat against her – most recently, focusing on Muammar Gaddafi’s alleged donations to her 2010 election campaign, and a $390,000 lobbying contract in Washington.
Poroshenko’s ideal opponent in the second round would be Lyashko, Rabinovych, or Boiko. Among them, Boiko would be the best target for a patriotic Poroshenko campaign. And there is plenty of kompromat on Boiko, particularly in relation to his role in the government’s purchase of overpriced Crimean drilling rigs under former president Viktor Yanukovych. Nonetheless, inflaming both Ukrainian nationalism and public opinion in eastern Ukraine could potentially have catastrophic consequences.
European policy responses
Poroshenko’s campaign will also play up his links to Europe. But no one should buy the myth that only he can reform Ukraine. The EU must not give up on the all-important struggle over anti-corruption courts, an issue that is potentially decisive for the health of Ukrainian civil society. The EU was right to withhold €600 million in aid to Ukraine in December 2017 due to the country’s backsliding on reform. But the EU proposed in March 2018 to provide Ukraine with another €1 billion in assistance (albeit with some of the same conditions attached).
European countries can do more to shape the election environment. They can increase spending on anti-disinformation campaigns in Ukraine and elsewhere. Ukraine’s fledgling public broadcasting service needs help to get off the ground. There may be little prospect of radical reform in Ukraine in the short term, but the narrative that the elections create are important to this process. They could either sustain the momentum of reform or else poison public discourse for years to come.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.