A story has long circulated that in 2005 when Viktor Yushchenko, then the freshly elected president of Ukraine, walked into his presidential office for the first time after winning the long and bitter standoff known as the Orange Revolution, he looked nervously at his aides and asked: “Now that we’re here, what do we do?”
Of the 44 candidates vying for the Ukrainian presidency in 2019, few would be able to answer that question. They simply have no programme and no plan. The overwhelming majority of candidates do not need one. Very few entered the race in good faith and the rest are simply there to distract the voters.
However, beyond all the noise, one must keep in mind that this is an important election to reaffirm Ukraine’s European choice, to eradicate pervasive corruption, to tackle an unreformed and slow-growing economy, and to pursue an elusive peace in Donbass.
From a Western perspective, it would be ideal if, after all the bold, idealistic, and visionary pronouncements made after the revolution of 2014 that a diverse liberal movement could unite behind a charismatic, credible, and pro-Western politician capable of avoiding shady businesses deals and shadier political tactics symptomatic of past and present Ukrainian presidents.
This sort of victory could carry the parliamentary elections and the two branches working together could champion historic reforms. Unfortunately, nothing suggests this will happen. Nevertheless, there are several key points the West should note while observing the upcoming elections.
The election may significantly impact Europe’s eastern borders
Unless there is a dramatic shift in the race, this cavalcade of 44 candidates will enter the first round and the election will result in a face-off between two old faces and perpetual rivals – Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent, and Yulia Tymoshenko, his erstwhile challenger.
To better understand this dynamic, one needs to consider that both front-runners entered Ukrainian politics in the 1990s. Both hail from a political generation that dramatically failed to deliver on any of its promises to the nation. This highlights people’s acute desire, and the country’s, need for new faces.
On the economic front, last year Ukraine’s per capita annual household income dropped 45% below its all-time high in December 2014. The level of corruption is intolerably high – according to the 2018 Corruption Perception Index. The country occupies the 120th place at the bottom of the list, along with Mali, Liberia, and Malawi. This presents a real challenge to Ukrainians and foreign investors looking to do business in the country. This also explains why neither of the two candidates has a commanding lead and both have high negative ratings. Hence, there is room for a spoiler. Many disillusioned voters are looking for solutions that are not at all rational – Enter stage left, Volodymyr Zelensky, the entertainer-turned-politician.
Ukraine’s stability is at stake
Elections in Ukraine often are accompanied by election fraud. Therefore, it is critical for the country that, whoever wins, these elections are not resolved in the streets, but in the polling stations by voters. This could prove to be a major test for the young democracy as there are several forces in this race, who are not capable of winning but are capable of destabilising the country.
It is unlikely that Ukraine will pursue real reforms in the near future
If Poroshenko is re-elected, he will probably continue to pursue the same slow pace of reforms that he has taken thus far. This essentially alters the appearance of things, without actually changing much substance.
Tymoshenko is also well known to the West. If she wins, one may expect the same approach to politics and the economy that was seen after the Orange Revolution. The only difference may be that because Tymoshenko is running a fairly populist campaign, that she promises to increase social spending, halt land liberalisation, and introduce privatisation – which may limit her ability to manoeuvre if she gets elected.
As for Zelensky, at this point, he does not seem to know what he wants to do with the economy or with anything else, for that matter. Nor does he have experienced aides to turn to, unless, of course, one considers Igor Kolomoisky, the Ukrainian oligarch who seems omnipresent in Zelensky’s campaign and is providing him with bodyguards, campaign personnel, and favourable media coverage.
Ukraine should not change its pro-European course, but it will encounter hardships ahead
Elections in Ukraine often result in a change of trajectory as the country zigzags between Europe and Russia. Given the divisions within the pro-Russian camp inside of Ukraine, it is unlikely that openly pro-Russian forces will prevail. If Poroshenko wins, the country is likely to continue with the current course of gradual European integration. He tends to overpromise to his voters a full and quick integration into the European Union’s institutions. This may end in major disillusionment as nothing suggests that Europe is ready to go that far in the foreseeable future. Also, on his watch, the impasse in Donbass is developing into a conflict with characteristics that are more violent than Russia’s other frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova. This is likely to continue if Poroshenko wins.
Tymoshenko’s relationship with Russia is more nuanced. She previously made a fortune that involved countless shenanigans with Russians that left her as one of the richest women in Ukraine at one point. Thus, she seems more likely to sit on the fence and play a more opportunistic game of trying to balance between Russia and the West.
Zelensky’s stance on Russia remains unclear. He could try to re-engage or he may experiment. One would expect that, given his inexperience, he is likely to make mistakes, willfully or not, some of them serious or even potentially dangerous.
There is a need for an organised, pro-European opposition
This is a major issue for the West to consider. The race among the front-runners features no solid candidate from a pro-Western, pro-liberal group, although the polls indicate Ukrainian voters lean toward Western-style democracy, political transparency, and free markets. Sadly, the sheer number of political groups running their own separate campaigns dilutes the power of this pro-liberal movement. This political inflation occurs because there are more political groups in this slice of the political spectrum than original ideas. Moreover, their leaders seem to lack the political skills necessary to unite for the practical purpose of actually winning a political campaign.
This requires some introspection on the part of Western leaders. There is an obvious need to deliver a stronger message of unity. NGOs active in Ukraine must continue to develop a pipeline of young leaders with the political skills required to balance the interests of the various liberal groups, while simultaneously championing the goal of political and economic reforms the country desperately needs.
*The original German-language version of this text also appeared on the site of Berlin-based think tank Centre Liberale Moderne on February 8, 2019.