On March 31st, Ukrainians will head to the polls to vote for their next president, and while the results remain uncertain, what is promised is that these elections will differ significantly from previous ones in the country's history.
First of all, these mark the first elections in Ukrainian history in which a foreign policy “pro-Russia” card cannot be played by the political candidates. If in 2013 the Association Agreement with the European Union and the Customs Union with Russia were two rival projects for Ukrainians, in 2019 support for the EU is overwhelming among the population – 50% of Ukrainians support the country’s integration into the EU, while only 9% are in favour of the Customs Union. Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlanticcourse has also been recently voted in to make a part of Ukraine’s Constitution. However, a survey by Rating Group Ukraineshowsthat support for the EU is very unevenly spread across the country, ranging from over 80% in the Western oblasts to some 30% in Donetsk, Luhansk and Odesa oblasts.
Secondly, the field of presidential candidates featuressome new faces. To be precise, the three frontrunners comprise the current President Petro Poroshenko, the veteran of Ukrainian politics Yulia Tymoshenko and a newcomer, a comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky. According to polls from March 2018, it is Zelensky who is leading the race, with some 25% of the public’s support, while Poroshenko and Tymoshenkokeep shifting in and out of second place. Importantly, some 26%- in fact, the “golden share” of these elections – of those who are going to come and vote, are still undecided about their choice, which may bring some unpredicted surprises on the day of the poll.
Thirdly, these elections will likely feature an unusually high turnout by Ukrainian standards – as of March 2019, 83% of Ukrainians stated that they are going to take part in the elections (in the 2014 presidential elections turnoutreached around 60%). This is may be a sign of the increased civic mobilization and the perception of civil responsibility prominent among Ukraine’s citizens, which grew more acute after the Euromaidan and the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Offers and expectations
What do Ukrainians expect from the candidates? Predictably, the two key concerns for the Ukranian citizens revolve around security – in hard security and economic terms. When asked about their key concerns, the conflict in the East of Ukraineincreases in the cost of utilities and low salaries/pensions traditionally top the chart, with all candidates competing on who promises to improveliving standards the most. Hence, we continue to observe a legal mismatchand low political literacy in the minds of the Ukrainian population – Ukraine is a parliamentary-presidential republic, with the President’s core functions pertaining toforeign and security policy. Hence, while the expectations of conflict settlement of the President are legitimate, economic issues are outside his/her domain.
Still, it looks like the presidential candidates seek to cater to the voter’s whim rather than to outline their agendas according to the letter of the Constitution. The pre-election programs of Zelensky, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko feature numerous promises in all realms from ranging from security to healthcare and education, obviously advertising the agendas of their political parties ahead of the parliamentary elections, set to take place in October 2019. While all three candidates pledge to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity, they tackle the issue in rather vague terms– the views on the preferred way of conflict settlement vary widely across the population and as such open support for any oneoption runs the risk of alienating the wide majority of the electorate.
While Poroshenko, Tymoshenko and Zelenskyoffer more or less “traditional” ways of conflict settlement with the engagement of diplomatically supportive Western partners, Zelensky has already stirred public resonance by asserting a possibility of bilateral negotiations and “a compromise” between himself and the President of Russian FederationVladimir Putin. Among the three leading candidates,Tymoshenko and Zelenskyare not too emphatic about the EU membership as part of their election campaign, which appeals to the latter’s South and East based core electorate.
Relations with Russia and Conflict in the East
Meanwhile, the conflict in the East of the country is ongoing, with over 13,000 dead and over 30,000 injured in the five years since the war started. The Minsk agreements are not being observed and upheld, starting with the violation of the cease-fireon a nearlydaily basis: the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission detected over 270,000 ceasefireviolations in 2018 alone. In November 2018, the situation further escalated in the Kerch Strait, when Russia attacked. three Ukrainian ships and took 24 Ukrainian mariners as war prisoners. The Crimean peninsula has. also become increasingly militarized, with the number of Russian troops increasing from 12,500 in 2013 to 31,500 as of September 2018. The Normandy format – the diplomatic group comprising Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, seeking to find a resolution to the war in Eastern Ukraine – has not met on the highest level since October 2016, with Vladimir Putin openly stating that he is waiting for the next Ukrainian leadership to take over before resuming talks.
The relations between Ukraine and Russia remain tense on all levels, although Ukrainians seem to distinguish between the Russian state and the Russian people: According to a poll by the Kiev International Institute Of Sociology, 63% of Ukrainians believe Russia to be an aggressor against Ukraine, butat the same time 57% of Ukrainians have positive attitudes towards Russians. These realities being both true is explained by the fact that Ukrainians distinguish between the Russian people and the Russian authorities: according to the same poll, while 77% of Ukrainians have positive attitudes towards the Russian people, only 13% of Ukrainians have the same feelings towards the Russian state. Positive feelings towards the people could be partially explained by family and economic ties between some Ukrainians and Russians, especially in the East and South of Ukraine. Meanwhile, in Russia attitudes towards Ukraine are significantly worse, with only a third of the Russian citizens (34%) declaringpositiveattitude stowards Ukrainians. As for the conflict settlement measures, the Ukrainian public is very divided. Opinions differ from those who support the Budapest Format (which would imply involving the UK, the US, France, Russia and China into the negotiation format; around 20% of Ukrainians are in favour of it) to those who want to carry on the Minsk format; others endorse holding bilateral negotiations with Vladimir Putin and even abandoning the occupied territories altogether – each option enjoying the support of roughly one in ten Ukrainians.
With the as of yet unpredictable outcome of the elections, Ukraine is facing another five years of uncertainty and flux. Under such conditions, the only actor on whom the country can rely on for its survival is its civil society. Despite a dramatic splash of activism and volunteering in 2013-2015, sociologists do not detect substantial increases in Ukraine’s civil society, neither among activists (in 2018, as in 2013, only 7% define themselves as being activists), nor within membership of CSO (around 85% not belonging to any civic associations in 2018 as well as in 2013). While the authorities are generally more open towards cooperation with civil society than they were in 2014, 2018 witnessed a “shrinking space” for journalists and activists in Ukraine, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reporting164 violations of fundamental freedoms in Ukraine such as freedom of thought and expression of opinion, peaceful assembly, freedom of religion and conviction, etc. in the period from 1 January 2018 to 15 January 2019.One of the most resonant cases was the violent murder of a Kherson activist Kateryna Handziuk, who died as a result of an acid burn. At the time of this writing,the investigation is still ongoing.
What can the EU do?
Despite the strongly pro-European course Ukraine seems to be heading towards, the upcoming elections are far from being devoid of threats for the future development of the country and the region. Apart from the continued threat of the Russian aggression, the key challenge is the populism, which serves as a guise for de facto anti-European, although not overtly Russophile, candidates. Apart from monitoring Ukraine’s elections, the West should be already developing its strategy towards Ukraine, whoever the future president is. It is crucially important for the EU to continue engagement with Ukraine so that the reforms within the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement are implemented, and it is equally important that the EU continues tostand by the inviolability of the international borders and international law, sending a clear message to Russia.
The protests against Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov also took place in Italy, in front of the villa owned by his company https://www.lastampa.it/2019/02/16/italia/dal-ministro-ucraino-agli-olig...