June 8, 2018

Kyiv Political Scientist: Ukraine Wants a New Leader, But There Are No Candidates

Jaanus Piirsalu
Vladimir Fesenko
Vladimir Fesenko

Ukrainians are more interested in economic questions than corruption

From 22 to 24 May, Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid will be in Ukraine on a state visit. Ukrainians have already turned their eyes to next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. In this interview with Diplomaatia, one of Kyiv’s best-known independent political scientists, Vladimir Fesenko, says the biggest competition facing the current president, Petro Poroshenko, will be Yulia Tymoshenko.

Diplomaatia: Of all of Ukraine’s internal issues, the deportation of the former President of Georgia and Governor of Odessa Oblast, Mikheil Saakashvili, after the prosecution accused him of having ties with supporters of the removed president Viktor Yanukovych, has attracted the most attention in the foreign media. Saakashvili’s anti-corruption movement has gained many followers in Ukraine in the past six months. How much of it remains following his deportation?

Fesenko: The political protest did not escalate after Saakashvili’s deportation, even though the authorities worried it might, according to my sources. It was also feared that the protest might radicalise. When Saakashvili’s supporters gathered at the Ukrainian parliament [at the end of February], it posed some risk to the authorities, but the number of protesters [around 10,000] was low enough for Kyiv to handle. This would only have been dangerous for the authorities if a large number had attempted to force their way into parliament or the president’s office. This did not happen.

How big a risk was it for Poroshenko to order Saakashvili to be deported?

The authorities had to neutralise Saakashvili at minimal cost. Essentially, they had three options. First, they could have tried imprisoning him. They did attempt that, but the court released him. Second, they could have sent him back to Georgia. There he would certainly have been imprisoned straightaway, which would have attracted heavy criticism [of Kyiv] from the West as well as domestic outrage. The third option was to send him back to Poland. This was the safest solution to this problem.

What are the most important developments in Ukrainian politics today?

The elections are a year away and the preparations are already a priority. [The law prescribes that Ukrainian presidential elections must take place by the end of March 2019, but since the previous election was held in May 2014 and Poroshenko assumed office in the June, it is possible that they will be postponed to May or June. The parliamentary elections will take place in October 2019.—JP]

In recent months, there has been speculation about extraordinary parliamentary elections taking place this year, but I do not think this likely, because it would not help the president. [Officially, the coalition made up of Poroshenko’s bloc and the People’s Front currently has 219 of the 450 seats in parliament, but in reality they have a majority, and it would be very difficult to achieve this in elections now.—JP] It is very likely that this rumour was spread in order to apply pressure on Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman [who was elected to the Rada via Poroshenko’s bloc—JP] and the People’s Front.

The president’s bloc and the People’s Front are in talks to merge and form a joint list of candidates—they are distributing seats, etc. The negotiations had a difficult start because they do not trust one another. Extraordinary parliamentary elections would constitute a great risk to the People’s Front. [Their popular support is extremely low and right now they would not get any seats.—JP]

Who are the current main favourites?

The actual campaign begins in autumn, but of course we already know the main candidates. At the moment, they are Poroshenko—even though he has made no official statement on running—and Yulia Tymoshenko (who served as prime minister in 2005 and from 2007 to 2010). It is very unlikely that the opposition will have a joint candidate. Running for president is important to everyone, because it helps to prepare for parliamentary elections. In Ukraine, the rating of party leaders is often comparable to that of their party.

The fact that the unpopularity ratings of all well-known politicians are very high is noteworthy. Many people do not want to vote for the current favourites, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. They would like to see new leaders, but there are none about. At the same time, Poroshenko’s rating is consistently more negative than Tymoshenko’s.

Can Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the vocalist of the popular Ukrainian band Okean Elzy, be considered a potential candidate? After all, he has become Ukraine’s national treasure and conscience since the Maidan Revolution.

Vakarchuk denied last autumn that he was planning to take part in the presidential election, but he did not give a straight yes-or-no answer. I don’t think he has yet made his final decision.

Who are his supporters?

He is said to be in close contact with Tomas Fiala [an influential investment banker and advocate for so-called white business and revival of the Ukrainian economy, who also owns one of Kyiv’s most prominent political journals, Novoye VremyaJP] and Viktor Pinchuk [one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen and son-in-law of the country’s former long-serving president, Leonid Kuchma—JP]. Pinchuk is famous for taking young euro-optimist politicians from different factions under his wing.

Vakarchuk has close ties to some politicians from Poroshenko’s party and Igor Gryniv, who is regarded as Poroshenko’s main political technologist. He is also supported by some well-known euro-optimist members of the Rada. I understand he is being persuaded to participate in the election. Under certain conditions, he could become Ukraine’s [former Czech president Václav] Havel. However, everyone knows that he is politically inexperienced. He did serve as a member of the Rada once [2007–8] but left on his own initiative. Many considered this an honest thing to do. Vakarchuk is often rightly asked how he is going to lead an army, and foreign and domestic policy, with no experience in policymaking. He could have a chance if he manages to form an experienced team. His starting position is potentially good: some polls report support of 5–6%, others even over 10%. In any case, he would currently be in third place. If it turns out that Vakarchuck does not run after all, the standing of former defence minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko will go up.

Do you expect any surprise candidates or forces to take part in the elections?

Not really. Right now, there is a lot of talk about the Servant of the People party, headed by the actor and showman Vladimir Zelensky. He produced a TV series of the same name that told the story of an ordinary history teacher winning the presidential election. [The series was also aired on ETV+ in Estonia.—JP] This project was clearly political and backed by Ihor Kolomoyskyi [one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen—JP]. They are now trying to pull it off in real life. Zelensky is unlikely to win the presidential election, but it provides the party with a good starting point for the parliamentary elections. Essentially, they are copying the Italian Five Star Movement, with Zelensky assuming the role of the comedian Beppe Grillo. Zelensky himself has not yet commented on it, but I believe that the odds [that he will run for president] are good.

Where is the 2014 Maidan Revolution generation, who were supposed to reinvent Ukrainian politics? The majority of the older-generation politicians have remained in politics, but brave new ones are few and far between.

Some of them have remained in politics, but most have distanced themselves. This is also the reason this young generation is widely criticised. They are accused of being ineffective. The renowned Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak called them impotent flash mob lovers who do not want to do systemic work or assume power in order to introduce reform. Personal issues are indeed more important to the majority of this generation.

How popular is the former boxer Vitali Klitschko as the mayor of Kyiv?

He is a controversial figure. On the one hand, he has not received as much criticism as the previous mayor, Leonid Chernovetskyi. But at the same time, he is the butt of irony and jokes because he is not a good public speaker. He makes many slips of the tongue and produces clumsy sentences. People write down his quotes just like they did with [former Russian prime minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin.

On the other hand, Kyiv’s budget has increased considerably thanks to decentralisation—one of Ukraine’s most successful reforms—and people see that the streets are being repaired, a new bridge is being built over the Dnieper after ten years of stagnation, and snow is cleared more efficiently, etc. People notice that the city is improving. If anything, the general attitude towards Klitschko is moderately positive. Right now, he does not have any competition for the position of mayor, but it is unlikely that he will run for the presidency, because his ratings are too low to try for that. Instead his party, UDAR [Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform], is likely to discuss whether or not they should once again form an alliance with Poroshenko’s party to participate in the parliamentary elections, as in 2014. Klitschko himself is yet to make a decision.

How likely are Poroshenko’s bloc and the People’s Front to agree on a joint list of parliamentary candidates?

This is their only option. Some sources say that they have already agreed on it. They must join forces because neither of them can risk Tymoshenko winning. However, they will finalise the details after the presidential election. If Poroshenko wins, he will dictate the terms. If he loses, the situation will be different. In such a case, Groysman may well run independently in the parliamentary elections.

What can Poroshenko do ahead of the elections to increase his popularity?

In Ukraine, it is customary to promise higher wages and pensions before elections. However, the problem is that the government cannot afford it right now, because economic growth is too low [2% in 2017, with 3.5% forecast for 2018—JP] and the external debt too large. Four and a half billion US dollars must be paid this year and the estimate for next year is seven billion. This year the servicing of external debt will require four times more funds than raising pensions. This is a serious burden that limits the president’s options. He is looking for alternatives. He recently proposed an amendment to the constitution to consolidate Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO and the European Union. This requires a referendum that would essentially be in support of Poroshenko’s policy.

Especially if the referendum takes place during the presidential election.

Exactly. Poroshenko would then be associated with the aspirations to join NATO and the EU. However, he is unlikely to boost his ratings with this. Yulia Tymoshenko remains his main problem. Surveys indicate that if Poroshenko and Tymoshenko reached the second round, the latter would win. She is more popular with the people. It is crucial for Poroshenko to drag her ratings down. This will most likely be done by accusing Tymoshenko of having ties to Russia. Next year it will be ten years since Ukraine entered into the gas agreement with Gazprom and I am sure this will be brought up again, together with videos showing her with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin.

How has an old warhorse like Yulia Tymoshenko, who has toiled away at the top of Ukrainian politics for 20 years, managed to increase her chances to such a great extent?

She took quite a tumble in 2014. [One of the results of the Maidan Revolution was Tymoshenko’s release. She had been imprisoned in 2011 for seven years by then-president Yanukovych, who saw her as his main competition.—JP] She did very poorly in the 2014 presidential election [12%]—a surprise even for her—and her party barely exceeded the 5% threshold in the parliamentary elections.

Nevertheless, when the government began to enforce the agreement with the IMF and raised the price of gas and other utilities, it was Tymoshenko who made the best use of it. She was in her element. She drove around the country and demonstrated her excellent public-speaking skills by criticising Yatsenyuk’s [Ukraine’s first prime minister after the success of the Maidan Revolution] and later Groysman’s tariffs policy. She was the only opposition politician to take full advantage of the government’s failings in social and economic policy. Nevertheless, her ratings were still considerably lower compared to the first round of the 2010 presidential election, when she won 25%. She has also lost a large number of her former voters. The majority do not want to see Tymoshenko or Poroshenko as their president.

Aside from the presidential election, what is the most important topic in Ukrainian politics this spring?

One of the main topics is the activity of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and the establishment of anti-corruption courts, which would be the last stage in the creation of anti-corruption institutions. [The related draft legislation is still going through parliament. The courts would only handle corruption crimes within the competence of NABU. The courts are demanded by Ukraine’s main supporters, such as the IMF, the US and the EU.—JP] Many Rada members are critical about the establishment of such courts. They claim that the whole system needs to be changed. Courts are being reformed, but the formation of the new Supreme Court was widely criticised due to the selection process failing to produce good results. A quarter of the members of the new Supreme Court [30 of 120 judges] have received complaints—either in relation to their past decisions or their integrity.

The establishment of anti-corruption courts is essentially an experiment in creating an independent court. How such courts should be formed is widely disputed. One idea is to involve experts from international institutions, who would have the right to veto candidates. This would reduce the influence of the authorities, especially the presidential administration, over the selection process. The current draft legislation introduces very strict rules for the selection of judges, which would give the current incumbents—who society does not really trust—an advantage.

The situation is rather paradoxical. The establishment of anti-corruption courts is very important for business and for a part of the political sphere, because it would mean that the court system would not be influenced by the authorities. For instance, NABU is quite independent of the authorities. They are feared even by the parliamentary opposition.

The establishment of these courts has been held up because of the fear that risks may escalate. For the elite, this is serious and one of the most important questions. Society as a whole does not see it as such. When people are asked what they consider the most important problems for the country in various surveys, most of them put the war in the Donbas first, followed by corruption and general economic issues. However, when asked what they consider important to their family, the conflict falls to fifth place as economic and social problems (e.g. prices and job-seeking) take the first four. Corruption ranks as low as seventh. Most people do not come into direct contact with corruption; it mostly happens in business and perhaps with people who are involved in running the country.

Are the majority of Ukrainians really that unlikely to come face-to-face with corruption?

Everyday corruption naturally exists, but people are ambivalent about it. What they think of as corruption is when a minister or senior official takes bribes or receives illegal income. But giving a present to a doctor or teacher or even paying them is not considered corruption. Progress has been made in this area: the establishment of a new police patrol put an end to mass bribery in the traffic police. Naturally, this still happens every now and then, but it used to be ubiquitous. Corruption has also been limited by the use of a one-stop system in dealing with government institutions and an electronic public procurement system.

Of course, corrupt officials are already adjusting to this system. For example, take the scheme in Obronprom [the state defence industry] that became public last autumn. A company participated in a tender and won entirely legally by offering the lowest price. They later came to the ministry and claimed that the market situation had changed, the cost price of the products they used had risen, etc., and proposed a new agreement. This scheme for getting round the electronic lowest-bid system is quite common.

Has NABU brought any large and important corruption cases to the court yet?

None of the really big things have made it to court. Examples of these would be the case of the head of the State Fiscal Service [comparable to the Estonian Tax Board], Roman Nasirov [who is accused of embezzling 70 million dollars], the so-called amber case that involves two Rada members [concerning the embezzlement of large expanses of land with the aim of using them for mining amber—JP] and the case of [Mykola] Martynenko [a Rada member and close ally of the former prime minister Yatsenyuk accused of embezzling 17 million dollars—JP].

These will probably be taken to court at a suitable time—i.e. perhaps before the elections?

Absolutely. Convictions are likely to follow. By the way, there is a very big and curious problem with the courts—a shortage of judges. The fight against corruption partly involves public declarations of financial interests. Once this became a requirement, many judges suddenly decided to retire. Over a thousand of them left, which resulted in a severe shortage of judges in many courts. This has led to very long delays for case reviews.

How would you describe the work NABU has done?

They are very active. The last case that drew great attention was the detention of Gennadiy Trukhanov, the mayor of Odessa. At the same time, NABU is accused of excessive engagement in special operations and misuse of their authority by provoking bribery, etc.—it is claimed that their methods are not entirely honest.

On the other hand, they do not have much experience [they essentially began their work two years ago—JP] and are too eager to see results, and therefore fail to follow procedural rules during investigations, even in important high-level criminal cases. There is a risk that lawyers will use this against them later in court.

Another problem is that they are involved in too many political intrigues. The current coalition and the president’s inner circle are afraid that NABU may be used against them before the elections. Not only are they afraid of their corrupt transactions coming to light, but also that NABU’s management has close ties to several opposition members of the Rada. For instance, the Director of NABU, Artem Sytnik, is on good terms with [popular Rada members] Serhiy Leschenko and Mustafa Nayyem, who are highly critical of the president even though they belong to his party. The Deputy Director of NABU, Gizo Uglava, has close ties to Saakashvili.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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