On October 19, 2009 Ukraine marked the beginning of the presidential campaign, which will climax on January 17 next year with voters casting their ballots to elect the country’s new head of state for next five years. Since none of the presidential candidates is expected to cross the 50 percent threshold in the first round, the two candidates, who received the most votes, will face off in the second round on February 7, 2010. The presidential hopefuls have already been vying for voters’ attention for several months in this politically unstable country suffering from the severe effects of the global financial crisis. To make the matters worse, the political elites remain at the loggerheads over major political and economic issues, while the disenfranchised electorate blames Ukraine’s economic misery squarely on the president, parliament and government.
The Ukrainian political scene is highly personalized since the political parties play a far less important role than their leaders, who keep their respective parties under strict personal control. A party’s chairman is closely associated with his/her party’s successes and failures. The party system in Ukraine is characterized by a profound collusion of business interests with political parties. With little or no political ideology of their own, the political parties themselves are seen as all but the products of skilful PR effort orchestrated by the powerful economic players.
The separation of business interests from politics has come to represent one of the unfulfilled promises of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which brought down the corrupt regime of former president Leonid Kuchma. It is no surprise, therefore, that the main political actors in the country are the financial-industrial groups (FIG) with their enormous financial resources and unrivaled control over the media. According to Nikolai Semenyura, a Kiev based political scientist, the major FIGs seek to strengthen their ties with the ruling elites in the country. This is clearly demonstrated by FIGs’ relentless attempts to solidify their influence over the two main political parties in the country – The Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT), led by the current Prime Minister and the Party of Regions (PR) led by the leader of the opposition Viktor Yanukovych. Furthermore, the oligarchic groups in the country seek to contain any risk of political upheavals while increasing their own political influence. The oligarchs support not only the two main presidential contenders but also the second tier candidates with no real chance of winning (e.g. Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Serhiy Tihipko). This delicate balancing act orchestrates by the FIGs is to ensure that the interests of the leading oligarchic groups will be equally represented in the government and parliament (provided that the oligarchs can reconcile their differences). Therefore, the real danger is that the political parties in Ukraine will become a simple power tool in the hands of the FIGs.
One of the main FIGs in Ukraine is the System Capital Management holding, led by Rynat Akhmetov, who throws his lot behind Viktor Yanukovych. Owned by the oligarchs Serhiy Taruta, Vitaliy Hayduk and Oleg Mkrtchyan) the Industrial Union of Donbas supports Yulia Tymoshenko. Although until quite recently also supporting Tymoshenko, the Privat Group, led by Ihor Kolomoisky, Hennadiy Boholyubov, and Alexei Martynov, now enjoys a much more tepid relationship with the current prime minister. The EastOne FIG, formerly known as Interpipe, of the oligarch Viktor Pinchuk appears to maintain the neutrality by trying to fund all the relevant political forces in the country. Finally, Konstantyn Zhevago’s Ferrepo is closely associated with Tymoshenko.
The outcome of the 2010 presidential election will be largely decided by existing regional affinities, as was the case with the previous presidential and parliamentary elections in the post-Soviet Ukraine. For instance, south-eastern Ukraine with its predominantly Russian-speaking majority is considered the electoral stronghold of Viktor Yanukovych, who is oftentimes described as a pro-Russian candidate. Yulia Tymoshenko, on the other hand, can count on votes from central Ukraine, while in the western part of the country she has to compete against other pro-Western candidates.
A Canadian expert on Ukraine Taras Kuzio argues that previous presidential elections were mostly about the candidates’ struggle to win over undecided swing voters in central Ukraine, whose support went to Leonid Kuchma in 1994 and subsequently in 2004 to Viktor Yushchenko, who is the current president. In the upcoming presidential election, according to Kuzio, the swing-voters in western Ukraine will pick country’s next president.
Two Leading Presidential Candidates
According to the recent polls, the two leading presidential contenders are current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution in 2004) and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych. At the moment, the leader of the opposition Party of the Regions Yanukovych is leading Tymoshenko by 10-12 percent in recent polls. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that Yanukovych will become the president come January 2010. Should the second round be held on February 7, 2010, the votes cast in the first round for the less fortunate candidates in western Ukraine, of whom there are many, their supports might be tempted to vote for Tymoshenko as a lesser evil, thus, depriving Yanukovych of the presidency. To counter that, Yanukovych hopes to receive votes from the supports of the Communist Leader Symonenko in the second round. The election campaign is overshadowed by the confrontation between the two main parties and their respective leaders. Vitaly Kulik, from the Kiyv-based Research Center for Civil Society Problems, points out that the two dominant political parties have managed to establish a delicate balance of power in the parliament, where they maintain a firm control over legislative process. Since the parliamentary factions of the PR and BYuT are of roughly the same strength, they always have to reach some sort of mutual understanding for any bill to pass.
Tymoshenko launched her campaign with a great deal of grandeur and pomp by organizing a massive rally of her supporters at the Independence Square (also known as Maydan) in the centre of the capital city Kiev on October 24, 2009. The rally was attended by more than 100,000 people. Even the leader of the liberal-conservative European People’s Party Vilfred Martens, whose faction has a largest number of seats in the European Parliament, came to back Tymoshenko’s candidacy. Martens’ showing-up is all the more surprising given the fact that Tymoshenko’s bloc is quite notorious for its leftist and social populism. Having realized the strategic importance of western Ukraine, Tymoshenko, in her campaign strategy, has even targeted the Ukrainian diaspora in North America, whose members still maintain relatively strong ties to the western part of their homeland. This is why the Prime Minister has been presenting herself as a defender of Ukrainian language, while opposing the institutionalization of Russian as the country’s second official language.
In contrast, Yanukovych has been leading a relatively low-profile campaign so far. Yanukovych is fond of using campaign slogans such as “politics is not the most important thing” and “Ukraine for the people”. The Yanukovich’s camp has been suffering from a growing rift between party’s pragmatic wing of entrepreneurs and industrialists and the opposing faction of the so called “bureaucrats”, who represent the interests of the state bureaucracy. The former faction is led by the Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch Rynat Akhmetov of Tatar origins and his right-hand man Borys Kolesnikov, who holds the position of the PR’s campaign manager. The latter group consists mainly of former state officials.
Inside the Party of Regions views differ as to how to design an effective campaign strategy. It is no secret that a significant portion of the party base has a little faith in Yanukovych as a leader. Yanukovych’s opponents in the party cannot forgive him the lost presidential election in 2004 and the fact that despite the victory in the 2007 parliamentary elections the PR under his leadership was not able to form the government. The party’s pragmatic wing, which has its business interests predominantly in the West, rejects the vision of a welfare state and the stronger ties with Russia espoused by the Russian-speaking electorate. Consequently, Yanukovych is often seen as weak and too conciliator due to his main sponsor Akhmetov’s pragmatic approach to politics.
More and more the PR is seen as willing to team up with any political entity, including those of the Orange camp. Similarly, a number of Yanukovych’s supporters find it difficult to forgive him the signing of the National Unity Agreement with Yushchenko in 2006 or his acquiescence to the holding of the 2007 snap elections, which helped power-hungry Tymoshenko to become the prime minister.
To compensate for his past political blunders, it seems that Yanukovych now wants to be seen as a resolute leader and promises to dissolve the Tymoshenko-dominated parliament, if he becomes the country’s next president. However, the more likely scenario under the current circumstances is that even with Yanukovich’s victory in the presidential race, Tymoshenko will be able to keep her job as a prime minister.
Yatsenyuk as a Third Force
Until quite recently the Ukrainian political scene was in the grips of a new political sensation of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former speaker of the parliament, who parted ways with the Orange camp to form his own party, the Front for Change. Glorified by some as a Ukrainian Obama for his youth and rhetoric of change, this rising star on the Ukrainian political scene has recently seen his support to shrink from 13 percent last summer to meager 7-8 percent.
His poor showing in polls is a direct result of his prematurely started election campaign and Yatsenyuk’s failure to maintain a consistent political message. Initially, Yatsenyuk‘s campaign tried to target nationalists and liberals in the western part of Ukraine. However, later on in his campaign he decided to appeal to the economically-downtrodden electorate in the east. Even in the west, Yatsenyuk, despite his young age, has began to speake of the perils of liberal economic policies, which he blames for plunging the country into the current economic crisis. No wonder that some political observers accused him of harboring nostalgia for the Soviet welfare state. Similarly, Yatsenyuk has not shied away from dismissing hopes of early accession to NATO and the EU as unrealistic. Despite all his political lapses, however, Yatsenyuk, along with Tymoshenko, leads in the West. According to Taras Kuzio, Yatsenyuk enjoys the lead among the young and educated voters in the three Galician regions, while Tymoshenko is ahead in polls in the four remaining regions. Altogether, Tymoshenko beats Yatsenyuk by six to seven percent in the West.
Second Tier Candidates as the King Makers
The second tier candidates have virtually no chance of entering the second round of the presidential election but their decision to whom they give their support in the February run-off can determine whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko becomes the country’s new president. Their support hovers between one and five percent. Nevertheless, should they receive three percent and more, they will be able to demonstrate the viability of their political project and thus raising hopes of succeeding in the next parliamentary elections (the threshold for a party to enter the parliament is three percent). Among these candidates one can find a number of the former Orange revolution politicians, including current President Viktor Yuschenko, whose election campaign has suffered from his dismal popularity and a lack of political support. Yushchenko remains an honorary chairman of the Our Ukraine – People Self-Defense bloc (NU-NS), which in recent polls correlates the 2-3 percent popularity of its chairman. Abandoned by all the prominent oligarchs, the NU-NS bloc finds itself in a rather dire financial. The Ukrainian oligarchs, from Akhmetov to Kolomoisky, are under no illusion that lame duck President Yushchenko is on his way out of Ukraine’s politics. Yushchenko’s political fortunes are even further tarnished by the fact that about 80 percent of Ukrainians say that they don’t trust their president.
Apart from Yushchenko, there are two other Orange Revolution candidates in this category: Anatoliy Hrytsenko, the country’s former defense minister and the leader of the non-governmental organization Civic Initiative, and Yuriy Kostenko, a leader of the Ukrainian People’s Party from the NU-NS bloc. On the list of presidential hopefuls is the leader of the Communist Party Petro Symonenko who has for a number of years enjoyed a constant support of 4-5 percent. Last but not least, running in the January presidential election is Serhiy Tihipko. Having risen from the almost complete political obscurity, Tihipko now gets to compete with other second-tier candidates. Having started his political carrier in the Labour Ukraine party, godfathered by Kuchma’s son in law Viktor Pinchuk, Tihipko owes his success to the intensive campaigning, heavily bankrolled by the oligarchs’ money.. Tihipko stands out among other candidates in one important respect in that he has absolutely no political platform and ideology of his own. At the moment, polls put him at three percent.
Although in the West Yanukovych is seen as doing Russia’s bidding, while Tymoshenko is favored as a presidential candidate, who will steer Ukraine closer to the West, the reality could not be more different. One can even argue that Tymoshenko, who likes to present herself as pro-Western, is on some issues leaning towards Moscow more than her rival Yanukovych. In fact, both candidates seem to be very close on Ukraine’s foreign policy and not just domestic issues.
There are some notable differences, though. Yanukovych maintains that if he wins the election he will revisit the gas concrete, Ukraine concluded with Russia in January 2009. In this regard, Yanukovych sees eye to eye with his former nemesis and current President Viktor Yushchenko. Behind his defiance of Moscow on the gas deal one has to see the disgruntled gas lobby, led by PR’s financiers Dmytro Firtash, Serhiy Levochkin and Yuriy Boiko who incurred heavy financial losses as a result of the passage of the January agreement.
Paradoxically, many Russian and Ukrainian pundits consider Yanukovych as one of the most pro-Western politicians since he is aligned with the Ukrainian businessmen keen on doing business in the new EU member states, such as Poland and Hungary. The Russian political scientist and commentator Ivan Preobrazhenskiy believes that Yanukovych’s attempt, fully supported by his main political patron Akhmetov, at creeping Westernization of southern and eastern Ukraine, could in the end pose a real challenge to Russia’s long-term strategic interests in the country. Preobrazhenskiy points out that most of the Russian political commentators have already begun to take notice of Yanukovych’s political tiptoeing around the issues dear to the Russian speakers, his traditional supporters. Yanukovych’s apparent lack of commitment to introducing Russian as an official language only testifies to his political opportunism.
According to Preobrazhenskiy, the first Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk brought western Ukraine over to the West, his successor Kuchma did the same for central Ukraine and Yanukovych might integrate eastern and southern Ukraine into the West. It seems as though only Yanukovych enjoys the necessary political capital and legitimacy among the Russian-speakers to set the eastern part of the country on a course away from Russia.
According to political scientist Kuzio, Tymoshenko’s image in the US and the EU has been gradually improving since 2005. Fed up with Yushchenko, the West has come to see Tymoshenko as an acceptable alternative. The leaders in Brussels, Paris and Berlin praise Tymoshenko for her political pragmatism and especially the way she has handled economic and energy disputes with Russia. Therefore, the West European capitals might be inclined to sustain their tacit support for Ukrainian membership in NATO and the EU as long as there is not a Russophobic occupant of the presidential palace in Kiev. Current President Yushchenko is seen by many EU leaders precisely as such a Russophobe. It is no surprise then that among the three candidates Tymoshenko appears to be the most popular in Brussels. Tymoshenko is seen as a better alternative to a vacillating Yanukovych even by the Kremlin. Although Washington is not particularly content with any of the three candidates, the US government will most probably throw its lot behind Tymoshenko eventually.
In the meantime, Yushchenko has lost most of his support abroad. Russia has never even considered backing Yushchenko in the first place, and the West now blames him for discrediting the prospects of NATO membership in the eyes of many Ukrainians. Similarly, the unpopular President has to shoulder the blame for Ukraine’s battered image abroad as a country in the thralls of permanent political and economic crisis. Moreover, Yushchenko-appointed prime minister Yuriy Yekhanurov and his government were implicated in the worst corruption scandal in Ukraine’s modern history revolving around the energy intermediary RosUkrEnergo. As early as late 2007 Washington and Brussels began to display certain weariness of Yushchenko, which gradually transformed into a widespread indifference to Ukraine and its domestic woes.
Ukraine’s external and domestic politics after January 2010
The campaign platforms of the two leading candidates are almost identical in nature characterized by stunning political and economic populism. On language policies, however contentious issue it is, both candidates seem to have found common language. Yanukovych in his own words holds “the same respect” for Russian and Ukrainian languages, by which he does not necessarily mean that they should enjoy the same statues. Although she can hardly admit it publicly out of fear of losing voters in the Ukrainian-speaking western part of the country, Tymoshenko’s pragmatic approach towards the language question is closer to Yanukovych than meets the eyes.
Furthermore, Yanukovych, for instance, rejects bloc-politics in international politics and maintains that Ukraine should stay outside of regional groupings, namely the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Concurrently, Tymoshenko does not list Ukraine’s entry into NATO as one of her top foreign policy priorities. Therefore, regardless of who of the two wins the presidency Ukraine will not push for accelerating its accession talks with the Alliance. Although not a single NATO member country opposes Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO in principle, the key member states, such as Germany, France, Italy, and Spain continue to oppose any intensification of the accession process. As for the new US administration, unlike its Republican predecessor, it remains quite reluctant to press for the integration of Ukraine into the Euro-Atlantic institutions. At this point Washington does not want to risk further alienation of Russia by increasing America’s presence in the post-Soviet space. Finally, the Ukraine armed forces remain in woeful conditions nowhere near the NATO standards.
When Tymoshenko speaks about the prospects of attaining the much coveted EU membership, she understands that the country is in no position to join the Union in the foreseeable future. This puts her apart from Yuschenko and his hasty drive for country’s integration with the EU but pushes her closer to her main rival Yanukovych.
Regarding Ukraine’s foreign policy, Kiev has two options: either it will pursue the process of gradual integration with the countries of NATO and the EU, which began in the early 1990s, or Ukraine might opt to completely halt its move towards the European structures and become a buffer state between the EU and Russia.
After the January election, Kiev can be expected to pursue a difficult balancing act of a dual-rapprochement with both Russia and the EU. Despite its split, Ukraine will claim that the securing of the EU membership remains the ultimate goal of its foreign policy. The appointment of multimillionaire Petro Porosenko, thanks to the compromise struck between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, as the country’s new foreign minister seems to only confirm this trend. Given his business interests in Russia, the new foreign minister is expected to lessen the anti-Moscow streak in Ukraine’s foreign policy, thereby moving the country towards a thaw in relations with its eastern neighbor.