By Norbert Rebow
On the 31st of March Ukrainians will vote in a presidential election in a month that marks five years since the Russian annexation of the Crimea and Sevastopol. As the country prepares to head to the polls, there is a great opportunity to look at the impact of the Euromaidan revolution and the Russian intervention, and to ask where Ukraine is heading now.
The European Union has featured prominently in the momentous political developments in Ukraine in recent years. The protests that led to the 2014 revolution were triggered by the decision of then President Yanukovych to not sign the Association Agreement (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU that his government had negotiated. The adoption of those treaties by the post-revolution authorities has tightened the relationship between Ukraine and the EU and its Member States. The agreements have helped develop the EU’s position as Ukraine’s biggest trading partner and have provided visa-free access to the Schengen area for short stays to Ukrainian citizens. Meanwhile, many Ukrainians have come to live and work in some Member States with Poland alone registering over 1 million people from the country as residents.
This has been in sharp contrast with country’s relationship with Russia in the same period. Not only has Crimea been annexed, a bloody separatist war supported in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions but more recently the Russian Navy has been attempting to restrict the access of Ukrainian naval and merchant vessels to the Sea of Azov which hosts the port of Mariupol which is key for Ukrainian industrial exports. On the other hand, Kiev has responded by supporting the breakaway of the Orthodox Church in the country from the Moscow Patriarchate and by constructing a border fence with Russia.
Where do these radical developments leave Ukrainian politics in the run up to its presidential elections? In short – fractured. Thirty-nine people are registered in the race and opinion polls suggest that whichever two candidates progress into the second round they are unlikely to have little over 20% support each. Currently, three candidates seem to be within a chance of being in that runoff – actor Volodymyr Zelensky, sitting President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yuliya Timoshenko. One element does unite most of the candidates in the field – support for continuing the course towards integration with the EU and NATO and this includes this top three. This is a fundamental change from previous Ukrainian elections when candidates supporting a vision of integration with Russia would regularly gather a large section of the electorate. This is not surprising given the non-participation of Crimea and the separatist areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions – even in the Ukrainian independence referendum of 1991 these parts of the country recorded much lower rates of turnout and support for separation from the Soviet Union. Together with the outrage and damage caused by the Russian interventions, the Ukrainian electorate is coalescing around the broad pro-European direction the country should take.
However, that agreement obscures the development of other divisions and the deep dissatisfaction with the economic state of the country and continued problems with corruption among many parts of the society. Who are then the main contenders for the presidency and what are their policies. The frontrunner Volodymyr Zelenskiy is perhaps the clearest manifestation of dissatisfaction with the progress of the current political establishment. Though he supported the Euromaidan protests, his campaign for president is his first foray into formal politics. He rose to national prominence by portraying, in a TV programme, a teacher so dissatisfied with the Ukrainian political class that he decides to run for office and eventually is elected to the presidency. Zelenskiy is trying, seemingly successfully, to bring his onscreen persona into the real political arena. The political party set up to support his campaign bears the name of the programme that brought him to prominence – Servant of the People. His political stances and background are not without their controversies however – his description of negotiations with Russia as ‘inevitable’ has angered some on the Ukrainian right and despite his attempts to portray himself as a man of the people his relationship with Ihor Kolomoisky, the businessman who owns the TV station that broadcast ‘Servant of the People’ has been queried.
Zelenskiy has sought to chart a middle course in a debate that the other two main contenders have staked out strong positions – the relationship the country has with the International Monetary Fund. The incumbent president, Petro Poroshenko, has argued for Ukraine to stick to existing agreements on its debt repayments whilst former prime minister Yuliya Timoshenko has argued strongly for renegotiation. These two candidates are both well established on the Ukrainian political scene – Timoshenko was a leader of the first Maidan revolution in 2004 but her subsequent premiership was mired in controversy by conflict with the then-president Viktor Yushchenko and her role in negotiating a natural gas contract with Russian suppliers that was seen by some as disadvantageous to Ukraine – politics may have been fast-changing in recent years in the country but much of the electorate seems cognisant of this candidate’s past. The incumbent president meanwhile has faced criticism linked to the pace of reforms, especially on slow progress in the fight against corruption and the perception that oligarchs continue to play a key role in the political system. Support for his handling of the conflict with Russia has also drawn criticism and through much of 2018 support for his re-election was consistently in the single digits. Recent months, especially since his backing of the aforementioned split of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate have seen a revival of his fortunes as he now vies with Timoshenko for the other spot alongside Zelenskiy in the second round of the election.
This article could only be a cursory glance at the realities of Ukrainian politics five years after the Euromaidan revolution and the Russian annexation of Crimea and it could not cover the myriad of nuances. Two things are clear, however – Ukraine is a changed country with now a clear European course but that journey is difficult and the details of it will be contentious for years to come.