1. It is difficult to predict the outcome.

Ukraine is approaching a presidential election in March 2019 followed by a parliamentary election in October. Despite the implementation of reforms over the past four years, the public mood remains sour and distrustful towards its politicians. As many as 84 per cent of those polled have said they are not satisfied with the direction the country is goingi. The main concerns for Ukrainians are corruption, the conflict in the Donbas and inflation. Nearly half of the public have indicated that they will not vote or that they have not decided who to support in the election. This leaves plenty of room for change between now and next year.

However, so far, polling has indicated that, among those intending to vote, support is fairly evenly distributed among the leading contenders, with Yulia Tymoshenko in the lead.

Chatham House Analysis of Ukraine Election, 2018.

Chatham House Analysis of Ukraine Election, 2018.

  • i. Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, June 2018

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Placards depicting presidential candidates Yulia Tymoshenko (R) and Petro Poroshenko (L) are pictured in Lviv on 21 May 2014 ahead of a presidential ballot. Photo: Getty Images.
Placards depicting presidential candidates Yulia Tymoshenko (R) and Petro Poroshenko (L) are pictured in Lviv on 21 May 2014 ahead of a presidential ballot. Photo: Getty Images.

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2. Old rivalries matter: Poroshenko vs. Tymoshenko.

Petro Poroshenko

In 2014, in the wake of the ‘Revolution of Dignity’, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and aggression in the east of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko was elected as president of Ukraine. He won a clean sweep across the country, however, as President Viktor Yushchenko found out after the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004, a commanding lead can evaporate within a single term.

Poroshenko now suffers from a big negative rating: 45 per cent say they would not vote for him in any eventii. During his election campaign in 2014, he promised, if elected, to sell his businesses which include Roshen chocolates and the 5 Kanal television channel. He did ultimately relinquish management of his businesses to a blind trust but the Panama Papers leak in 2016 showed that he had set up a company in the British Virgin Islands in August 2014 and he remains one of Ukraine’s ten richest people.

His rhetoric has continued to be focused on the defence of Ukraine’s interests in the face of Russian aggression and securing independence from Moscow for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Yulia Tymoshenko

In 2005, former president Yushchenko appointed Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister and Poroshenko — who thought he had been promised the prime minister’s job — as secretary of the National Security and Defence Council. Within seven months, amid public squabbling, both had left government although Tymoshenko was prime minister again from 2007 to 2010 while Poroshenko later became foreign minister and minister of trade.

Tymoshenko was narrowly defeated in the 2010 election by the ‘Orange Revolution’ loser, Viktor Yanukovych, who then imprisoned her on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power related to a 2009 gas supply contract with Russia. The US and EU said the case was politically motivated and called for her release, but when she was released in February 2014 after Yanukovych had fled Ukraine, protesters in Kyiv had put up posters equating her to Yanukovych.

Politically she looked down and out: she came a distant second to Poroshenko in the presidential election in spring 2014, and in autumn 2014, her party managed to obtain only 19 seats — 5.68 per cent of the vote — in parliament.

But she has clawed her way back into the running, using her charisma, her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party’s nationwide network and populist appeals. In particular she has campaigned against an increase in gas prices which puts Poroshenko and the government on the spot: gas tariffs for industry are now at world market levels but domestic tariffs are only half of that. The IMF is insisting they be raised as a condition for further financial assistance which Ukraine needs in order to avoid a foreign exchange crisis.

  • ii. Rating Group, August 2018

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Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on 8 September 2018. Photo Getty Images.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on 8 September 2018. Photo Getty Images.

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3. The friends of Russia will play their part.

One certainty is that Russia will use all its levers in Ukraine to try to influence the presidential election outcome. These include mass media, social media, disinformation, agents of influence and indeed friends in the presidential race. The main ones are:

Yuriy Boyko

The minister of energy and former deputy prime minister under Yanukovych, Boyko is a native of the Donetsk region and now leads the Opposition Bloc, the successor to the Party of Regions which was also Yanukovych’s political base.

Vadym Rabynovych

Rabynovych created the Za Zhyttya (For Life) party in 2016 as an alternative to the Opposition Bloc although he remains a member of its parliamentary group and is fishing in the same electoral pool in eastern and southern Ukraine. His messages are anti-West and pro-Russia and for ‘peace at any price’.

Viktor Medvedchuk

More intriguing than these frontmen is the return to public politics of Viktor Medvedchuk. He is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is godfather to his daughter, and he has been subject to US sanctions since March 2014.

In the absence of a Russian ambassador in Ukraine, Medvedchuk sometimes seems to perform this function: Putin ensured that Medvedchuk was involved ‘on the Ukrainian side’ in the trilateral contact group following up the Minsk agreements and he has been a key player in the negotiation of prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine. Medvedchuk is also a member of the Za Zhyttya party.

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Singer Svatoslav (Slava) Vakarachuk of the band Okean Elzy performs at the Avalon on 13 March 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Getty Images.
Singer Svatoslav (Slava) Vakarachuk of the band Okean Elzy performs at the Avalon on 13 March 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Getty Images.

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4. There are some newcomers on the scene.

Not all the contenders are familiar politicians however — two outsiders are among the front runners:

Volodymyr Zelensky

Zelensky is a popular television actor and comedian. In a hit series, Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu), he played a history teacher who became president after ranting against corrupt politicians. He has now set up a party with the same name but so far it exists in name only.

Svyatoslav (Slava) Vakarchuk

Vakarchuk is the gravelly-voiced lead singer in Ukraine’s most successful rock band, Okean Elzy, which he founded in Lviv in 1994. He and the band performed on stage in Independence Square during the ‘Orange Revolution’ and the ‘Revolution of Dignity’.

Vakarchuk is not just a rock star, however, he has a doctorate in physical and mathematical sciences and a degree in international economics. For a year from 2007 to 2008 he was also a member of parliament for Yushchenko’s ‘Our Ukraine’.

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Former Ukrainian defence minister, Anatoly Grytsenko, on 27 September 2006 in Tirana, Albania before the opening session of a meeting of defence ministers from southeastern Europe. Photo: Getty Images.
Former Ukrainian defence minister, Anatoly Grytsenko, on 27 September 2006 in Tirana, Albania before the opening session of a meeting of defence ministers from southeastern Europe. Photo: Getty Images.

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5. There are also some wild cards.

Anatoly Grytsenko

Grytsenko, who came ninth in the 2010 presidential race and fourth in 2014, is now second in the polls. Trained as a military aviation engineer, he spent 25 years in the armed forces and was defence minister from 2005 to 2007 under Yushchenko. He founded his party Civil Position in 2010. Elected to parliament in 2012 in third place on the Batkivshchyna list, by January 2014 he had left parliament after falling out with faction leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk. His supporters are mostly in western and central Ukraine.

Oleh Lyashko

Lyashko a former journalist, was in the parliamentary Yulia Tymoshenko bloc from 2006 to 2010 and founded the Radical Party in 2012. He spent his youth in an orphanage and three state boarding schools. From being a marginal figure, he came to prominence following the Ukraine crisis in 2014, fronting vigilante actions against separatists in the Donbas. He came third in the 2014 presidential election and his party won 22 parliamentary seats that year. There is suspicion, however, that his popularity has been boosted by Inter TV, owned by Serhiy Lyovochkin, former head of Yanukovych’s presidential administration, and Ukraina TV, owned by Ukraine’s richest man, Donbas magnate Rinat Akhmetov.

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A man reads his ballot while voting in a polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine on 2 November 2014. Photo: Getty Images.
A man reads his ballot while voting in a polling station in Donetsk, Ukraine on 2 November 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

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6. The key question will be how free and fair the elections will be.

[Lack of reform] will not impact the presidential election but is indicative of a reluctance to change the status quo.

Ukraine’s record is fairly good on this but there is definitely room for improvement. Despite strong civil society pressure and international encouragement, electoral reform has been sluggish. The media, especially television, is still dominated by channels owned by business tycoons and politicians. Moreover, the parliamentary electoral system has not been reformed.

Russian aggression against Ukraine will put a cap on support for pro-Russian candidates, as their voting base is confined to the east and south of the country and has reduced in size following the loss of government control over Crimea and part of the Donbas.

The question is whether public disenchantment with politicians will increase support for new and untested figures like Zelensky, Vakarchuk or even Lyashko. Or will voters opt for familiar faces in the shape of Tymoshenko or Poroshenko?

This article was written by Robert Brinkley who chairs the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House and the Ukrainian Institute London. He was British ambassador to Ukraine from 2002-06.