02 July 2019

Post-electoral Ukraine. A white paper and a president position

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

An expected earthquake; Ukraine is, starting today, a whole different country; A new country, but an old political class; Oligarchs’ brotherhood; A short story on the electoral campaign’s “magic” that did not even existed

Image source: Mediafax

An expected earthquake

The elections in Ukraine were won, categorically, by a former comedian actor (who, as some lousy people say, is not actually the same as an actor), Volodymyr Zelensky, after a democratic, open competition with an experienced politician, Petro Poroshenko. That the latter is also one of Ukraine’s oligarchs, an old fox in the Ukrainian political landscape, member of many of last two decades’ Ukrainian governments, even with different orientations, did not help him too much. Nor he had any advantage thanks to the fact that, five years ago, he got more votes in the first round, the only one, actually, against his current counter candidate Zelensky. Indeed, five years ago, Poroshenko had much more support than the new president has now. Because the first round is the one that reveals people’s trust. The second tour is a resettlement one, there are no more options, it's a dog-eat-dog situation. And five years ago, Poroshenko had 54.70% of the votes, compared to Zelensky's 30.24% at the 2019 elections.

At that time, Poroshenko was the first Ukrainian president elected in the first round. For the time being, he remains the only one.

But at the 21th of April elections, he lost big-time. Within some elections that followed international standards, these were quite balanced in terms of the electoral campaign and, in the end, Poroshenko, the president in office, admitted his defeat. There was some concern that the results could be disputed, as it sometimes happens for young democracies, and, as exceptional laws, can even be canceled. However, it did not happen.

The whole picture could be seen as idyllic if it would not hide some concerns. And, the first hint that something is wrong with the Ukrainian elections is that such a result should not be recorded within the elections of a solid democracy. Indeed, there are international examples of "outsiders", some actually famous and current, but at a close look we can see that differences are huge.

What happened shows the major changes developed over the past five years - but also the two previous decades - in a young country that preserved much of its old leadership systems, whose population aimed at a quick European integration, but whose political elite followed the same 30 years old tendencies.

This is how the last political earthquake happened within the last elections.


Ukraine is, starting today, a whole different country

And not comparing to the early 1990s, but even to 2014. There were many changes throughout this period, starting with the declaration of Ukraine's independency, following the 1st December 1991 referendum.

Strong, political, demographic, social changes. As we are talking about a post-electoral analysis, the first thing we must note is electoral geography’s change. This happened after Crimea’s annexation by Russia and, indirectly, the annexation of Eastern Donbas’s autonomous republics. Traditionally, Ukraine is a divided country between East and West, but previous choices have revealed that things are more complex. Western Ukraine is traditionally more attached to European values, as number has the minority, however it is winning through electoral discipline, while Eastern and Southern Ukraine, where the majority speaks Russian, and want to upkeep great relations with Russia, is more numerous, but circumspect in terms of electoral processes. In general, the latter has, in the end, more votes than in Western Ukraine.

After 2014, this perspective has changed. With Crimea’s annexation, the East lost two million potential voters. In Donbas’s two "republics", are also living somewhere between 2 and 3 million inhabitants, which adds another two million lost voters for Eastern Ukraine. There are also between 1 and 1.5 million refugees that have uncertain addresses, some living in Donbas, but registered in Ukraine, who cannot participate in elections due to complicated bureaucratic procedures. All in all, we can say that the total electoral loss was about 10%, mostly for the pro-Russian voters, which changes the electoral situation dramatically.

Another change came with the war. The Eastern Ukraine conflict was embraced by most Ukrainians as a war AGAINST Russia, a national cause, a patriotic goal. The electoral campaign could not resist it: Russia is an enemy, an aggressor. One can speak of peace, but cannot talk about cooperation with Moscow. The electorate was radicalized, including Russian language speakers. According to some studies, 80% of front line Ukrainian soldiers are Russian speakers. And yet, they fight for Ukraine.

The civil society is another important topic. Perhaps Ukrainian society’s most vibrant part is the civil society, emerged after the "orange revolution", still active after its collapse. In some "civilian" influences areas over the Ukrainian administration, they have made impressive progresses, for example, in terms of state procurement, which citizens can now track online. Election’s monitoring has also made progress. Even during the last five years of conflict, the civil society contributed a lot by creating massive volunteer defence movements, with groups that collect funds for weaponry and enlist the volunteers that want to fight.

Another important change is the new constitution, adopted in 2004, modified during President Yanukovych’s administration, a document that apparently promotes a semi-presidential model, but, in fact, is a parliamentary-presidential one. Constitutionally, the president has limited power and the prime minister only responds to parliament. The president cannot dismiss his prime minister or dissolve the parliament when he wishes. This situation’s consequences are:

- for a former Soviet country, is a circumvention from a rule, because, here, presidents are usually those who hold absolute power. But the perception, including in Ukraine, is that the president can do more than his actual position allows it. That is why the electoral promises have covered many areas wherein presidents have no responsibilities;

- President’s constitutional containment could be avoided by using power levers and procedural shortcuts. President Poroshenko, an experienced politician in Kiev, knew how to use or create loyalties that allowed him have a stronger presidential mandate than the constitutional provisions. He appointed reliable collaborators, of course, with Parliament’s approval, as Prime Minister, Governor of the National Bank, General Prosecutor.

Currently, most of Ukrainian parliament’s deputies belong to former President Poroshenko’s parliamentary group. Only some of these parliamentarians belong to a party, as most of them come from those who were directly elected (half of the Ukrainian parliament is theoretically composed of nominally voted parliamentarians).

President Poroshenko could force the constitution because he had the personality and experience argumenr, but this is not a common law. It depends on who is in office.

But, all in all, Ukraine remains a country to have a balanced political system, which is somehow at odds with state’s current functioning. What the constitution provides is not necessarily what Ukrainian politicians can do.

Another of the new Ukrainian reality’s important element is mass emigration. The no-visa travel possibility, including in the Schengen area, for a limited time, led to massive emigration of Ukrainian citizens. Without having a recent census’s data (the one that should have happened back in 2010 was postponed for 2020), we cannot but estimate Ukraine’s population. Ukraine’s population is, officially, about 42 million inhabitants (of course, after eliminating Crimea), but there are also voices saying that Ukrainian citizens’ number is, in fact, 36 million. This raises many speculations on voters’ number, on how to make voters’ lists, etc. Beyond electoral estimations, there is this idea of Ukraine’s de-population, a common phenomenon for other Eastern Europe states, including Romania. And those who leave the country, are those who are easier to adapt, work more, produce more efficiently and want the right income.

2019’s Ukraine is a whole new country, a lot different than the one which became independent in 1991.


A new country, but an old political class

The recent election campaign has revealed the continuity of three decades of legacy, in terms of political class. There were 44 candidates enlisted for the presidential election, five of them retired, 39 continued. Only some of them were new figures for the political scene, hence, they disappeared during the election campaign. Even the comedy actor candidate, Volodymyr Zelensky, is not a new political figure. His ties with various Ukrainian oligarchs made him a member of a conservative political reality. Of course, his true links are inside the Ukrainian media, but his business connections are also extremely important. His known connections with billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, are notorious and represent a political ballast the Ukrainian president starts his mandate with.

Hereof, one can say that in Ukraine’s second round of elections, have participated a representative of the conservative political elite and a one of the conservative media elite.

That is why the result favors the whole existing political system, rooted in Ukraine’s political life for three decades, and what has happened is not but an apparent victory of a fresh and enthusiastic independent.

Ukraine’s reforms have an interesting feature: they have NEVER reached the point where they cannot be canceled, reforms’ reversibility. Even decentralization, a successful reform, is a deceptive one. The new legislation on local autonomy works concurrently with a law adopted during the Soviet Union, in 1981. And this is seen as one of the successful reforms.

Another interesting reform is one referring to the electoral system. The current situation, wherein half of Council’s deputies are elected on lists and half by uninominal vote, is totally defective. Parties cannot ideologically be separated within a framework wherein half of the deputies are elected on different, ussually financial, criteria. Law’s change attempts have been made, but have failed to pass the parliamentary procedures. Most likely, this will continue in the following period also, because this legislation allows post-electoral maneuvers that are somewhere on the edge of the law.

Interior Ministry’s field is quite reformed, as the traffic control activity suffered the biggest changes. But, in the other areas, nothing special happened.

Alike in other parts also, combating corruption has been a standard wherefore many structures have been created:

- an anti-corruption office within Ukraine’s General Prosecutor;

- a national anti-corruption fight office in Ukraine;

- a national committee for corruption prevention;

- an anti-corruption court;

- an anticorruption appeal court;

Corruption is still there, but these structures were presented as pro-fight structures against negative phenomena in Ukrainian society.

They also tries to reform the judicial system, but things are uncertain. In fact, the more appropriate definition would be that the old system is still well represented. 60% of the the 337 judges who issued criminal prosecution for Maidan protestors, in 2014, are still in office. As for the Home Affairs Ministry, only 8% of those who were removed for illegal actions, during the same period, were fired, perhaps half of them returning to work after judicial decisions.

It is also interesting that a number of Ukrainian reformists, especially from the economic sector, members of previous governments, but also when the regime changed, have been removed.


Oligarchs’ brotherhood

But even if reformists left, oligarchs are still here. Any political project requiring funding needs them, no other option being available. Political-financial systems have the power, again, of course with different landmarks, people and centers of power comparing to President Yanukovych’s administration period, but following the same functioning logic. An example is the "Rotterdam Plus" system. A formula for estimating coal’s price, including all commissions and funds’ "leakage" , has led to Ukrainian consumer paying the coal that is being exploited only a few tens or hundreds of kilometers away, as if it had been purchased from an anchor in Rotterdam’s port. The price difference is 300%. Some media sources are saying that one of the richest Ukrainians, Rinat Akhmetov, is involved in this economic and financial scheme. We are talking about the same oligarch who, when the Easter Ukraine conflict started, seemed to have had financial problems, after losing some companies located in the territories taken over by the rebels, but who, according to Forbes, in the few years of conflict, "rounded off" his incomes, from $ 2.3 billion to $ 6 billion.

We can hardly believe that the former president, Poroshenko, also member of Ukraine’s small rich men club, did not knew how the system works and which are its benefits. The public opinion, materialized at the president elections, shows it quite clear.

In order to continue to be part of rich and powerful men’s circle, they must have multiple available resources. We are not talking only about money, but a system of financial - economic connections and the media, for protection. The top four media owners in Ukraine, of course oligarchs, have media outlets that provide 85% of the information available in domestic media market. These are: Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk, Igor Kolomoskyi, Dmytro Firtash. These are Ukrainian television channels, which continue to dominate information providers’ top. Most people prefer this kind of information, as Internet’s use does not have a strong voice when it comes to public information. President Poroshenko also owns a television channel, but not a very popular post. He is not part of the four who divide the Ukrainian media market. This cost him, perhaps, elections’ loss.

Media played an extremely important role within the recent elections, and the fact that most media did not support President Poroshenko was decisive for elections’ result.

Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries, having the 120th position in public perceptions’ ranking of internal corruption levels, however smaller since previous and more severe "performances" (152th in 2011). 2019 may bring Ukraine among "performers", thanks to the fact that, not long ago, the Constitutional Court rejected the law that allowed those illegally enriched remain accountable. The stake is the 65 heavy cases against public figures who cannot justify their possessions, cases which needs to be closed, relying on the presumption of innocence. Unjustified enrichment no longer needs to be justified. Western pressures, particularly through diplomats accredited in Kiev, had no results.

The system continues to work following old influence systems, and Ukraine remain trapped there, despite all the revolutions that took place over the last three decades of recent history and the hopes the people had in providential, presidential elections.

Hence, the strong public distrust in the Ukrainian institutions, presidency, government, parliament, justice, reached a constant level of 65 - 80% distrust, except for one, the army. Ukrainian volunteers, now part of the national military system, have a special place in the army.

The Ukrainian society trusts itself, not the Ukrainian state. That's why the recent election campaign has raise a real political earthquake, by voting a new figure, related to a new system, which replaces the current one.

A short story on the electoral campaign’s “magic” that did not even existed

The fact that there was no massive fraud within this electoral campaign, and not even the usual votes’ buying, happened mostly thanks to the effective Home Affairs Ministry situation, Arsen Avakov, in an independent position, a re-orientation symptom of some of the Ukrainian elite. Most likely, also thanks to a personal estimation, a favorable positioning to his mandate’s continuation and under the new presidential administration.  

Volodymyr Zelensky outsider’s electoral campaign was unexampled in the Ukrainian political life. It was a campaign without a campaign. Zelensky refused public speeches, TV interviews, and even a dialogue with voters. From time to time, his campaign staff issued an electoral message, a sentence, more often just a sentence.

Any dialogue would have revealed that during the electoral campaign, Zelensky was still an actor, with no political speech, no political agenda, no prospect of what he would do if he would win the election, no political team able of solving political problems, not just because of the image. His team’s only program was: "These people have to leave. We need a new team." And his PR team was excellent in keeping him out of any electoral debate. Less, however, in the final stage, at a meeting at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, where the  showmen Zelensky was comfortable, while the experienced politician Poroshenko could not escape the image of the post-Soviet apparatchik.
For observers who stayed out of elections’ tensions, it was quite clear that Zelensky had no political statements.

But this did not matter when the voting day came. Those who voted for him, did it for so different reasons, having very different political orientations, with a single unifying element: the new president must offer extraordinary solutions. Be something else. A look at the Ukrainian electoral map shows that the East - West division has disappeared, Zelensky gaining also in pro - Russian regions and in the area seen as Ukrainian nationalist (with a few exceptions).

Is this a unifying vote for Ukraine?

The answer would rather be… NO.

And YES, this vote challenges the current Ukrainian elite.

Unifying different political, antagonistic options, identifying consensus lines could be, however, a too high bridge for the young actor who will have to play Ukrainian president character without a written script, but surrounded by many directors on stage.

Translated by Andreea Soare