12 June 2019

The final round of the Ukrainian battle. Russia’s interference.

Cristian Eremia

The final electoral battle round from Ukraine ended with predictable results that now everybody is aware of: Volodymyr Zelensky got the first place, with around 31% of the votes, followed by the effective president, Petro Poroshenko, with 16%.

Image source: Mediafax

Zelensky, the comedy artist, had support from almost all regions and all electorate’s age groups[1]. President Poroshenko had a great nationalist-patriotic campaign, extremely attractive, which helped him fix his reputation. Unlike Zelensky, he did not use all his potential to gain advantage in canvass, already enjoying a favorable position. Hence, Poroshenko became, again, a difficult-to-defeat enemy in front of his young runner up Zelensky.

Consequently, 21th of April, will be the day the second ballot tour will be held, but also the day of the final round for Kiev’s presidential chair. The planning is in full swing for the decisive round, everyone calling on the confrontation between the new-populism, promoted by Zelensky, and the nationalist-patriotic conservative program, proposed by Poroshenko.

These electoral battles may actually divide Ukraine, once more, in two camps, regardless of the expected backstage games to be deployed in such short time.

Crisscross electoral tactics

Before the second tour, both candidates will try to develop a more competitive electoral campaign, a hard one and that will have no unjustified limits. It all comes from the fact the first ballot tour indicated a 63,5% participation at the vote, comparing to the 2014 one, which proves that the Ukrainian society is aware of the turning point Ukraine passes through right now. It is also noteworthy that in the Western region, Lvov, at the border with Poland, were the most responsible voters (around 69%), which is actually the only region Poroshenko walked away with the votes. The smallest number of voters was recorded, surprisingly, in Transcarpathia region (47%), smaller even than the unoccupied area of Lugansk. Obviously, the territories occupied by separatist from Donbass could not vote, alike the 2014 elections.

OSCE’s conclusions were that democratic elections’ fundamental liberties were respected[2] and the first tour of the elections was developed in normal conditions. Without even questioning the validity of the first tour, there are some suspicions over abuses on the elections’ day, like buying votes, breaching the vote counting procedures or using some questionable electoral campaign tools.  However, we expect Poroshenko’s to consider also that the opposition will do anything to stop him from winning, even by organizing violent protests on the streets. Those who want to take down Poroshenko will not stop from using any contrivances or conspiracy to get what they want.

Zelensky’s electorate blamed the “guilty system” for everything that went wrong in Ukraine in the past years. This electoral campaign proved that Zelensky is a successful man, which has a strongly populist speech. Specialists are saying that leading such a campaign must have wasted all Zelenisky’s resources, so his team should probably come up with new methods to deal with the electoral campaign.

This is how the common debate from 19th of April, to be held in a big public arena, the Olympic Stadium from Kiev, emerged. Poroshenko said yes to this proposal, being aware that he could be bogged down by Zelensky, who has a great heterogeneous audience, in the detriment of a serious and dedicated dialogue (it is a premiere because even the electoral law call on a common debated held in a TV studio). In order to successfully use the opportunity to have a classic confrontation, Poroshenko conditioned his participation on a common debate in a state TV studio, with a small audience, for 19th of April, wherefore Zelensky did not give his approval as I am writing down this article. The comedy artist knows that he could be even “panned” by Poroshenko in such circumstances, even considering all the image and percentages that could be lost.

Hence, Zelensky seems to be ok with a campaign to upkeep his first tour percentage difference, though associated with some arrangements with the already defeated candidates. If it is true that the oligarch Kolomoisky, his sponsor, is also friend with Iulia Timoshenko[3], then a possible deal would direct her electorate towards Zelensky, in exchange of a promise that he will assign her as prime-minister after the parliamentary elections, in autumn. She already announced that she wants performance at the parliamentary elections, however, she is officially denying, for now, any political support for one of the candidates. The same things should work for I. Boyko and A. Gritenko’s electorates (that had the fourth and fifth places) and, if the first tour’s percentages will remain the same, then Zelensky may actually win these presidential elections.

Also, he can use Timoshenko’s accusatory rhetoric against Poroshenko (according to which the president, charged for corruption, destroyed the country from an economic perspective, but also in terms of the relation with Russia etc.). Or he may use an ace he might have in the hole, something well prepared by Poroshenko’s enemies, although it should be something really strong to succeed in estranging his electorate from him. Anyway, there is no more time for jokes for the comedy artist- he is facing a strong and dangerous enemy, that he will not defeat but through proper tactics.

Poroshenko will also have to change his tactics, used in the first tour, in order to get some more percentages. Even though it will be difficult, he does not seem to be scared with the situation, especially that similar somersaults have been happening in Western states, close to Ukraine, not long ago. The stake is extremely high for Poroshenko as well. There are some voices in Russia[4] saying that forces from Ukraine that want revenge will do anything to make Poroshenko pay with his own freedom if we will not remain on the presidential chair. Hereof, Poroshenko uses tactical elements to estrange his runner up from the electorate:

- He is developing an extremely active campaign, with tours, alike the ones he did last month. Furthermore, as he railroaded through things in the first tour, he will probably use[5] his both candidate and president position to law’s limits.

- he will continue to systematically and item by item discredit Zelensky, using simple arguments to show that he is only a “cheap populist”, with no experience or competence in state’s internal or foreign policies, country’s leadership and security structures, state’s representation in international relations or one to support Ukraine’s interests. He could also make some references to his sponsor, the one who’s eager for revenge oligarch, Kolomoisky.

- He will continue to repeat that Zelensky became Moscow’s tool and Ukraine does not need him to get rid of the “aggressor state”, adding that, for Putin, Zelenisky would definitely be a “clear victim”, which would be a real disaster for Ukraine. Poroshenko will not miss the chances (also support by Western estimations) to publicly show that Zelensky’s presidency would be a catastrophe for Ukraine’s security, prosperity and statehood.

- on the other hand, Poroshenko might use also his accomplishments in the confrontation with Moscow, like the successful operation “The Wall”, by which it is built a consolidation fence of the Russian-Ukrainian border from Lugansk.

-Poroshenko will definitely do anything possible to maintain the support of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but also to get the support of other minorities’ churches, like the catholic one, extended in west of the state.

Indeed, the electorate is still polarized, some Ukrainian analytical and political circles already saying that Zelensky is going to win over Poroshenko, who already said goodbye to his electoral campaign after first tour’s failure.

On the other hand, there were some evolutions, in the last week that could redirect Zelensky’s electorate a lot. UE expressed its concerns on the political profile of the artist and its sincere will to support Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The West knows Poroshenko really well, meanwhile Zelensky did not do anything to convince the West on his plans as chief of the state. Zelensky is Moscow’s favorite, but Kremlin already warned him to not ask Moscow to comply with Minsk Agreement’s provisions, because Russia is not part of the Donbass conflict. Also, Zelensky will not be able to avoid clarifying his position on the Russian language forever, the relation with Moscow or the Donbass conflict. Furthermore, once the campaign will be over, he will have to talk about his plans as president, and then it will be clear for many of the voters that a no-compromises Poroshenko is better than an incompetent Zelensky who has different interests that its nation’s ones.

Russia’s interferences

Kiev’s authorities and the important Ukrainian political circles have permanently warned, even long before the start of the electoral campaign and the scrutiny, about Russia’s possible interference in the elections, offering the Ukrainian society, in time, all the needed examples. There were also recorded various Russian cyber-attacks over the critical Ukrainian infrastructures and the Central Electoral Commission’s systems, as well as Moscow’s systematic disinformation and manipulation campaigns over the Ukrainian citizens through social media. Pressures and influences over the population continued in different regions in Ukraine, mostly in East of the territory.

Consequently, electorate’s central manipulation and massive disinformation is an explanation for the particularities of votes’ results in those regions, especially in those inhabited by Russian ethnical minorities, but also others. The cyber-attacks were centered on distorting the electoral process. The dimension of these cyber-attack was not a spectacular one, as the Ukrainian authorities thought these were well covered, hereof the lack of reasons to record the Russian interferences over the serious electoral shortcomings and problems.

Specialists in issues regarding the Russian foreign interference in Ukraine’s elections are showing that, all in all, there was no major support coming from the Russian part to certain candidates, neither a firm nor systematical opposition against any candidate. Except for Poroshenko, who is definitely NOT accepted by Moscow for a dialogue, but that was not something new for the West.

However, the Russian interferences in Ukraine’s electoral process should have had some particularities, given the Russian economic interests for this country. And this tactical adaptation was made especially to make the Russian actions be more effective and, especially, to not have any side effects over the goals these were deployed for. Hence, elections’ observers could notice that Moscow mostly focused on the electoral process. Given these circumstance, we should not forget that Russia also can influence the parliamentary elections from Ukraine, another important electoral process, wherein the Russian influence leverages could be used on a large scale, with smaller risks and bigger opportunities.

Across this electoral scrutiny, the Russian officials, Moscow’s different representatives (especially Putin’s press secretary) and from other Russian interest circles, have chosen to interfere directly, to the fore, sending short political messages, clear and to the point for the Ukrainian electorate. The target of all the direct messages was, and is also during the period between both ballots, estranging Poroshenko’s electorate:

- official messages are showing that the Russian president would want to have a constructive dialogue, on real issues, with the Ukrainian president, except for cases wherein the Ukrainian part would try to “challenge and make diversions”, but only after the presidential elections, directly suggesting that they cannot have a real conversation with the effective president. Russia is interested in a dialogue with the new president, but “it is important for the victory to be fair… Recent events make us think of the worst” (prime-minister D. Medvedev).

-Being an intra-Ukrainian conflict, Moscow has permanently encouraged the dialogue between Kiev and the new power from separatists’ region, but this will not happen because of Poroshenko.

- Moscow is ready to “explain to any Ukrainian that Russia does not occupy any territory”, and the “occupation” or “annexation” is being inappropriately used in Ukraine. As for Crimea, Kremlin clarified once more, given the electoral context, that this issue is closed “forever”. The insistencies on these issues are proving Poroshenko’s electoral political rhetoric.

- The analytical circles supported by Moscow are suggesting, during the electoral process, that “without Russia the Donbass issue cannot be solved”, bringing the war threat in the forefront, and the Ukrainian society is extremely tired and scared. They are insisting on the fact that Russia wants to have a dialogue with any Ukrainian politician, but NOT Poroshenko. If Poroshenko wins and starts a new offensive in Donbass, “Russia will introduce troops and will divide Ukraine”, which will put an end to Kiev’s regime.

- There are information coming from Russian according to which Poroshenko will not be play fairly and he will use all available administrative resources to win. Additionally, the Russian senator A. Puskov stated that, especially in the second tour, Poroshenko will use many interpolations. The Russian mass-media is claiming the same things, presenting the Ukraine’s electoral process as being unfair, falsified by candidates “depending on the West”, especially on the US, meaning Poroshenko.

However, with all of the above, the second tour of the presidential elections may still witness some special interferences, like a military challenge against Kiev. The only candidate that can actually take advantage on Moscow’s interference policies and messages is Zelensky, who “accepted in the interest of peace” to have a personal dialogue with Putin, ensuring the Ukrainians that he will make no compromises. In a recent public meeting, Poroshenko also accepted, theoretically, that he will have to negotiate peace with Moscow, however a “cold peace”.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] According to a survey’s results, 57% of the voters, ages between 18 and 29, voted for Zelenisky in the first presidential elections tour, and 45% of the voters with ages between 30 and 39 and 36% with ages between 40 and 49 years. Petro Poroshenko, the effective president, had 14% from voters with ages between 18 and 29, 17% from 30 to 39 years and 18,5% from 40 to 49 years.

[3] But Kolomoisky’s stake is also huge, because if Zelenisky wins the presidential elections, then this oligarch could come back to Ukraine and get his confiscated assets and honor back. / https://riss.ru/events/58921/

[4] Even risking to be subjected to paragraph 5.4 of OSCE’s Document provisions, from Copenhagen. The tendency to systematically use public institutions and their personnel was also noticed by the international elections’ observation missions, whose intervention limited the use of these tactics;

[5] https://ru.krymr.com/a/ukrainskie-vybory-i-vmeshatelstvo-rossii/29819906.html.