By Flavio Previtali
On March 28th, 2019 the International Institute for Peace organized together, with the Karl-Renner-Institut, the Competence Centre for Black Sea Region and EURAS/University of Vienna an event on the upcoming Presidential elections in Ukraine. The panel discussion was moderated by Jutta Sommerbauer, a Journalist from „die Presse“ and featured the participation of Alexander Dubowy, Centre for Eurasian Studies at the University of Vienna; Nadiia Koval, Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism"; Johannes Leitner, Head of the Competence Center for Black Sea Region Studies, Vienna; Alena Lunyova, Human Rights Information Centre, Kiyv and Hannes Swoboda, President of the International Institute for Peace and former MEP (S&D Group), Vienna.
The discussion took place a couple of days before the first round of Presidential elections which saw Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 42 years old comedian, gaining the first place with a surprisingly 30%. He will go to the run-off vote with Poroshenko, the outgoing President, who scored 16%. Yulia Timoshenko, former Prime Minister, didn’t make it to the 2nd round, scoring only 13% but she challenged the exit poll accuracy and said she may contest the final result. In this context, the panelists tackled a series of issues such as human rights, the role of civil society, the conflict with Russia and Ukraine’s political and economic future.
A first issue tackled was, in fact, the unpredictability of the competition. Until the result was made public no one could really tell for sure who will made it to the second round. A well-known survey gave Poroshenko around 22%, this was later proved to be wrong. As in many other European countries, the number of undecided voters (for whom to vote and if at all take part in the elections) was a large majority. This made predictions even more difficult. When coming to the characteristics of the electoral campaign, the panelists explained, that for the first time, all three major candidates have the same approach towards foreign policy, they all are pro-European. However, Poroshenko declared his intention to apply for EU and NATO membership by 2023, while the other two candidates are quite vague about contents and approaches in their policies. A second major issue for the electoral campaign is the relation with Russia, especially in the context of the war in Eastern Ukraine and following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 by Russia. The scenario is very peculiar. 70% of the population think that the conflict should be settled but then the public opinion is fragmented about how to end it. The result of this is a very vague approach from all three candidates. A third relevant aspect of the campaign concerns reforms, which are a key difference between the candidates. Timoshenko promises a very strong welfare state with pensions, health care, higher salaries and lower gas prices. Zelensky, on the contrary, doesn’t really promise anything, playing on his image of a new politician, a new face in politics, which seems to be desired by the Ukrainian population. He offered a very personal approach, “seat with Putin and look each other in the eyes”, to solve the crisis with Russia.
The panel discussion moved to the questions of the fulfillment of human rights and freedom of speech. Alena Lunyova pointed out the issue of censorship, which deeply affected the electoral campaign. In fact, a large majority of Ukrainian people rely on TV channels for information. This means that the ones who have better access and control to this media (the top three candidates in this case) have a bigger chance to influence the public. The TV channels are all owned by different oligarchs who are supporting different candidates. In this context, it is interesting the situation of Kolomosky, who is supporting both Timoschenko and Zelensky. Another aspect concerns self-censorship. In this case, journalists apply self-censorship on issues which they perceive as too controversial or risky to tackle, such as for example crimes committed by veterans. Moreover, censorship is pressed by public authorities and channels’ owners, which in the attempt to fight Russian propaganda ended up in interfering with the investigative activities of journalists. An additional level of threats against freedom of speech is the physical attack against journalists, which in 2018 reached the number of 135. These attacks often come along with the lack of protection from the public authorities and are followed by impunity
When coming to the economic aspect, it is possible to highlight some trends in Ukraine’s economy which characterized the last 5-6 years. Despite the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the east, the country managed to overcome a very serious financial crisis. Ukraine also managed to attract huge international investors such as Ikea which is a positive signal. On the other hand, Johannes Leitner pointed out that there are a series of problems to overcome. For example, a special guarantee was made to Ikea about logistics and protection of the investments. This highlights that there might be problems and that such a guarantee could not be applied to small or medium industries. In this sense, Ukraine’s main problem is its characterization as a captured state, where a small elite concentrates power and wealth in its hands. This can undermine all the efforts made on anti-corruption and is a relevant issue for the upcoming elections. Interestingly enough, when entrepreneurs were asked about what they consider as a major threat to their activities, they refer much more to the internal situation rather than to the conflict with Russia, even though the narrative in the last years within Ukraine has been the opposite – everything is to be seen in light of Russian interference in Ukraine`s affairs
From economic concerns, the discussion changed perspective from an internal one into the external sight of the European Union. Hannes Swoboda tried to explain what the concerns and expectations from an EU perspective on the Presidential elections in Ukraine are. When looking at the three main candidates, it is difficult to see a concrete vision for a change in society. Timoshenko proposes so many social benefits that her program could be described as a “book of dreams”. In this sense, the most likely scenario is that nothing becomes true. On the other hand, Zelensky is unclear about what he wants for the country. Swoboda looks at the civil society as a valuable space where real change for the country could come from. In this situation, which does not forecast any of the candidates to push for a true and serious social change, it is easier and safer from an EU perspective to deal with the already known. Moreover, a second term for Poroshenko would mean no changes in the foreign policy towards Russia. This would be something also welcomed from the Kremlin. Alexander Dubowy stated that Russia, in fact, prefers to deal with pragmatic and predictable politicians.
In the Q&A session, a series of questions were raised on different issues such as the situation of small-medium industries in the country, North stream II and migration. The panelists explained that the Ukrainian economy is still largely based on oligarchs and mostly focused on raw materials. A few signs of diversifications are visible in the west of the country, where the information and technology sectors are flourishing. This is also connected with migration. So far there are data of about 1.5 million Ukraine citizens working in Poland, but it is interesting to notice that this is mostly a circular migration. People move to Poland for a certain period and then moving back to Ukraine. When it comes to North Stream II – which has been strongly advocated against by the Ukrainian politicians - the panelists highlighted both, the economic and political aspects of the project. But when looking from a Ukrainian perspective, it is clearly a political and security issue. To lose its strategic position as main transit point for gas from Russia to the EU, would, in fact, open the possibility for further aggressive steps on the country.
The Presidential election competition will now move to the run-off, which will take place on April 21st. It will see the confrontation between two very different models and persons. Zelensky, on one side, has an unclear program and uses his image as a man of the people, a new face, honest, who will work for the people. He has strong support from the south, the region where he comes from and he is a Russian speaker. On the other side there is the outgoing President Poroshenko, a pragmatic and realist politician, who has ruled the country in the last five years obtaining visa liberalization and signed the association agreement with the EU. He depicts Russia as the main threat and claims for EU and NATO membership.
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