EU should prevent any disruption of Ukrainian elections

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ukrainian showman, comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy leaves a voting booth with his ballot paper at a polling station in Kiev, Ukraine, 31 March 2019. [Stepan Franko/EPA/EFE]

Incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s supporters are trying to portray opponent Volodymyr Zelenskiy as pro-Russian. But there is no evidence of his “pro-Russianness”, and he has explicitly backed plans to join NATO and the EU, writes Oleg Sukhov.

Oleg Sukhov is a reporter at the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s leading English-language newspaper.

The basic rule of liberal democracy is: if you failed to govern wisely, you’re out.

Re-electing for a second term a ruler who has failed to deliver on his promises is tantamount to giving him or her the carte blanche to do whatever they want and usurp power.

That was one of the reasons behind the choice of most Ukrainians in the first round of the presidential election on 31 March: only 15.95% voted for incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, and 30.24 percent backed comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

According to a poll by the KMIS agency, Zelenskiy and Poroshenko will receive 72% and 25% in the 21 April run-off, respectively.

There are legitimate concerns about Zelenskiy too – especially his ties to oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.

However, one of the positive things that differentiate Ukraine from Russia is the tradition of regularly replacing governments and presidents, which gives Ukraine a window of opportunity that may or may not be used. There are concerns that a president re-elected for a second term may break that tradition and turn Ukraine into an authoritarian copy of Russia.

Anti-corruption promises

Despite the clear signal that voters sent to him, Poroshenko is still clinging to power and is reluctant to admit his defeat.

On 6 April, Poroshenko met with several anti-corruption activists in an apparent effort to woo civil society and the West before the run-off.

Anti-corruption agenda has been a key factor for Europe in its attempt to create a stable outpost of democracy on its eastern borders.

But Poroshenko’s promises to re-launch the stagnant anti-corruption agenda are worthless: he has sabotaged anti-graft reforms for years, and his allies have been investigated and charged in corruption cases.

It would be very naïve for Europe to believe him now. This is obviously just a last-ditch attempt to fool Ukrainians and the West into believing him and save his political fortunes as his chances of victory in the election are evaporating.

Stance on Russia

Another sales pitch that Poroshenko is using to curry favor with Europe and the United States is what he presents as his staunch anti-Kremlin stance.

Poroshenko’s supporters are also trying to portray Zelenskiy as pro-Russian. In fact, there is no evidence of his “pro-Russianness”, and he has explicitly backed plans to join NATO and the EU.

Meanwhile, Poroshenko’s anti-Russian stance turns out to be as dubious as his anti-corruption promises.

Poroshenko was a co-founder of the pro-Russian Party of Regions and a minister under pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych’s government.

He has enjoyed close business and political ties with Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine, as well as with pro-Russian politician Yuriy Boyko and oligarchs behind the pro-Russian Party of Regions – Serhiy Lyovochkin, Dmytro Firtash and Rinat Akhmetov.

That’s why a view of Poroshenko as the “pro-Western” alternative to “pro-Russian” Zelenskiy, which is widespread in Europe, is misguided and incorrect.

War profiteering

Ironically, Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin need each other as two sides of the same coin.

Both Poroshenko and Putin need to keep the war in the Donbas going. Putin needs it to destabilize Ukraine and have a tool of influence on it.

As the Ukrainian people are bearing the brunt of halting Russian aggression, Poroshenko is using the war to stay in power ad infinitum, arguing that the government should not be replaced in wartime. He is also using Russia as a scarecrow and as an excuse for corruption, the sabotage of reforms and human rights violations.

Poroshenko’s allies are also profiteering from supplies to the military. It is a net profit for Putin and Poroshenko and a net loss for the Ukrainian people – for patriots who are defending their homeland from Russian invaders.

In February the Nashi Hroshi investigative show exposed a multimillion dollar corruption scheme allegedly spearheaded by Oleg Gladkovsky, a top ally of Poroshenko. The scheme involved the smuggling of used parts for military equipment from Russia and selling them to Ukrainian defense companies.

Moreover, Poroshenko’s Ukraine and Putin’s Russia share one system of government – kleptocracy, although Ukraine is still much more democratic. And Russia needs a kleptocratic Ukraine because it is weak and unstable.

Unfortunately either Poroshenko or Putin may try to escalate the situation on the front before the run-off – for Poroshenko it could be a way to boost support. It is in the interest of Europe to prevent such a dangerous scenario on its borders.

Co-opting EU leaders

Presenting himself as the only bulwark against Russian aggression, Poroshenko is trying to ensure European support for his re-election.

He has talked to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk, who congratulated Poroshenko with getting into the run-off. Both Poroshenko and Zelenskiy have also met with French President Emmanuel Macron.

This could be an attempt by Poroshenko to co-opt the EU to make sure that it doesn’t notice potential violations during the 21 April run-off.

Voting fraud

The police is already investigating Poroshenko’s alleged $56-million vote buying scheme, whose existence is denied by the president. The police has also opened criminal cases into alleged vote rigging in favor of Poroshenko in Donetsk Oblast.

Vote buying and vote rigging combined could have given Poroshenko enough votes to get into the second round.

The difference between Poroshenko and the third most popular candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko, was only 2.55%. Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko argues that vote buying alone could have given Poroshenko up to 5 percentage points nationwide.

Europe should focus on ensuring that there is no voting fraud in the second round. Any doubt about the legitimacy of the Ukrainian election would be beneficial for the Kremlin and disastrous for Europe.

However, the authorities may also use another trick: Poroshenko’s campaign has failed to nominate enough election commission members in the run-up to the second round, triggering concerns that the election may be disrupted. Europe should make sure that election commissions are formed properly.

If the election is disrupted, chaos will ensue.

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