Election in Ukraine: Don’t Expect Warming in Relations with Russia

From the presidential election in Ukraine, one should not expect a significant warming in Russian-Ukrainian relations, writes Valdai Club expert Mikhail Pogrebinsky, Director of the Kiev Centre for Political Studies and Conflictology.

Until December 18, 2018, it was assumed that the second round of elections would be between Yulia Tymoshenko, who had led in the polls for months, and current president Petro Poroshenko, whose rating improved during the race. Both of these politicians represent shades of the “party of war”, so there was absolutely no reason to expect the race to become heated. There was special motivation to take part in the elections for residents of south-eastern Ukraine, most of whom are focused on improving relations with the Russian Federation.

Then the “dark horse” candidate, comedian Vladimir Zelensky, cantered in. The popular Russian-speaking comic actor, a native of the industrial east of the country, not only declared his readiness to participate in the presidential elections, but allegedly did so with the backing of the odious oligarch Igor Kolomoysky on 1 + 1 TV, which the latter owns. He announced his candidacy, wishing everyone a happy new year and challenging Poroshenko. It took only a month for Zelensky to outperform the other presidential candidates in the polls, which he parlayed into victory on election day. It was predicted that he would easily win the first round, and this has happened. The only surprise during the first round of elections was the extraordinary turnout of voters in the southeast of the country, which allowed Zelensky to not only win, but win with a “crushing score”. Before these elections, voter turnout in the west and centre of the country had usually been higher than in the southeast. However, Zelensky did not just outperform all of the other candidates in the southeast regions, he did so throughout the country, except in the three western regions of Galicia. He won in 20 out of 25 regions, but harvested the most votes in the southeast. An analysis of Zelensky’s election programme and his few comments during the campaign do not give reason to expect a thaw in relations with Moscow. But when compared with the other two potential winners – Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, Zelensky was far more dovish. 

Another election day surprise caused many to rethink the pessimistic picture of expectations regarding a possible warming in relations between Moscow and Kiev. Yuriy Boyko, once a member of the old “Party of Regions” clan garnered about 12% of the vote, only slightly less than Tymoshenko (13.5%) and Poroshenko (16%); he positioned himself as a spokesman for industrial Russian-speaking southeast.

Viktor Medvedchuk, who has the reputation of being the most pro-Russian politician in Ukraine, was unsuccessful in his attempt to reach an agreement on the nomination of a single candidate from the South-East, because of the position of the nation’s top oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. He categorically refused to support Yuriy Boyko, who had the highest rating among the possible candidates from the southeast. Akhmetov bet instead on the Yanukovych-era governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Alexander Vilkul (who got about 4.5%).

The results of the vote in the first round give reason to presume there is a very high probability that Boyko would have made it to the second round (instead of Poroshenko) if the oligarchs had united in backing Boyko’s candidacy. If this plan of Medvedchuk had succeeded, the public atmosphere in the country would have changed very significantly. A competition in the second round between two Russian-speaking candidates – one, moderately pro-European (Zelensky), and the other distinctly pro-Russian (this was precisely how Boyko was perceived, especially after his visit to Moscow with Medvedchuk and meeting with Prime Minister Medvedev) put an end to the legend that the “Ukrainian people is united in its desire to join NATO."

It is difficult to overestimate how radically the atmosphere in Ukraine would have changed, had such candidates entered the second round. Alas, this did not happen, and the prospects for improving relations with Moscow with an almost guaranteed victory for Zelensky look more than vague. Given that the influence of the West (especially the USA) on the Ukrainian political and economic elites substantially exceeds the influence of Russia, the forecast is rather negative. Nevertheless, there is hope that the era of Maidan politicians dominating Ukraine is coming to an end.

Regarding the settlement of the Donbass confrontation, I adhere to the opinion that without a détente in relations between Russia and the West, no progress is to be expected. A détente is unlikely to happen without this very settlement. So, there are no illusions. If the conflict is frozen to some extent, this can be considered as a success. The main thing is to stop shooting.

Elections in Ukraine: Who Will Be the Worst President for Russia?
Oleg Barabanov
Sociologically, the success of Zelensky in the first round fits well with the social fatigue of the “old elites” observed in many other European countries and the disappointment of citizens in the current political system. Therefore, any bright new face and the use of populist mechanisms in a pre-election strategy leads to the outsider, initially, quickly gaining support and achieving success. This approach worked well in Ukraine.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.