Ukraine will hold a countrywide presidential election on 25 May, followed by a second round of voting on 15 June should no candidate achieve an outright majority. The election will not only proceed amid major political upheaval in the country, precipitated by the 22 February 2014 ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, but also comes amid increasing insecurity in eastern Ukraine where armed groups continue to defy the country’s interim leadership and menace its armed forces. As such, the election is not anticipated to bring about a resolution to the current crisis. Rather, concerns have been raised that the vote is set to bestow questionable legitimacy upon those who engineered Yanukovych’s ousting, thereby perpetuating the long-standing divisions which seem to have condemned Ukraine to repeated cycles of instability.
Prelude to a vote
Yanukovych’s ousting, following violent protest action in central Kiev and increasing disorder in the country’s west, was prompted by dissatisfaction with his administration’s abrupt abandonment of an Association Agreement with the EU and the country’s seeming re-orientation towards Russia. Consequently, Ukraine is frequently presented as a divided nation ensnared in a geopolitical tug-of-war between NATO and the EU’s creeping expansionism and a resurgent Russia bent on crafting rival security and economic blocs. Although external forces have come to bear on Ukraine, the country’s fundamental dysfunction lies in its highly centralised system of government and the winner-takes-all battle for its highest office, which perpetually puts the country’s disparate regions at odds with one another. As such, foreign meddling in its domestic affairs, far from alleviating Ukraine’s current crisis, merely serves to exacerbate the country’s existing social, political and ethnic divides.
Much to the dismay of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority in the country’s eastern and southern regions, demands for the upcoming presidential elections to coincide with a referendum on federalism and the restoration of the official status of the Russian language were rejected by Ukraine’s interim administration. Similarly, calls by Russia for the elections to be postponed were also dismissed, despite alarming insecurity in the country’s eastern regions. Therefore, the opportunity for the upcoming election to also address Ukraine’s overly centralised institutions, which only exacerbate the country’s many divisions, has been lost.
Ukraine’s next president
Polls appear unanimous in predicting a resounding victory for prominent businessman and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Petro Poroshenko. Standing as an independent, Poroshenko’s candidacy is supported by the opposition Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party, whose imposing leader, former world champion boxer Vitali Klitschko, eschewed contesting the presidency in favour of pursuing the influential post of Kiev mayor. Yulia Tymoshenko is predicted to come a distant second in polls, with the former prime minister and losing candidate in the 2010 presidential run-off not expected to mount a strong challenge, despite heading the largest opposition party and mainstay of the ‘post-Maidan’ interim government, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland). Significantly, the respective leaders of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party and the ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) party, Oleh Tiahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh, are expected to garner little support, despite the prominent role played by their members during the ‘Maidan’ protests. Mykhailo Dobkin, the candidate for the formerly ruling Party of Regions, is also unlikely to mount a significant challenge as his party is tainted by the legacy of Yanukovych and tarnished by accounts of his administration’s corruption.
(Presidential hopeful Petro Poroshenko)
Should Poroshenko triumph, Ukraine will once again have what is effectively a pro-European leader, a mere four years after Tymoshenko and her ‘Orange Revolution’ contemporaries suffered the chastening effects of electoral defeat at the hands of the pro-Russia Party of Regions. Furthermore, Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority is almost certain to resist a Poroshenko presidency, as well as further efforts to integrate Ukraine with Europe. Significantly, prior to Yanukovych abandoning Ukraine’s Association Agreement aspirations, Poroshenko’s business empire was the target of seemingly punitive customs regulations introduced to illustrate (and threaten) the economic impact of a Russian embargo on Ukrainian imports. Confectionaries manufactured by Poroshenko’s Roshen company were blocked at border crossings in July 2013, ostensibly due to there being ‘contamination’ of the products. Furthermore, Roshen’s financial assets in Russia were frozen and its production plant in the Lipetsk region shuttered in March. These developments have greatly reduced the likelihood of constructive relations between Russia and a Poroshenko-led Ukraine.
Insecurity in the east
The most significant threat to the upcoming election stems from the insecurity in Ukraine’s east, where pro-Russia armed groups exercise control over more than a dozen cities and towns. The self-proclaimed leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic have also vowed to disrupt the polls in their respective regions, raising the prospect of some two million of Ukraine’s estimated 36 million eligible voters being unable to cast their vote on 25 May. The head of the Central Election Commission has stated that residents of Donetsk and Luhansk could cast their votes elsewhere in the country, effectively conceding that legitimate elections could not be conducted throughout these regions. In addition, no voting will take place in Crimea, further eroding the traditional supporter base of Ukraine’s Party of Regions.
The prospect of legitimate voting taking place in eastern Ukraine amid the current levels of insecurity appears remote. According to the United Nations (UN), violence in the region has claimed more than 120 lives, to date. Ukrainian authorities have confirmed that 25 servicemen have been killed in an ongoing security operation (launched mid-April) in the Donetsk region, where the country’s armed forces are battling to wrest control of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and surrounding areas from separatist forces. Meanwhile, separatist leaders In Donetsk and Luhansk conducted a referendum on the status of their respective regions on 11 May, subsequently claiming overwhelming support for ‘self-rule’. Yet, plans for a second referendum on the regions potentially joining the Russian Federation, set to take place a week later, were abandoned, possibly illustrating that although support for self-determination among Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority is significant, most residents are likely to oppose annexation by Russia. In addition, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has seemingly moved to ease tensions in the region, striking an increasingly reconciliatory tone in recent weeks by (unsuccessfully) appealing to separatists to postpone the referendum, as well as ordering Russian forces conducting military drills in the Rostov, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, all of which border Ukraine, to return to their home bases. Nevertheless, forces unleashed in eastern Ukraine may become impossible to reign in. Indeed, Donetsk, Luhansk and possibly Kharkiv may become increasingly ungovernable, with Kiev unable to command the loyalty of local law enforcement.
Multilateral efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis have proven largely fruitless. Talks involving officials from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the EU, held in Switzerland on 17 April, produced the Geneva Statement, which called for armed groups to disarm, for occupied buildings to be vacated and for the deployment of an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission. The initiative was largely disregarded on the ground, with the occupation of buildings continuing unabated and OSCE observers being abducted (but eventually released) in Sloviansk. Domestic efforts have not fared much better, notably the so-called All-Ukrainian Roundtable of National Unity, a series of stakeholder meetings which commenced on 14 May. Separatist leaders, which continue to refer to Ukraine’s interim administration as the ‘Kiev junta’, were not invited; instead, officials continue to marginalise them, typically labelling them ‘terrorists’. In the absence of dialogue, it is unclear what concessions, if any, Ukraine’s president will be willing to offer separatists once in office. It is similarly unclear what concessions could serve to de-escalate the situation. As the head of the ‘Luhansk Regional Council’ was quoted as saying, “decentralisation is not enough”. It is clear though that a military solution does not exist, and any such attempt only invites the intervention of Russian forces.
The short-term promises further insecurity in Donetsk and Luhansk, where well-armed militants continue to engage Ukraine’s armed forces, with the support of local residents. This insecurity is compounded by the threat of targeted violence, kidnappings and/or the unlawful detention of reporters, politicians and individuals deemed unsympathetic to the region’s separatist ambitions. Elsewhere in eastern and southern Ukraine, the potential for sudden eruptions of violence remains, similar to events in Odessa and Mariupol which left scores of people dead on 2 and 9 May, respectively. Kiev’s relative calm may also be disturbed should Ukraine’s new president fail to placate all those involved in the ‘Maidan’ protests, notably Pravy Sektor and other nationalist elements. More importantly, Ukraine will not step back from the brink until such time as its new president grasps the necessity of the devolution of power to its various regions.