The Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine held its third international videoconference during which experts in Washington, Kyiv and Brussels used such terms as “unpredictable” and “wide open” to characterize the upcoming March 31st presidential election in Ukraine.
The Transatlantic Task Force was established by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) and the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR) Ukrainian NGO coalition to support democratic, free and fair elections in Ukraine. At the December 19th event the Washington moderator and FOUN Democracy and Civil Society Task Force co-chair Jonathan Katz (Senior Fellow, German Marshall Fund) reminded the audience that the broader goal of the transatlantic initiative is “to better institutionalize the engagement of civil society in Ukraine with U.S. and European policy makers, opinion makers, think tanks and civil society organizations that are focused on Ukraine and focus on Ukraine’s transatlantic integration” and democracy. And he expressed hope that whatever the outcome of the election the next government “will be committed to the reform path that’s… necessary for Ukraine’s democracy” and “economic growth.”
In his opening remarks, FOUN Democracy and Civil Society Task Force co-chair Orest Deychakiwsky set the tone for the discussion with questions about the electoral prospects of pro-Russian candidates, the impact of the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the possibility of a serious challenge to incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Tymoshenko from a “reformist bloc” presidential candidate.
Offering a snapshot of voter sympathies in Ukraine based on polling conducted in late September and early October was Stephen Nix of the International Republican Institute (IRI). In that poll, Tymoshenko had the support of 17% of likely voters with Poroshenko, Volodymyr Zelenksy, Anatoliy Hrytsenko and Yuriy Boyko each in the 8-10% range. But with 17% of voters undecided he characterized the presidential election as “a wide-open race.” Mr. Nix mentioned that IRI will conduct more polling early in 2019 that should provide additional insights as the election date draws closer.
Stephen Nix also explained that this large cohort of undecided voters is made up mostly of women voters residing in central and western Ukraine. He suggested that two recent news events may influence their choice: the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (promoted by Poroshenko) and Russia’s attack on and seizure of Ukrainian naval ships and their crews in the Black Sea as they tried to pass through the Kerch Strait. Although economic issues have been a dominant concern among the electorate, the Orthodox Church and Black/Azov Sea issues may be “changing the dynamic” and could have a “tremendous effect” on the campaigns and likely “are going to move these undecided numbers,” he said.
Nix expects that these undecided women voters are not going to be voting for a pro-Russian presidential candidate. And he also noted that pro-Russian parties in Ukraine have failed to coalesce around a single candidate which means any such presidential hopeful is highly unlikely to make it into the second round. (If no candidate wins “50% plus 1” in the first round the top two candidates will compete in a second round on April 21st).
Still, the biggest challenge for Ukraine’s incumbent according to the IRI poll is that 71% of those surveyed feel that the country is moving in “the wrong direction.” On a positive note, Mr. Nix noted that as decentralization takes hold, there are indications that voters are feeling some optimism about reforms at the local level.
In her introductory remarks, Kyiv moderator Olena Prokopenko of RPR characterized the audience that had gathered at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center as mostly “diplomatic,” including representatives of the European Union delegation, USAID, NATO, the embassies of Germany, Great Britain, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and others, as well as journalists. She noted that more than 10 Ukrainian NGOs have joined the Transatlantic Task Force election initiative.
The keynote speaker in Kyiv was Iryna Bekeshkina, Director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation. Her organization’s polling results were similar to those of IRI with several candidates virtually tied for second place, but with Tymoshenko enjoying a somewhat smaller lead. Having been engaged in analyzing all of Ukraine’s past elections she said: “There has never been an election as unpredictable as this one.”
Ms. Bekeshkina also noted that Ukraine’s election environment is being impacted by lackluster economic growth and insufficient anti-corruption efforts, unrealistic populist slogans, Russia’s hybrid war in the Donbas, and Moscow’s interference in the election campaign through discrediting certain candidates and financially supporting others. Poroshenko is Russia’s least favorite candidate, she said.
Iryna Bekeshkina called on Ukrainian NGOs, analysts and journalists to unite and to pose “tough questions” to the candidates regarding how they will fulfill their promises and to critically analyze the candidates’ proposals and inform citizens when they are being “duped.”
Speaking from Brussels, Svitlana Kobzar of the European Endowment for Democracy drew comparisons between the current campaign and the May 2014 presidential election, which took place soon after the Euromaidan. Back then, Poroshenko had wide national support and won in the first round. Today, “we don’t have that unity,” she said. After the Maidan there was a “certain credit of trust from society,” even a willingness to sacrifice for longer term benefit — but that has been replaced by “huge distrust” and “pessimism.”
Ms. Kobzar noted that although some agents of change were elected to Parliament and did push through some reforms their small numbers made it hard to meet society’s expectations and hopefulness about their influence has also now dissipated. She views the unpredictability of Ukraine’s elections as a cornerstone of the country’s democratic process but also recognizes that it is very difficult for any new candidate to enter the playing field of the campaign without the approval of oligarch-owned television channels who can block a politician’s access to their mass TV audiences.
The moderator at the Brussels venue was Bruno Lete of the German Marshall Fund.
Also in attendance in Washington were Ambassadors Alexander Vershbow (Atlantic Council) and William Taylor (U.S. Institute of Peace), both of whom are members of the Friends of Ukraine Network. They took a moment to address the Western response to Russia’s November 25th attack on and seizure of Ukrainian ships and their crews in the Black Sea.
Ambassador Vershbow expressed concerns about a lack of sufficient deterrent action, noting that neither the U.S., the European Union nor NATO “are really doing anything concrete to impose costs on the Russians” and that an “inadvertent green light may be being flashed at Putin” regarding escalation of the aggression against Ukraine. Ambassador William Taylor also called for stronger measures and “actions, not just words,” arguing that “we have the authority to take some actions that would stop Nord Stream II,” the new gas pipeline that will link Russia and Germany. (Amb. Taylor participated in a recent National Democratic Institute assessment of Ukraine’s pre-election environment).
To view an English-language video of the December 19th Transatlantic Task Force roundtable discussion titled “Who, What, and Why: Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential Elections Are Kicking Off” click here. The Ukrainian-language version is here. An earlier roundtable on cyber threats is here and the inaugural Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society meeting can be viewed here.
Photo at top of page: Orest Deychakiwsky (L), Jonathan Katz and Stephen Nix at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. (Credit: Adrian Karmazyn).
Adrian Karmazyn is Vice Chair of the Friends of Ukraine Network Democracy and Civil Society Task Force, an initiative of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.