Ukraine is pregnant with its own version of Putinism

On March 31 Ukrainians will vote for a new president. It looks like a run-off between Petro Poroshenko and TV comedian Volodymir Zelensky. This 'against-all' candidate with no political experience shows that a large chunk of the electorate is fed up with Poroshenko's Putinism-lite. The West prefers to neglect these signs, says journalist Leonid Ragozin.

zelensky wolodymyr elections 2019 2Comedian Zelensky offers his papers for registration as presidential candidate (photo open source)

by Leonid Ragozin

As Ukraine marked the fifth anniversary of Maidan revolution, fresh polls came in confirming TV comedian Volodymir Zelensky as the frontrunner in the presidential race. The election is due at the end of March.

With no political experience or articulated views on any of Ukraine’s most pressing problems, Zelensky clearly represents what is known as the protest vote. One Ukrainian official described him to me as an equivalent of the (Russian) 'against all' option in the long list of presidential candidates.

An optimistic interpretation of his sudden rise typically goes along the lines of Ukrainians demanding real reforms and more progress in countering endemic corruption that was the prime cause of the 2014 revolution. A darker view suggests that that by endorsing a comedian, who literally impersonates a Ukrainian president in a TV show, they essentially state that they view the post-Maidan political arrangement as a bit of a joke.

Decent candidate

Zelensky might very well be a decent candidate, indeed more decent than his main rivals, including incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, whose record of sticking to the agenda set by the revolution is patchy to say the least, or former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was mired in corruption scandals earlier in her career. But since few people understand what he stands for, many sound alarm, especially given Zelensky’s link to the controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky.

Writing for the website of the US government-linked think tank Atlantic Council, Rutgers university professor Alexander Motyl warned that president Zelensky would be a disaster for Ukraine and a gift to it’s adversary, Russia, which occupied Crimea in 2014 and makes Ukraine bleed drop by drop in the never-ending conflict in Donbas.

But knowing the tricks spin doctors have historically used in election campaigns in the post-Soviet space, one may envisage a potentially greater risk - that Zelensky’s scripted role is to flush down his gains in the run off and hand over victory to president Petro Poroshenko, who is trailing him in the polls. That would be detrimental to the future of democracy in Ukraine the way Boris Yeltsin’s questionable win in the 1996 election was detrimental to the nascent democracy in Russia.

Zelensky’s sudden rise has already helped sidelining Poroshenko’s main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko. A frontrunner two months ago, she is currently not making it into the run off, as per the polls. Meanwhile, Poroshenko’s main trump card - the 'administrative resource' as loyal civil servants are usually called in Russian - is still being used to pound Tymoshenko rather than Zelensky - with a criminal case opened against one of her campaign organisers for what comes across as fairly normal campaign activities. The same effect has the far-right group C14, closely linked to the state security service, trying to disrupt her rallies.

Genuine or spoiler?

Whether Zelensky is a genuine candidate or a spoiler, whose sole purpose is to mop up the battlefield for a real one, his current success is a clear demonstration of what a large chunk of the Ukrainian electorate rejects.

It is first of all ethnonationalism, which president Poroshenko built his entire campaign on while trying to wrestle the nationalist-leaning and predominantly Ukrainian-speaking west and centre of the country from Tymoshenko. Having adopted 'Army, Language, Faith' as a campaign slogan, he strove to present himself as a proactive leader who is pushing Ukraine’s adversary, Russia, on all of these three fronts.

He facilitated the adoption of a law that effectively bans Russian as a medium in secondary education. An even more restrictive language law is slated to be adopted before the election. He helped setting up a unified Ukrainian church as an alternative to Moscow patriarchate’s outfit which controls most parishes in the country. He sent troops to occupy the 'grey zone', which separates the warring sides in Donbas, and provoked Russia’s predictably harsh and self-damaging reaction by sending navy boats into the strait of Kerch last November. All of that helped his ratings, but only in terms of overtaking Tymoshenko in the polls.

Zelensky, on the other hand, seamlessly shot to frontrunner’s position by absorbing the support of all those in Ukraine who feel alienated by Poroshenko’s brand of combative nationalism. That’s primarily Russian-speakers in the country's southeast, but also younger voters who are fed up with the widening gap between the expectations evoked by the Maidan revolution and the grim reality of an extremely poor and still largely unreformed post-Soviet state, which Ukraine is now.

porsohenko en filaret 15 dec 2018 sofiaThe independance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow was a major victory for Petro Poroshenko

Previously known as a moderate centrist politician and a former ally of his ousted predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, Poroshenko has turned into a nationalist out of necessity. What prompts him to weaponise anti-Russian sentiment, whipped up by Moscow’s aggression in the east, is the lack of meaningful achievements he could boast when it comes to pressing issues that caused the Maidan revolution in the first place.

Mafia State

The revolution held a great promise for the future of Ukraine, but five years later it is hardly a better place than it was in 2013. Russian aggression is definitely a major complicating factor, but also a poor excuse for inaction. If anything, it should have spurred vital reforms like wars often did in more successful historical examples.

It’s not like there have been no reforms after Maidan - some real, some Potemkin villages for Ukrainian officials to tout at international forums. But the backbone of what is best described as mafia state is still in place. Judges, prosecutors, detectives and policemen remain an integral part of the same oligarchic cabal that ruled Ukraine before 2014.

Recently we saw a few new striking examples. Journalists from the tv-program Nashi Hroshi (Our Money) unveiled an investigation into the smuggling of spare parts for military hardware from Russia. They accused a close Poroshenko ally Oleh Hladkovsky, promptly dismissed as deputy chief from the Security Council, of enriching himself in this operation. A day later, Ukraine’s Constitutional court annulled a clause of the Criminal Code, which mandated that families of officials explain the sources of their wealth.

Other examples include multiple cases of courts being used to intimidate investigative journalists by ruling on dubious grounds that they should surrender their gadgets for examination by police detectives.

Meanwhile, some of the country’s most high-profile police investigations are deadlocked. Five years after the mass slaughter in the final days of the Maidan revolution, families of the victims are planning to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, because they believe they’ve exhausted all legal avenues in Ukraine to establish who killed their loved ones. The authorities are also showing little interest in investigating the assassination of journalist Pavel Sheremet, who died in a car explosion in 2016.

At the same time, the son of Ukraine’s powerful interior minister Arsen Avakov has miraculously avoided prosecution on charges of fixing an interior ministry procurement tender, even despite a video which to appears to incriminate him in this affair having been shown on TV.

More worryingly though, his father provides political cover for a massive ultra-nationalist conglomerate collectively known as Azov, which consists of the namesake regiment, a paramilitary organisation called National Guard and a political party led by Azov’s original commander, Anton Biltetsky, who started his career in Kharkiv’s neo-Nazi milieu.

Another former Kharkiv neo-Nazi and Azov alumnus, Vadym Troyan, is now Avakov’s deputy and the acting head of Ukrainian police. Azov incorporates a number of Russian Nazis, some linked to murderous gangs which used to cooperate with elements in the Kremlin and Russian security agencies.

Civilisational Choice

The mafia state has long figured out that bombastic statements about 'Ukraine’s civilisational choice' and 'an ultimate breakup with Russia' is enough to keep Ukraine’s Western backers believing that the country is moving in the right direction. Ukrainians beg to differ - over two thirds of them say the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to various polls.

Two examples illustrate Ukraine’s current trajectory best. One is that of 1990s Russia, a country where a combination of the deadly Chechen war, greedy oligarchy and ghastly manipulations with elections (the 1996 election notably involved a successful dark horse candidate, Aleksandr Lebed, who endorsed Yeltsin in the run off) paved the way for the ascent of an authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine appears to be pregnant with its own version of Putinism. Asked whether they prefer a strong-handed styled of governance to democracy last November, 60% of Ukrainians said yes and only 19% disagreed. Politicians are sensitive to public demand - president Poroshenko, for instance, is now being regularly accused of emulating Putin’s style and even copycatting his campaign stunts.

But perhaps even more relevant is the example of neighbouring Moldova whose leadership has been for years duping the West into believing that the country was a showcase of progress and a bulwark against Russian imperialism. Meanwhile, as an OCCRP Moldova Laundromat investigation showed, the country’s banking system became Europe’s largest laundry for illicit Russian cash, including money linked to the case of the murdered Russian lawyer Sergey Magnitsky.

For hawks in the West, who believe that Russia is the ultimate evil that needs to be undone by any means available, it doesn’t really matter whether countries like Ukraine or Moldova change or not, as long as they appear to stand on the right side of the geopolitical barricade. Yet, slowly but surely this ‘our son of a bitch’ strategy erodes people’s belief in the West as a role model and brings current inhabitants of the Kremlin closer to winning the battle.

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