On March 31, Ukraine will hold its first presidential elections since 2014, the year in which the Maidan revolution plunged the country into years of violent conflict. The result of these elections might be vital for Ukraine’s future, as they will reveal whether the Ukrainian government will continue on its anti-Russian “Western” course, established by President Petro Poroshenko, or whether it will see the possible election of Yulia Tymoshenko, a popular candidate who was criticised in the past due to her pragmatic stance towards Russia in the Ukrainian energy sector. How Ukraine’s national identity will fare in 2019 remains uncertain, however, regardless of the election outcome.
Since the Euromaidan of 2014, Ukraine has stumbled into domestic crisis and chaos. Together with pro-Russian unrest and the subsequent military conflict in Eastern Ukraine – especially in Donetsk and Lugansk – a systemic separation in Ukrainian civil-society is visible. At present, the situation in Ukraine has not changed much since 2014, and the international community is racking its brains on how to bring peace into Ukraine and re-consolidate the country.
Since his ascension to office, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has struggled to re-establish order in Eastern Ukraine and thus prove his political authority. Despite the abdication of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, and an anti-Russian Poroshenko presidency, Ukraine’s future and its “Western” path towards EU ascension and NATO membership are still uncertain.
President Poroshenko might have problems defending his presidency. Recent polls show that his opponent, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine and chairman of the parliamentary faction of the Ukrainian party “Batkivshchina” (Fatherland), Yulia Timoshenko, may be a serious candidate for the Ukrainian presidency. With the upcoming elections, Poroshenko himself is utilising the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the general tensions between Ukraine and Russia as a means to increase his own popularity.
Especially in the West, there still exists a popular narrative regarding Ukraine, which holds that the broad civilian Ukrainian populace in fact only has two choices: either vote for Petro Poroshenko – who openly “supports” the Ukrainian accession into the EU and NATO – or risk losing the Ukrainian “rightful place” within the western community by abandoning Poroshenko and giving power to “pro-Russian” politicians who are less open to negotiation.
However, this narrative is heavily propagated by the Ukrainian government and does not portray the actual political situation in Ukraine, nor the policies of the ruling government itself.
It is evident that Poroshenko wants to portray himself as strong, not only towards Russia but also towards the Ukrainian population. Those sentiments were especially visible with the proclamation of martial law in Eastern Ukraine, which was introduced by presidential decree after the incident in the Kerch Strait on November 26, 2018. Following this proclamation, Ukraine banned all Russian men between the age of 16 and 60 from entering the country for a period of 30 days. Affected territories included the regions along the Russia-Ukraine border.
The termination of the “Friendship Treaty,” an agreement for partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation signed in 1997, can be seen as another example of Poroshenko’s plan to rally the bulk of the Ukrainian population behind him by increasing the anti-Russian sentiment within the country.
Regarding the West, Petro Poroshenko’s policies become more complicated.
“Poroshenko can be seen in two different angles. On one hand, he is the individual who was able to establish and maintain the pro-Western position of Ukraine. On the other hand, Poroshenko has to be viewed critically, since he did not end the staggering corruption within Ukraine,” says Arthur Rachwald, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the United States Naval Academy and visiting professor at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna.
Rachwald states that the economic and political corruption in Ukraine makes the country extremely vulnerable to Russia, and that it is unfortunate that Poroshenko himself is not immune to corruption, and is also utilising Ukraine’s conflict with Russia in order to gain popularity for the upcoming elections. He asserts that “there is also a correlation with Putin’s policies, since Putin himself is also using Ukraine in order to maintain his absolute political position in Russia.”
In order to stabilize the situation in Eastern Ukraine, Poroshenko supports the Minsk II process, which should have solved the crisis by introducing a “buffer zone” and cease-fire agreement between the conflicting parties. His most dangerous political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko does not rely on the Western-influenced “Minsk Agreements,” thereby potentially causing uncertainty if she wins.
In October 2018, Tymoshenko released her “Donbass strategy”, which would be activated in the event that she wins the election in March. She announced that peace will be achieved through her new strategy, regardless of Ukraine’s conditions. Her plans include restoring Ukrainian legislation in the Donbass region, as well introducing a demilitarized zone with the intent of relocating two million refugees.
If Tymoshenko wins, the major question is whether she will continue the “Western” approach to re-consolidating Ukraine, which actually includes further following Minsk II. A key problem with Minsk II however, remains the fact that when it was signed in 2015 it didn’t bring an end to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine. This is one of the reasons why Tymoshenko wants to distance herself from the agreement.
For Professor Rachwald, a pure theoretical approach in order to “quickly” stabilize Ukraine would be a secession of the Eastern regions to Russia. He notes, however, that such an approach would be extreme and would also never be sanctioned by either Tymoshenko or Poroshenko.
The ultimate problem East Ukraine has to face is the unpopular fact that the conflict with Russia actually consolidates the rest of the country to a certain degree, since it is actually strengthening and promoting a common “Ukrainian identity.” This is something both Tymoshenko and Poroshenko are working towards. It has to be acknowledged that a swift resolution of the Ukraine Crisis – whether Poroshenko stays in office or Timoshenko assumes the presidency – is very unlikely. The division of the Ukrainian society and the constant quest by its political leaders and elites to establish a common “Ukrainian identity” are major internal reasons why we will not see a consolidated Ukraine, even in the case of a newly elected government this year.