18 | JUL | 2019
Ukraine elections trapped between a comedian, corruption, and war
The Ukrainian flag waving - Photo: Vasily Fedosenko/REUTERS

Ukraine elections trapped between a comedian, corruption, and war

29/03/2019
14:05
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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Presidential elections are scheduled in Ukraine, in a context of setbacks for the fight against corruption, the emergence of a comedian as the leading candidate & the war with Russia-backed separatists

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Presidential elections are scheduled for next Sunday in Ukraine, in a context of serious setbacks for the fight against corruption, the emergence of an unpredictable comedian as the leading candidate and the war with Russia-backed separatists in its eastern region.

Despite President Petro Poroshenko’s alleged efforts to combat corruption and irregularities in his government, Ukraine’s constitutional court overturned a law criminalizing illicit enrichment last month, on the grounds that it contravened the presumption of innocence, forcing Poroshenko to propose fresh anti-graft legislation.

Ukraine passed the law in 2015 as a key condition of it receiving a USD $17.5 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as a USD $3.9 billion credit line in 2018.

It was also a precondition for the European Union (EU) to grant visa-free travel to Ukrainians, eager to join the bloc.

The National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) said it had to stop 65 criminal investigations of alleged illicit enrichment of top officials due to the court ruling.

Even if the Parliament (Rada) approved a new bill, the bureau would not be allowed to resume those investigations because the law would have no retroactive effect.

“This step is politically motivated and contradicts Ukraine’s obligations under the United Nations Convention against Corruption, agreements with the IMF and the EU,” NABU said.

The European Commission and representatives of the international financial sector in Kiev also expressed their concerns.

Known as the “Chocolate King”, having built a fortune on confectionery, Poroshenko came to power after the pro-Western Maidan protests that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovich in 2014.

However, the same nationalist and neo-Nazi militias that were instrumental during the protests have now turned against him, after the release of a video reporting that the son of Ihor Hladkovskyy, Deputy Secretary of National Security and Defense Council, had begun smuggling military parts from Russia in 2015 and then used private companies linked to Hladkovskyy and Poroshenko to sell the smuggled parts to the army at highly inflated prices.

Poroshenko later removed Hladkovskyy from his position, yet far-right leaders such as Azov Battalion head Andrey Biletsky have come out publicly in opposition to another presidential term for Poroshenko, who currently sits in second place in election polls behind comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy and is ahead of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Far-right militias

For his part, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov declared that Ukraine is “at the end of the political cycle.”

According to World Socialist Web Site, Avakov, who controls the country’s police force, National Guard, and successor militias to the Azov Battalion which have been incorporated into the government, is rumored to be allied with Tymoshenko and the exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi.

Indeed, Kolomoyskyi would be bankrolling both Tymoshenko and Zelenskiy.

Screenwriter, actor, and political novice, Zelenskiy played the part of the Ukrainian president in a popular television show called “Servant of the People.”

The production company that made the show created a political party of the same name in 2018 before Zelenskiy announced his candidacy.

This week, a KIIS survey showed that Zelenskiy (41) strengthened his lead on 20.7% of votes, with Poroshenko second on 11% and Tymoshenko third on 8.1%.

Another survey by the Razumkov Center showed that 21.6% were ready to support Zelenskiy versus 12.9% for Tymoshenko and 12.7% for the incumbent leader.

Nevertheless, support for Zelenskiy remains far below the level needed to secure outright victory and most voters still not expect him to become president.

If no candidate wins 50% of the votes cast, the top two—39 candidates have registered in total—will face each other in a run-off on April 21.

Although Zelenskiy is exploiting the frustration of Ukrainians with poverty, lack of reforms, and the endemic corruption of the political and business classes—a similar case is the current Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales, also a comic actor without political career—he is raising more questions than certainties, especially in the sensitive field of foreign relations.

A native Russian speaker as the majority of the population in the industrialized, eastern regions that rebelled against Poroshenko’s plans to join the Atlantic Alliance and the EU, Zelenskiy has business ties with Kolomoyskyi, who has helped finance militia groups opposed to the separatists in the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Zelenskiy, however, declared that direct talks between Moscow and Kiev are inevitable to stop the low-intensity war, virtually in a stalemate since the Minsk Protocol was signed in 2014.

The same position has been remarked by Tymoshenko (58), considered more pragmatic and had experience of dealing with Russia in gas price negotiations when she was prime minister.

The leader of the Fatherland party led the “Orange Revolution” protests against corruption and electoral fraud in 2004, yet she is known as the “Gas Princess” because of her lucrative dealings as head of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, a privately owned middleman company that became the main importer of Russian natural gas to the country in the 90s.

Whoever the winner, Ukraine’s new leader will face a difficult situation in the old “bread-basket of Europe”, where the conflict with Russia also resulted in the loss of the strategic Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea five years ago.

The U.N. estimates that the war has killed around 13,000 people, while key economic sectors as energy and heavy industry remain in the hands of oligarchs powerful enough to fix prices and intimidate challengers.

Racism is rampant against the Sinti and Roma minorities and the population (42 million) is shrinking due to territorial changes and migration to Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Baltic nations.

Europe’s official statistical service, Eurostat, said that 662,000 Ukrainians, more than any other nationality, received EU residence permits in 2017.

Migrant remittances in 2018 amounted to USD $20 billion, equivalent to 13.8% of Ukraine’s economic output, the biggest one-year increase since 2007, reported the World Bank.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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