Six months ahead of the presidential election, political billboards are ubiquitous in Kiev. “We don’t pay attention to any of them any more,” says 60-year-old pensioner Mykola.
“The army, [our] language, our faith . . . we are going our own way. We are Ukraine,” reads one in support of President Petro Poroshenko, who is expected to seek re-election.
It attempts to strike a patriotic chord with voters incensed by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its proxy war in Ukraine’s south-eastern Donbas region. The mention of faith refers to the president’s attempt to gain recognition of the country’s Orthodox churches as independent from Moscow’s patriarchy.
“A new economic path” is promised by another billboard, belonging to Yulia Tymoshenko, an MP who last served in government as prime minister between 2007 and 2010. The clear intent is to lure voters frustrated by years of economic pain inflicted by war and unpopular measures, such as raising utility tariffs, to help repair the country’s finances.
Despite leading one recent poll with support of just over 10 per cent, about double Mr Poroshenko’s rating, Ms Tymoshenko can hardly be described as popular. Some 74 per cent of poll respondents “don’t trust” her, only slightly better than Mr Poroshenko’s nearly 80 per cent disapproval rating, according to a survey conducted by Kiev-based pollster Rating Group. Ukrainians are disillusioned, say analysts, and desire fresh political faces.
Two other potential candidates have appeared in recent polls with about 6 per cent support: comedian Volodymyr Zelensky and pop star Slava Vakarchuk. Neither has formally confirmed plans to run. They are viewed positively, but some voters consider them “spoiler” candidates who are not real contenders. “I don’t take them seriously,” says Mykola, a retired army serviceman.
Arseniy Yatseniuk, whose own popularity plunged after he pushed through economic reforms including the higher utility tariffs while prime minister from 2014 to 2016, is also dismissive. “Clowns and actors can entertain people on television, but they cannot run the country,” he says. “This is not a show, it is about the survival of the Ukrainian state.” Brian Mefford, an American political consultant based in Kiev, says early poll results predict “a wide-open race, with no Ukrainian Macron in sight,” referring to the French leader, a centrist who emerged from obscurity to win the presidency last year.
Mr Mefford sees a very tight second round runoff between Mr Poroshenko and Ms Tymoshenko as the most likely scenario, with no candidate likely to muster the 50 per cent needed to carry a first-round vote.
Analysts say the president needs to change the narrative to have a good chance of re-election. Mr Poroshenko is accused of dragging his feet when it comes to tackling corruption and some voters have taken to the streets over the past year to call for his resignation. His supporters highlight achievements since he took over as president in June 2014 following the ousting of pro-Russian incumbent Viktor Yanukovich.
“It is clear that the public remains unaware of much of the progress that has been made in introducing political and other reforms,” says Stephen Nix, Eurasia regional director at the International Republican Institute, which commissioned the Rating Group poll. He points to grave concern about the Donbas conflict and “disinformation” spread by parts of the media influenced by domestic oligarchs and Russian interests: “It is vital that the government and politicians ensure that they are communicating the value of these changes to the Ukrainian people in order to make the case for continued commitment to reform.”
In a Financial Times interview last month, Mr Poroshenko accused Russia of meddling in the elections. “The involvement of Russia in the election process is enormous — by cyber war, by using social media, by using television stations,” he said, claiming Moscow was trying to undermine Ukraine by supporting far-left, far-right and openly pro-Russian candidates. “Populist, irresponsible forces . . . can gain victory,” he warned.
The president portrays himself as the guarantor of further reform and a closer relationship with both the EU and Nato, stances that are supported by about half of voters.
Mr Yatseniuk points to the growing influence of Viktor Medvedchuk, the Ukrainian whose daughter has Russian president Vladimir Putin as godfather. Mr Medvedchuk has been an important intermediary between the Kiev government and the Kremlin during the conflict, and is affiliated to For Life, a Russia-friendly party led by another presidential hopeful Vadim Rabinovich. “[Mr Medvedchuk] is a clear-cut Russian asset in Ukraine,” Mr Yatseniuk says.
Mr Medvedchuk has described claims that he is secretly representing Russian interests as “a cheap performance”. “I can and do have relations with . . . Mr Putin, because my relations, in my view, help the interests of Ukraine,” he told the FT last year.
Others agree Russia is trying to undermine Ukraine’s democracy and gain a foothold in next year’s parliamentary election, though it will be harder for Moscow to influence the presidential race. “Chances of an openly pro-Russian candidate winning are virtually none,” says Mr Mefford.
Keen to get back to his chores, Mykola insists the outcome of next year’s elections will not matter. “Someone will muster more votes, but I doubt anything will change,” he says.
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