KYIV - Ukrainian voters have 44 candidates to pick from in next month’s presidential elections, but they do not feel spoiled for choice.
Among what is on offer — a popular television comic, far-right war veterans, a chest-beating male chauvinist who says feminism has gone too far, a gas princess, lawmakers and spies as well as Ukraine’s chocolate king, the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, who is seeking a second term.
But midway through a three-month campaign full of dirty tricks, the election is not enthusing jaded voters — although the upstart insurgent bid by TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is garnering surprising support and holds out the prospect of a major upset.
Recent surveys show the country’s politicians — from incumbent Poroshenko to Ukraine’s lawmakers, are held in deep disdain. A survey earlier this month suggested 82 percent of Ukrainians mistrust parliament and 71 percent feel the same way about Poroshenko.
Five years on from the Maidan uprising that drove pro-Moscow authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovych from office, Ukraine is still struggling to give birth to what people here like to term a “normal state.” The debate on whether Ukraine should look West and align with the European Union or east toward Moscow is long over. The separation from Russia now seems permanent.
But Ukrainians say they still feel far from fulfilling the high domestic hopes for change sparked by the 2014 so-called “revolution for dignity” and finally exorcising the machinations of oligarchs, who freely mix politics and business in equal measure to rig the system
The election campaign is not helping to persuade them otherwise. “This is one of the filthiest campaigns I’ve seen,” says Eugene Rysunkov, a translator.
Poroshenko, the 53-year-old billionaire dubbed the chocolate king because of his confectionary business, has been accused by opponents of running schemes to buy votes, especially in small towns where the pull of political paternalism is strong. And prosecutors and law enforcement agencies have not held back from intruding on electoral politics by opening corruption probes into candidates, seeking to embarrass them.
Some of the probes are unfinished business from the past when Yanukovych ran the country as a kleptocracy and plundered the state. But their timing is suspicious.
There have also been accusations of harassment of independent journalists. News outlet Nashi Groshi noticed the stalking of its reporters increased on the eve of publishing this week a report detailing allegations about business friends of Poroshenko growing rich on shadowy defense procurement contracts.
Ukraine’s progress has been mixed in reforming a corrupt political system in which oligarchs wield out-sized influence, manipulating politics, public opinion and bureaucrats to enrich themselves.
On Friday, the U.S. embassy warned on its Facebook page: “Five years ago today [on February 22], EuroMaidan protesters succeeded in expelling a corrupt government. Yet, corruption remains a pressing problem holding the Ukrainian people back from achieving the economic and political progress they deserve.”
Some analysts credit Poroshenko with some progress in introducing more transparency and starting a clean-up — improvements all the more noteworthy considering he has done so while the country has been locked in a low-intensity separatist war with Russia in the eastern region of the Donbas.
There has been a streamlining of the procedures for securing business permits, an e-declaration system has been introduced requiring officials to register their assets, and there is now an e-procurement system for government contracts, although not in the defense sector. The energy sector, too, has seen something of a clean-up, according to a major study by the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting, which has an international board of experts.
The institute calculates the aggregate gain from a “radical change in the rules of the game” implemented since 2014 amounts to about six percent of GDP.
Taras Lagoida, an art dealer in Kyiv specializing in Ukrainian impressionists, welcomes the anti-corruption efforts since Maidan — despite the fact he has suffered. The art market is a gauge, he says. “Since 2014 the market has been depressed locally. Before, a lot of people in government and business would think nothing of paying high prices. Now they just don’t have the cash,” he explains.
Analysts, though, warn there are serious risks of backsliding, and they say there has been little curtailing of large-scale corruption at the highest levels of government. Several businesspeople VOA interviewed say they are still being strong-armed by tax inspectors demanding bribes. And petty everyday graft remains, infuriating ordinary people forced to shell out bribes.
More Ukrainians live below the poverty line now than before Maidan. In 2014, 15 percent were categorized as poor; but last year the number jumped 10 percent, says the World Bank.
The war in the Donbas is not helping. Ukraine has lost control of lucrative industrial and coal-mining areas in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kyiv had to sever close economic and industrial ties with Moscow after Yanukovych’s ouster and the economy is being kept afloat thanks to multibillion-dollar international loans.
Lack of economic opportunity is driving young Ukrainians to flee, hollowing out the population. In 2017 alone 662,000 Ukrainians, more than any other nationality, were granted residency permits in EU member states.
Those remaining here complain they cannot cope. Olga, a mother of two and shop worker who lives on the outskirts of Kyiv, is one among them. “I’m lucky I suppose. I own my apartment, but I get 4,000 Hryvnia ($148) a month, but my utility bill gobbles up 3000 hryvnia, leaving me just a thousand for everything else. You try raising two kids on that.” Like many, she says the elite just get richer.
And that sentiment is fueling the anti-establishment campaign of comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a TV star who is seeking to prove life can indeed imitate art.
The 41-year-old, who has a reputation of playing oligarchs off against each other with his business ventures, has become the surprise front-runner, according to opinion polls. He has pushed ahead of Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and now seems likely to face one or the other in a run-off after the first poll on March 31 featuring all the hopefuls.
Tymoshenko is a veteran politician whom opponents fault for opportunistic makeovers that have seen her lurching from pro-Europe to pro-Moscow positions and back again.
The protagonist of a long-running popular series called the Servant of the People, Zelenskiy plays a teacher who unexpectedly finds himself president after a student posts on YouTube one of his rants denouncing the elite. In real life, his gags and mockery of Poroshenko have enlivened the election.
Angry voters say the joke for years has been on them and maybe they cannot do any better than elect a comedian who knows how to deconstruct gags.
Tetiana Popova, a former Ukrainian deputy minister for information policy, says Zelenskiy is attracting support equally across east and west Ukraine, unusual for Ukrainian candidates.
And his campaign, she says, is being helped by the ugly battle between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, who have been hurling corruption allegations against each other.
Their skirmishing has fractured government security agencies, Popova says. “The ministry of internal affairs has been targeting Poroshenko’s circle with probes and arrests; while the SBU intelligence agency has been targeting Tymoshenko’s people,” she adds.
Irina Venediktova, a law professor and Zelenskiy adviser, says, “if we didn’t have Zelenskiy, we’d have to invent him. We need a new person, a champion of direct democracy. He’s genuine, he’s different and he’s exciting civil society. His network of advisers and volunteers aren’t connected by money or by the possibility of future benefits, but by the idea of real democratic reform.”
Zelinskiy’s upstart candidacy has some blinking in the Western diplomatic community. Diplomats voice frustration with Poroshenko, but say at least he is a known quantity. Zelinskiy’s lack of government experience worries them. But Venediktova says his outside status is one of his strengths. “It will help him find practical and innovative solutions,” she says.