Presidential elections in Ukraine have almost always turned into a second-round battle between candidates from the Russian-speaking Southeast and Ukrainian-speaking Center and West. This time, however, it is unlikely to happen. And it is not just because of Kiev expanded the territory it controls at the expense of the Southwest, but also because of the schism between the political forces supported in this part of the country.
For a long time, opinion polls testified to a strong position of Yuri Boyko, co-chairman of the Opposition Bloc party and leader of the same faction in the parliament, and of Vadim Rabinovich, MP from the same faction and leader of the For Life party.
It looked quite probable that were these parties to agree on a single candidate, this candidate could make it to the second round. Judging by most polls, it would be sufficient for him to have three fourths of the aggregate rating of the two candidates. As to further prospects, some polls showed that both Boyko and Rabinovich stood a better chance in the second round than Pyotr Poroshenko. But they inevitably fell far behind Yulia Tymoshenko and other candidates in such models. Since Tymoshenko has been the obvious leader of the presidential race, nomination of a single candidate would first of all make it more difficult for the incumbent president to reach the second round. And although the victory of a southeastern candidate is something bordering on fiction, even participation in the final round would solidify the combined party list for the parliamentary election due in October.
Talks about a single candidate were revived last summer, after Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician regularly mentioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his speeches, joined For Life and became head of its political council.
The reason Medvedchuk receives so much attention from Putin is that he has been most consistent in advocating rapprochement with Russia. For example, when the entire Party of Regions followed President Viktor Yanukovich’s lead and defended an association with the EU, he actively campaigned in favor of joining the Customs Union.
On November 9, Boyko and Rabinovich announced launch of the Opposition Platform - For Life, an association that will nominate a single presidential candidate and run together in the parliamentary elections. A week later, Rabinovich said Boyko should be the candidate. Following this, Boyko and MPs close to him, notably, former head of presidential administration Sergey Lyovochkin, were excluded from the faction.
The decision did not come as a surprise. The leading role in the Opposition Bloc that emerged ahead of the parliamentary election of 2014 on the basis of the Party of Regions belonged to groups controlled by two oligarchs – Dmitry Firtash and Rinat Akhmetov. One could tell this by looking at the political council, which was composed on a strict parity basis, with representatives of less important groups not getting seats, although included in election lists. The relations between Akhmetov and Firtash were never warm and have visibly soured in recent years, with the oligarchs settling their business disputes in the High Court of London. Time has also shown that the support Firtash provided to Poroshenko in spring 2014 turned into losses for his business. Akhmetov, on the contrary, managed to develop a mutually beneficial model of interaction with Poroshenko. Coal from his mines is bought at the price of imported coal, while his Ukraina channel promotes the president and also Oleg Lyashko, leader of the nationalist Radical Party, who is trying to win away votes from Tymoshenko’s electoral base.
When the conflict between the two groups became public, they began accusing each other of playing into Poroshenko’s hands. Firtash’s supporters were really more convincing. After all, one can only accuse them of the intention to surrender the election to the incumbent president if one ignores Tymoshenko’s lead in polls and the president’s difficulties with getting into the second round. Besides, it is obvious that Akhmetov does not want a change of power and that a fragmented southeastern electorate would improve Poroshenko’s chances of qualifying for the final. Ex prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, in an interview given abroad at the end of November, contrasted the “pro-Ukrainian opposition” of the Akhmetov-led part of the Opposition Bloc against the Boyko-led “pro-Russian opposition.” Finally, Russia showed who it was betting on in this race when it expanded sanctions against Ukrainian politicians at the end of December. The sanction list includes all MPs from Akhmetov’s group, plus Yevgeny Murayev, another contender for votes from the Southeast.
Murayev is a young MP from Kharkov. For a long time, he was a face of the For Life party together with Rabinovich. He is remembered, on the one hand, for his vivid anti-war and anti-government rhetoric, and on the other, for letting such critics of the Kremlin as Matvey Ganapolsky and Yevgeny Kiselev to work for his channel, NewsOne. He left For Life before the breakup of the Opposition Bloc and founded a party called Nashi (Ours), which nominated him for presidency.
Murayev talks about being prosecuted by the authorities, but his response to these prosecutions are more than a little unusual for a representative of southeastern opposition. Notably, in a broadcast of his own Nash TV channel in December, he described the Ukrainian Security Council as “the only agency that was not discredited and looked adequately”, and urged it to search for the “fifth column” not within his political force, but within parties “headed by contacts of the Russian Federation,” a not-so-subtle hint at Viktor Medvedchuk.
The groups of Firtash and Akhmetov did not stoop to such denunciations when fighting each other and Murayev, but used power mechanisms when wrestling for the party brand. The Opposition Bloc failed to organize a pre-election congress that Akhmetov’s supporters wanted to hold. The event was banned by court, because the party’s political council, which is the only body allowed to convene a congress, has been unable to pass any decisions since November, since the parity of its composition resulted in its paralysis. On the other hand, this group used the so far unknown Industrial Party, which was established in 2014 by employees of Akhmetov’s corporation Metinvest, and got the Justice Ministry’s approval to rename it as the “Opposition Bloc – Party for Development.” It was this party that nominated Alexander Vilkul, former governor of Dnepropetrovsk and ex CEO of Metinvest’s mining and processing plants, for the presidency.
However, the Justice Ministry stalled renaming of For Life into “Opposition Platform – For Life,” and Boyko goes to the election as an independent candidate. Therefore, Vilkul got to “represent opposition” on the ballot paper. Yet his ratings so far are behind those of both Boyko and Murayev. Hopes to reverse the situation are linked to the Akhmetov group’s control over the most powerful regional organizations of the Opposition Bloc and Akhmetov’s financial support, which, however, goes also to Poroshenko and Lyashko. It is doubtful that any of the three will get to the final round. These candidates are fighting for leadership among each other at most, as the winner will get the best start in the parliamentary election, and at the very least – for a sufficient percentage of votes to ensure better prospects for their respective parties (the cutoff barrier in Ukraine is 5%).
It will not be easy for a voter that does not accept the nationalist regime in Kiev to make his/her choice. Each political group that tries to play in this electoral field has figures that look as consistent members of opposition and those who do not inspire confidence. For example, no one has done more to protect the traditional Orthodox Church than MP Vadim Novinsky, but he should not be identified with Vilkul and, especially, with his senior business partner, Akhmetov. Similarly, one cannot equate Medvedchuk to Boyko and especially Lyovochkin, who has long built strong ties with the US embassy in Kiev.
Some useful food for thought can be gained from those parts of the candidates’ official programs that are devoted to Donbass. Both Murayev and Boyko promise, first of all, talks with all parties to the conflict (in a thinly veiled hint at a dialog with Donetsk and Lugansk), and, secondly, compliance with the Minsk agreements, which means introduction of a special status for Donetsk, something, however, they don’t state expressly. In Vilkul’s program, the relevant section is worded as follows:
“We will bring peacekeeping troops of friendly nations and neutral states to Donbass… Hold elections in accordance with a specially adopted Ukrainian law with participation of Ukrainian parties. Get control over the border simultaneously with announcement of the election outcome.”
Not a word about the Minsk agreements or direct talks, but Poroshenko’s favorite notions - UN peacekeepers and control over borders – are present. These mentions and omissions, apparently, have the same role as the Glory to Ukraine slogan, which sounded at the closing of a forum of Vilkul’s supporters held in the Zaporozhye region immediately after his presidential nomination. It was a message to the relevant party: “I am on your side.”
After all, Akhmetov’s “party of peace” cannot be drastically different from the “party of war”, which is also his and Lyashko’s, where former senior executive of Metinvest Yuri Zynchenko has been presiding over the political council for a year now.