Ukraine presidential election could have impact on Kiev-Moscow relationship
Elections in Ukraine – another stage on the road to independence from Russia
Pro-Russian candidates lost their electorate due to events in Crimea and Donbass
The Kremlin hoped that fomenting separatist sentiments in the Donbas region would help return Ukraine to the orbit of Russian influence, but analysts say the strategy seems to backfire..
It seems that the debate over whether Ukraine should head west, moving closer to the EU, or east, toward Russia, is over – at least for now. The upcoming presidential election this month is widely seen as the next major milestone in Ukraine’s journey to free itself from Russian influence and build an independent future free from the constraints imposed by the Kremlin..
This is the first election since Soviet times, analysts say, in which the choice between Russia and the West is not the main factor. A reputation as a friendly politician to Russia is considered a hindrance to any candidate in an election involving 43 candidates.
The current president, Petro Poroshenko, who ranks third in polls, in an attempt to achieve re-election, without hesitation, call his main rivals – the popular comedian Vladimir Zelensky and ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko – as Kremlin agents.
Moscow-backed candidates lose voters
The most popular of openly pro-Russian candidates, Yuri Boyko, a former deputy prime minister and ally of authoritarian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted from power in mass protests in 2014, is in fourth place..
According to polls, only about 10 percent of the population are ready to vote for him. It is unlikely that he will be able to move beyond his electoral stronghold in the southeast of the country and strengthen his position for the first round of elections, which is scheduled for March 31.
“For this I must say ‘thanks’ to Russian President Vladimir Putin,” says media expert Tatyana Popova, former deputy minister for information policy. The annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk regions deprived Boyko of a large number of voters with a pro-Russian position.
Voters in Donbass and Crimea have traditionally supported candidates who advocate close ties with Russia, but in these elections they are essentially deprived of the right to vote due to the fault of Putin. To vote in the presidential election, they need to overcome a series of obstacles by going to consulates located either abroad or in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government..
“The loss of pro-Russian voters in Crimea and Donbass means that the electorate has become even more pro-European – this can be seen from the ratings,” Popova notes..
Russian intervention in the east, which was a response to the overthrow of Yanukovych and, according to Western diplomats, was part of a strategy to undermine the situation in Ukraine and increase pressure on it, is causing anger and outrage among Ukrainians. As a result of the Donbas conflict, an estimated 13,000 people died. As a result, two-thirds of Ukrainians consider Russia an aggressor country, which contributes to the growth of pro-Western sentiments and increases the popularity of the idea of joining NATO..
“Russian intervention in the east, where pro-Moscow separatists enjoy full Russian support, has had the opposite effect – it only makes Ukrainians more pro-Western,” the American diplomat said. “It’s not for nothing that people here say that, even if Putin got Crimea for a while, he lost Ukraine”.
The dispute is not over
However, some warn that Russia should not be written off for now, as Ukraine has already changed its position on the issue of “East or West” in the past..
Ukrainian commentator Konstantin Skorkin, in his article for Foreign Affairs, noted that although “for the first time since Ukraine gained independence, an influential pro-Russian force capable of winning is not taking part in the elections,” the Kremlin is likely to continue playing a long game. and try to return Ukraine to its orbit of influence.
The Kremlin may regard the upcoming elections to the Verkhovna Rada later this year as “an opportunity to change the political course in Kiev,” Skorkin fears. Well-known pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, closely associated with Putin, has already announced that he plans to create a pro-Russian political coalition.
And the Kremlin is likely to try to achieve its goal through propaganda and disinformation, provoking a split in Ukrainian society, warns Skorkin.
Some believe this is already happening..
There is also a fear that the Russian special services, with the help of local puppets, are preparing to disseminate false data from exit polls, so that later the Kremlin could declare the results falsified, and the elections themselves illegitimate..
Poroshenko also accuses Russia of committing cyberattacks against the Central Election Commission of Ukraine. And the Security Service of Ukraine claims that hackers tried to break into the personal computers of campaign staff.
On Thursday, the deputy head of the SBU Viktor Kononenko told reporters that a group of Russian citizens and their Ukrainian accomplices were trying to use bribes to create a network of people ready to vote for the desired candidate and influence public opinion. What candidate was discussed, he did not specify.
Adrian Karatnitsky of the Atlantic Council believes the Kremlin may have “had a hand in data manipulation” in the preparation of the scandalous story revealed last week about the son of Poroshenko’s colleague, who is accused of stealing millions of dollars from state defense enterprises.
Poroshenko’s rivals immediately drew attention to the story of a scheme in which old components were smuggled in from Russia and then supplied to Ukrainian defense companies at inflated prices..
Poroshenko himself is not directly affected by the accusations, and his aides emphasize that the plot is based on leaked documents from the government investigation of the scheme, which, they say, indicates his desire to fight corruption..
“Whatever the truth is in the end (and even journalists admit that the given data is only ‘probably’ true), voters should remain skeptical until the facts are established,” Karatnitsky said. “Given Putin’s goal of destroying any Ukrainian president who disobeys him, the involvement of Russian intelligence in this story cannot be ruled out.”.
Apparently, the scandal benefited Zelensky.
Poroshenko is considered the Kremlin’s least pleasing candidate. He pushed for reforms aimed at integration with Europe and reacted harshly to Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine..
Zelenskiy, who managed to turn the country’s dire economic situation and population fatigue from the deteriorating quality of life to his advantage, promised to enter into dialogue with the Kremlin and end the conflict in Donbass. Poroshenko’s supporters insist Zelenskiy lacks experience and skills to deal with Putin.
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