«Now Ukrainians warmed to a fictional president». Adrian Karatnycky explains Ukraine 2019 election and phenomenon of Volodymyr Zelensky

Veteran Ukraine watcher Adrian Karatnycky’s hard talk: superficiality and reality in the election, media, and reforms

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Bohdan Nahaylo


Adrian Karatnycky

«Now Ukrainians warmed to a fictional president». Adrian Karatnycky explains Ukraine 2019 election and phenomenon of Volodymyr Zelensky
«Now Ukrainians warmed to a fictional president». Adrian Karatnycky explains Ukraine 2019 election and phenomenon of Volodymyr Zelensky

Hello. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo and I welcome to a new edition of our Ukraine Calling Programme for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. As always, there’s news, an in depth-interview on a topical theme with a special guest, and new music.  This week Oksana Smerechuk talks to well-known American political analyst, journalist and veteran Ukraine watcher Adrian Karatnycky, who is also a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and no stranger to our programme, about topical issues on the eve of the Ukrainian presidential elections.  But first, a round-up of news from and about Ukraine.

FEATURE INTERVIEW: Adrian Karatnycky’s hard talk: superficiality and reality in the election, media, and reforms.

Smerechuk: With me today I have a long-time observer of the Ukrainian political landscape, commentator Adrian Karatnycky, who’s a Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the Atlantic Council. Hello and welcome to the studio, Adrian.

Karatnycky: A pleasure to be here.

Smerechuk: When you read articles about Ukraine in the Western media, it seems to me to be three favorite topics that turn up most frequently. You have the typical stories about the scourge of corruption in Ukraine. Then you have about the war in the East, in the Donbas, the war which grinds on and not much progress is being made through the Minsk process. And, thirdly, the lack of reforms. You have international financial institutions and Western leaders calling for deeper reforms. So, reading from a list like this it’s understandable you might get Ukraine fatigue. You have been studying and writing about Ukraine for a long time. Do you feel Ukraine fatigue?

Karatnycky: I don’t. Because most of the articles that are written about Ukraine by people who are fatigued after two or three years have a superficial interest in the country. People who have followed the trends of Ukraine’s development more deeply, over the last three decades, understand how dramatic the changes are. And how substantial the changes have been even since the Maidan. That this is a fundamentally different country than it was in the years of Yanukovych. To be sure, corruption is very widespread and more importantly, I would say perpetrators of corruption are usually not punished. But the scope of corruption has been substantially narrowed. The degree of cohesiveness in the creation of a Ukrainian armed forces, capable of resisting Russia, means that the Ukrainian relationship to the Russian aggression is different than it was four years ago or five years ago. And on reforms. Ukraine has moved very substantially forward, especially in terms of getting rid of zombie banks, maintaining a stable currency, changing the multiple pricing mechanisms that allowed for corruption in the gas sector, eliminating through ProZorro hundreds of millions of dollars of insider, dodgy, special interest contracts. All of those things taken together show how substantially Ukraine has changed in those areas.

But the most substantial way Ukraine has changed is in its reconfiguration of its economy: moving away from a heavily Russia-dependent (both on energy and on trade) to an EU-integrated and outwardly-looking orientation. If you look at where Ukrainian companies, where Ukrainian agriculture, where Ukrainian high-tech is selling its services and its goods, where Ukrainian steel is exported, the whole gamut of products that Ukraine exports. It’s dramatic. It’s a revolutionary increase. But people who have come and started covering it [Ukraine], typically from Moscow, are surrounded by a certain pattern.  And I think that’s one of the weaknesses of [media] coverage. Many of these guys who parachute in, who maybe spent a year or two covering the war in the front, and then they parachute in episodically to cover an important visit or an important event. But they don’t have a real sense of how the country is changing. This requires, I think, a heavy dose of investigation to look beyond these very facile and easy surface stories. I mean, simple stories are wonderful to tell, and there are a lot of simple stories you can tell. I could easily write a story about, for example, widespread corruption. I could easily write a story about lack of progress on the front. I could easily write a story about going slow on reforms. But I could as easily write the opposite story. And Ukraine really requires a deeper understanding of where the country has been and where it’s headed, and what is irreversible. That said, I think that one of the consequences of this type of reporting, and, to an extent, the Western tactic of pressuring for change by constantly criticizing, is that no liberal alternative has emerged, and instead, you have the most progressive choice at this point in the elections is the existing president who will continue a slow pace of reform. There is no liberal fast-track alternative that has a lot of support, and you have a populist alternative, or someone who is linked to a dodgy oligarch with complicated practices, who has no experience in government. So, you know, the result of this type of story that you’ve described is a Ukraine that would be pulled back rather than pulled forward.

Oksana Smerechuk and Adrian Karatnytsky Hromadske Radio

Smerechuk: So, you did mention the elections that are coming up and that is interesting for us today. Elections are due to be held on the 31st of March and at this point it is about five weeks to go and candidate registration is now closed and we currently have about 44 candidates who have registered. And out of all those only about three have a realistic chance of winning, to the outside observer this seems a bit odd, why so many that do not really stand a chance of winning the election, what is your take on this? Why do we see so many candidates?

Karatnycky: Well, first of all there is vanity. People who have $100.000 which, if you are relatively prosperous in Ukraine, is not a huge obstacle to put up yourself on the ballot. Secondly, we have a lot of what will be called technical candidates, whose job it is to divide up the vote and prevent other candidates from getting in and to muddy the works. And the third is, I would say, the personalistic pattern of Ukrainian political parties. If you think about Ukrainian political parties, they tend to be associated with a single leader, they tend to be because of the sequencing of Ukrainian elections. First you have presidential elections then you have parliamentary elections and the candidates for presidency are a way of publicizing the political party for the parliamentary elections. So a lot of people are running, who do not have a real chance of getting elected, or even getting into the second round, are doing it to raise the profile or their party or to raise their bargaining in creating a coalition with other political parties. To say see I have 3% you have 5%, I want you know 3/8th of all the seats in a common list. I think those are all among the reasons. Obviously if there were a much higher threshold of an entry-cost that there would be lost if you do not receive a certain proportion of votes, that would reduce the sort of frivolous candidates. So, I think it is a combination of these three factors.

But it is very interesting that if you looked at polls a few months ago, you probably had six or seven candidates within striking distance of making it into the second round. And nobody was at more than ten or eleven percent. Now people are trying to figure it out and it is really breaking down into three choices. Two of which are opposition oriented and promise a radical change from the direction of the country.

One, Yulia Tymoshenko, is promising a radical change. To move to a more socially left of center policy, challenging the IMF increases on tariffs, promising larger social benefits to the population, promising some way of helping industry to finance itself etc.

Another is a complete, complete outsider, Vladimir Zelenskiy, whom I call Vladimir because he is Russophone and I think he calls himself Vladimir not Volodymyr. And he, I think, represents we do not know what. Most people identity with him as a clever, sharp, critic of the existing political reality. But he is not only a sharp critic of the existing political reality, he is a sharp creator of an alternate reality. Because in his TV program ‘Sluha Narodu’ (Слуга народу) there is one thing that is missing. There is a president who is fighting corruption. There is a president who is fighting for reforms. There is a president who wants to do thing things in a new way, but there is no war. There are no victims of war, there are no people in hospitals, there is no blood that is being poured. And he started this program in 2015 when the war was very intense and now it is at a lower intensity. And he decided to create a fictional Ukraine in which a fictional president operates. Now Ukrainians warmed to a fictional president. But they should now adjust: whether this fictional president is capable of dealing with the real Ukraine. So, the challenge he will have is not just bringing the dissatisfaction but proving to the people that he is capable of dealing with a country which is partly occupied, which is under constant Russian attack, including internal subversion, and whether he has the ability to meet that challenge.

And the third is a president who has been going slow on reforms, who is reluctant to use the instruments of the state to punish for past acts of corruption but who is moving the country forward towards Western Europe. He has solidified the army, made remarkable changes in the culture through supporting the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a national church, and has stabilized the economy to the point that it is growing, not enough to satisfy people but at least it is not heading into the wrong direction. So, the result of all this is that the Ukrainians are coalescing around the unknown, around the pleasant to hear, which is the social left-leaning giveaway promises of Yulia Tymoshenko and a very slow, reluctant movement towards reform. That is hardly the hope of all the efforts that the West has invested in pushing reforms, but, in the end, this is where Ukrainians are. And I think it becomes pretty clear that the election will be between a slow, steady and maybe not particularly inspiring movement towards reform, and promises and even more promises.

Smerechuk: You have observed many presidential elections in your time and how do find how is this presidential election campaign different to previous ones that you have observed? Have you observed how candidates are trying to break through the relatively strong skepticism of the Ukrainian electorate?

Karatnycky: Well, I think this election is different in a different way. It is different because it is the first one that is not on an axis of choice, between moving towards Russia or not. This not on the order of the day. It is more like the last election, in that none of the candidates really represent a very consistent ideological position. You really are hard-pressed to say you know which direction they will move the country. Yulia Tymoshenko is promising to move the country to the left. But when she governed she sometimes worked with the IMF and sometimes broke with the IMF. Zelenskiy we do not know which way he will go. And President Poroshenko represents a kind of moderately social liberal direction. But because of the pressures of the IMF and of the stringencies he has moved the country in a much harsher economic direction, where he has had to observe very strict budget balancing, strict efforts to try to collect taxes and not to provide too much for the social basket simply because the IMF and the stringencies of Western aid will not allow for it.

I would say that the last election was a debate about which person was better suited to realize the demands of the Maidan. This election is about which person is best suited [to present challenges], between staying the course and continuing at a slow pace of reform, or something unknown or something which reverses reforms with a completely new approach. That has a heavy social orientation, which some people believe will destroy cooperation with the IMF and with Western financial institutions. So, I think this election is also, in a sense, more important, because you have an experienced president most people are not very happy with, you have an inexperienced candidate with whom people are happy with but no one knows how he will cope with Putin, and then you have a known quantity and you are not quite sure what she is known, but she is also known for being unpredictable. Ten years ago, she was arguing for NATO as a bulwark of Ukraine’s interest, a year later she was negotiating with Putin and hedging on NATO. So, again you are dealing with, I would say, a much more pivotal election because I think the fate of the country will be determined. Enough things have moved in terms of Ukrainianization, in terms of the sort of cultural, national, identity direction of Ukraine. Ukrainian voters are going to be voting in an environment where they do not know what the new leaders (are going to do). There are two options against the established order. And they do not know what the people (who they will potentially vote for) will do once they take office. That is the most interesting thing, that they had an idea what Poroshenko would be all about, they had an idea what Tymoshenko will be about, they had an idea what Hrytsenko was all about and in the last election they had an idea what the opposition will be all about. Today there is more uncertainty about what the choices are. The only certainty is, if you vote for Poroshenko you will get a slow, incremental and not entirely satisfying movement towards Europe.

Smerechuk: If one were to look into your crystal ball, what would you say would be the likely outcome of the first round of elections?

Karatnycky: Well, I think the likely outcome is that there will be one systemic system-backing candidate, meaning, the establishment choice and the anti-establishment choice. The question is whether that anti-establishment choice will be Yulia Tymoshenko or Vladimir Zelenskiy. My view is that, the polls seem to indicate at the moment, that Zelenskiy has more oomph than Tymoshenko. I think it’s highly unlikely that the choice would be between two opposition candidates, because I think people that are against what is happening, will eventually focus on one or the other candidate. So, I think the higher odds are that it will Poroshenko vs Zelenskiy, but it could also be Poroshenko vs Tymoshenko. I think the lowest odds are that it would be Tymoshenko vs Zelenskiy. And again, I would say in my view, that is there is an election, Poroshenko has a better chance of beating Zelenskiy, Tymoshenko has a slightly better chance at beating Poroshenko if they’re in the last round. And, in the end, I think Tymoshenko would defeat Zelenskiy. So, I think Zelenskiy is the weakest candidate, because it’s a war country, and people will want someone who knows the outside world, who can articulate. At some point people are going to go into the ballot box and have to ask themselves, is the person that they’ve elected capable of doing what a president is responsible for? Which is protecting their security, negotiating with the world, and protecting the country from outside and inside aggression.

Smerechuk: In these upcoming elections, the OSCE is also running a monitoring mission, and member countries have been invited to send observers. So, what is this about, and why is this so important?

Karatnycky: Well you know, the OSCE is kind of the good seal of approval. Naturally, you know, the United States sends its own delegations, Canada is sending its own delegations, all these are important. But the OSCE has traditionally been an observer that the outside world listens to make a decision of whether the process has been relatively free and fair, and competitive, and whether the elections reflect the will of the people. It’s established a reasonably good track record for that, and because it’s multinational, it doesn’t seem to reflect just the particular national foreign policy interests of a single country. So, I think the OSCE is the most I would say credible of the mechanisms in the rest of the world for watching elections.

Smerechuk: But nonetheless, this mission did become controversial, and the issue came to a head at the beginning of February, when Ukraine refused to allow Russian observers to come in and monitor. So, domestically, this could have been a good position to take, but it was met with a lot of criticism from the OSCE, who used diplomatic language like ‘deeply regret this’. A rather strong critique. How does Ukraine’s justification for its position play out in places like Washington? And what was the response to this at the conference in Munich?

Karatnycky: You know, in terms of the United States’ response, the United States has not made a big issue of this I think. Initially, Kurt Volker [US Special Envoy to Ukraine] indicated that he was siding with the OSCE dismay that Russia’s not there. But I think he pulled back from that position. And I don’t know that the State Department has commented on this issue in any greater depth than Kurt Volker has. And you know, I think that the rationale of Ukraine is reasonable. This is, the country is on a war footing, it’s occupied by a country that would be observing its own internal processes. And I think that it’s important, whatever Ukraine does, in the end, and I think they will stick to their guns. I hope they stick to their guns. Even if they don’t, I think they’ve made the point about Russia and the war, that it is a Russian-prosecuted aggression. Because if Ukraine did not take this step, it would be contributing to covering up the reality. The reality is that there is a Russian occupation, that the leadership that the ‘DNR’ and the ‘LNR’ are directed by Russian security structures and Russian intelligence structures, and financed economically by Russia. That this is not a civil war.

And I think Ukraine has to make that point constantly. Because Europe prefers to be able to have a more open relationship with Russia, to make it seem as if it’s an internal Ukrainian problem. When it is a problem of global importance, of Russian aggression and changing of the borders and invading a neighbouring state. So, I think Ukraine will continue to hear messages. I don’t think they’re going to be particularly strong, but you have to also think that the OSCE has no real mechanism for enforcement. If they did, where is their mechanism of enforcement of Russia’s territorial violation of Ukraine? Russia remains inside the OSCE. It is rewarded by the right to monitor Ukrainian elections in a country that it has occupied. And that’s unbelievable. I don’t think that the United States during the Iraq war would have allowed Saddam Hussein to send a delegation to monitor the US elections. And I don’t think they would have allowed the government of then North Vietnam to monitor the elections when the US was in a war – an undeclared war, but nevertheless a war with the People’s Republic of Vietnam.

Smerechuk: And one last question. Last week we saw another episode in the on-again off-again saga of Minister Ulana Suprun. And the story was that Acting Minister Ulana Suprun was banned from fulfilling her duties as Acting Minister of Health by the District Administrative Court of Kyiv. And because there was a request filed by Ihor Mosiychuk, an MP from the Radical Party. There was a large protest, from many people, many ordinary people, and a significant number of medical experts defended Suprun, as well as the President, the Prime Minister, even the Justice Minister came to speak to the judge in question. And then about a week later the judge did in fact reverse this decision. So, what does this new story tell us about the state of health reform in Ukraine? And what does it tell you about judicial reform?

Karatnycky: I think what it tells you is that there is a powerful group of economic interests, especially in the pharmacological, pharmaceutical field that have a lot of power and influence a lot of deputies and many political factions. That’s one reason why it’s not possible to get the parliament to vote for Ms. Suprun; there’s not a majority for her support because in every faction there is this money that is influencing the behaviour of legislators in the Rada. I think there is no question that what is called by some the ‘pharma-mafia’ is really behind all of this. This is not about even her reforms of creating a system where there’s a more direct relationship between a primary care physician and services provided and remuneration to doctors. That over time I think will become popular. But the real opposition is not there. Maybe some individual physicians are involved, [those] who have accumulated minor fortunes.

But the real money is in the pharmacological, pharmaceutical side, and I think that is what we’re seeing at play. That is what has, I’m going to say it, corrupted the political process. That is what is behind these torts, these lawsuits to remove her from office. Ulana Suprun, if anything, [is notable] by the kind of enemies that she has acquired. And we will remember Mr. Mosiychuk was famous for being taped receiving a cash emolument [payment] for his support of certain positions. So, we know he is capable of corruption because we’ve seen it in a video where he was bribed by another official. Money was changed over the table and recorded in video for all of us to see. So, we know that he was, he and Mr. Liashko’s [Radical] party are reflective of that kind of influence on their political decisions.

I think what that proves is that Ulana Suprun is a person of great integrity, that she is trying to move the country forward. She’s trying to implement deep reforms, and she has touched upon and reformed a very important part of the economy, which means that more drugs are getting to people at lower prices, and those people are going to be safer and healthier. And she’s contributed something; she’s actually accomplished something. And that’s the reason why we go back to your original question, that no, reforms have not stalled. Serious reforms have occurred in many places. Ulana Suprun is just one of those places. Ukrainians have to understand that and embrace it and embrace their heroes.

Smerechuk: Thank you. And on that note, we’ll have to wrap it up, our time is up. Thank you very much Adrian Karatnycky for coming in to talk to us here in the studio.

Karatnycky: A pleasure.


Euromaidan Commemoration

On February 20, Ukraine commemorated one of the most tragic dates of its contemporary history. 5 years ago, dozens of people were killed in the bloodiest episode in Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution. Most of the people who died were picked off by snipers of the now-disbanded Berkut riot police. Since then, despite the fact that over 120 people were killed during the Revolution of Dignity, as the Euromaidan events became called, the guilty have not been identified nor punished, and this remains a source of considerable dismay.

Peacekeepers for Ukraine

Ukraine has again urged UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to draw up options for a peacekeeping mission to the war-torn Donbas region, despite opposition from Russia. President Petro Poroshenko told the General Assembly that deploying a UN-mandated peace force could be a «decisive factor» in bringing an end to the five-year war. Ukraine has pushed the idea of sending blue helmets to the east since 2015, but Russia has rejected the idea.  President Poroshenko described the conflict as a «cruel, ugly, unnecessary war.»

NATO and EU membership for Ukraine

President Poroshenko signed a constitutional amendment committing Ukraine to join NATO and the European Union, though acknowledging that the nation still has a long way to go to meet the membership criteria. Speaking in parliament, Petro Poroshenko said he sees securing Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO as his «strategic mission.»

President of European Council delivers historic speech in Kyiv

European Council President Donald Tusk addressed the Ukrainian parliament this week, declaring that «there is no Europe without Ukraine.» He pledged that the EU would never acknowledge Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and would keep up its sanctions against Moscow. The European statesman, who is a Pole, delivered his speech in Ukrainian.

Threats to the elections

Ukraine’s State Security Service SBU accused Russia of meddling in the electoral process in Ukraine by creating illegal structures to help guarantee victory for a certain candidate. SBU deputy head Viktor Kononenko told a news briefing that a group of Russian citizens and their Ukrainian collaborators had used financial bribes to set up a network of people ready to vote for a certain candidate and to influence public opinion. Meanwhile, Serhii Demediuk, the head of Ukraine’s cyber police, said in an interview with The Associated Press that Russian hackers are redoubling their efforts in the run-up to presidential elections in Ukraine by stepping up attacks on the Central Elections Commission and its employees, trying to penetrate electronic systems in order to manipulate information about the election. Ukraine holds its presidential elections in late March.

Fight for Suprun

The Kyiv District Administrative Court has reversed the temporary suspension on acting Health Minister Ulana Suprun. She is again able to continue fulfilling her ministerial duties. The decision was taken on the court’s own initiative, and not due to the appeal from the government.  Suprun was banned from performing her ministerial duties on February 5, due to a lawsuit against her filed by Radical Party MP Ihor Mosiychuk, who claimed that the acting Health Minister was incompetent and unable to fulfil the role.

Who killed Handziuk?

Vladislav Manger, the head of Kherson’s Regional Council, has been named as a key suspect in the assassination of late activist Kateryna Handziuk, according to Ukrainian prosecutors. General Procurator Yurii Lutsenko says Handziuk was specifically targeted by Manger because of her outspoken criticism on illegal logging in the region. Manger himself rejects these charges – calling them “politically motivated” – and denies meeting Handziuk.

More measles victims

Kyiv has seen its first death from measles in a major outbreak, the health ministry announced. A 57-year-old woman died in hospital of complications from the highly infectious illness. Eight people, including two children, have died of measles in Ukraine this year. There were 16 deaths nationwide in 2018. Around 20,000 people in Ukraine have contracted the highly contagious viral disease since the start of the year.


‘Пливе кача по Тисині’ became Ukraine’s unofficial song of mourning in February 2014 when over a hundred protesters were killed in the final standoff between the people and former president Yanukovych’s corrupt government in what is known as the during the Revolution of Dignity. The protesters won but paid a high price. “Пливе кача” was played at the funerals. This week, Ukraine commemorated the killings of those known as ‘the heavenly hundred,’ and the song was played all over the country. It was written back in 1944, when Ukraine was embroiled in World War II. Musician Taras Chubai recorded it in the late 1990s, but as he said in a recent BBC interview, ‘back then it was not that popular, there were no casualties nearby. But now…”


Next week we will be following the main stories in Ukraine again. Tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at: [email protected] I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Caitilin O”Hare, Leah Wagner and Alexandra Wishart. News by Ira Zolomko. Music selected by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support by Kyrylo Loukerenko. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva.