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Flawed As It Is, Ukrainian Democracy Continues To Be Competitive, – Paul D'Anieri

Political Scientist Paul D’Anieri speaks to Marta Dyczok about Ukraine’s Election Year 2019: War, Wildcards, and Winning

Flawed As It Is, Ukrainian Democracy Continues To Be Competitive, – Paul D'Anieri

Hello and 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, our host Marta Dyczok talks to political scientist Paul D’Anieri, a Professor at the University of California-Riverside, about Ukraine’s election year which will see presidential elections at the end of March and parliamentary elections in October. But first a round-up of news from and about Ukraine.

FEATURE INTERVIEW: Political Scientist Paul D’Anieri speaks to Marta Dyczok about Ukraine’s Election Year 2019: War, Wildcards, and Winning

Dyczok: Hello and welcome to a new year of Ukraine Calling podcast on Hromadske Radio. I’m Marta Dyczok, and this week we’ll be talking about elections. 2019 is a big election year in Ukraine. Presidential elections are scheduled for the 31st of March and parliamentary elections for the fall. To speak to us about this, we have Paul D’Anieri, Professor of public policy and political science at the University of California Riverside, former Executive Vice-Chancellor and Provost. Professor D’Anieri is an expert on East European, post-Soviet, and Ukrainian politics. He’s the author of numerous books and articles, his latest one co-authored with Taras Kuzio, “The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order.” Professor D’Anieri, thank you very much for finding the time to speak to us.

D’Anieri: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.

Dyczok: You are a long-time observer and analyst of Ukrainian politics, one of the top experts, really. This is going to be Ukraine’s seventh presidential election. Now, you’ve carefully watched the first six. In what ways do you think this one is likely to be different from previous ones?

D’Anieri: I think the biggest and most significant difference in this election is the way that the electorate has changed. The Crimea has been annexed by Russia, a big chunk of the Donbas is occupied by Russian-supported forces and Russian forces, and that takes a couple of million voters out of the electorate. As it should be clear to most people, it’s not a representative group of people that’s been taken out. It’s people that have tended to support the Party of Regions, in particular have supported what we would generally call pro-Russian candidates. And so, the shape of the electorate has changed such that a candidate running sort of on the base of Eastern/Southern Ukraine and on a pro-Russian platform, or at least a platform of good relations with Russia, probably can’t win the election.

Dyczok: So that’s the big shift is the –

D’Anieri: That is the big shift, yes.

Dyczok: Well –

D’Anieri: Someone like Victor Yanukovych who won a free and fair election in 2010, if you redo the numbers from 2010 with occupied Donbas and Crimea taken out, and I’ve done the numbers on this, it shows that Timoshenko would then have won that election.

Dyczok: Interesting. Now, predicting elections, this is what everybody’s doing. Who’s going to win? I’m not going to ask you that because that’s too risky, but what I would like to ask you is who are the candidates? You said that pro-Russian candidates don’t really have a chance in this election. Who are the candidates? They haven’t all declared themselves yet, but we have a pretty clear idea of who’s running, so who are the big candidates here, who are the main players?

D’Anieri: Well, yes, there’s a big slate of candidates.

Dyczok: Too big I would say.

D’Anieri: Yes. Too big for things really to be clear but just to, you know, sort of run down some of the big names, right. Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent President. Yulia Tymoshenko, who’s been a candidate, a second-round candidate in the past, including in 2010. [Anatolyi] Hrytsenko, a former Defense Minister. Slava Vakarchuk, a pop singer. One of the, I think, really interesting characters is [Vadym] Boyko, from the opposition block, who will be one of the, sort of the main characters, or main candidates representing constituents in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. And of course, the actor-slash-comedian [Volodymyr] Zelenskyi, who is perhaps the wildcard in this whole election. And that’s to name maybe the biggest half-dozen or so, but there are another dozen potential candidates as well.

Paul D’Anieri Photo courtesy of Paul D’Anieri

Dyczok: So, what are the issues? Ukraine’s been on the receiving end of a war for 4+ years, part of it’s territory’s been annexed, the political landscape has changed, here’s a whole bunch of people who want to be president. What are they going to be looking to, how are they going to be attracting voters? What are they going to be- what issues will they be focusing on?

D’Anieri: This is a really good question, and I think one of the ways in which this election will show some continuity with previous elections is the Ukrainian candidates and Ukrainian political parties in general have generally not differentiated themselves on ideology. There are some parties that are clearly more nationalist, and some that are less, but there’s not much of a traditional left-right split that people are running on. There’s not really a, sort of a free-market traditional European, what you might call a free-market or liberal party. Nor are there really any parties competing today that you would really call clearly left-wing parties. So, a lack of ideology is one of the issues. And so what people are competing on is their arguments that they will accomplish the same set of goals better than others. So, for example, on the war with Russia. Nobody is really saying that they are going to cut a deal with Russia. Or that they’re going to negotiate an end to this war. What everybody is saying is that they’re going to do a better job of prosecuting the war. And that they’re going to bring it to a successful conclusion. Which, it seems, none of them is really going to have the ability or power to do.

Dyczok: Are they proposing any strategies? Or are they just making these claims? Because this is the part that I just find confusing. ‘We are going to do a better job,’ but how?

D’Anieri: Well this is the way in which I think Ukrainian politics is a lot like politics in Western advanced democracies, which is there’s a lot more on what you’re going to accomplish than on exactly how you are going to do that and how you are going to overcome the constraints.

So, this is not unique to Ukraine. One might say this is the nature of democratic politics. I think what is interesting in Ukraine again is there is less differentiation on what the goal should actually be. So, for example Timoshenko vs Poroshenko, they’re essentially promising to do the same things but are promising to do it better. That’s the kind of thing we are seeing. And also, there is just more appeals to identity which we also see in other democratic polities as well. Some of the candidates are more associated, for a lack of a better term, with eastern or southern Ukraine and are more nationally going to appeal to those constituencies. I don’t think there’s quite enough votes in Eastern and Southern Ukraine to win an election just based on them. It’s still a lot of votes, close to 50% of the votes in the country are in those regions. And so those voters will play a big role in who wins this election.

Dyczok: Another big issue in Ukraine is the discussion about corruption and fighting against corruption. If you look at people who are declared candidates or will be running, how are they going to address this issue?

D’Anieri: That is another very good question. As it relates to the election, I think everybody says they are going to do something about it. What they actually will do, or attempt to do, or will be able to do, given the fact that power is divided in Ukrainian politics is another question. And I think a lot of questions that people have while analyzing these candidates is really trying to guess. Which ones are really going to tackle corruption, as opposed to more or less. This is an issue that I think is particularly salient as it relates to the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, because he is the incumbent President, he has more of a record for people to evaluate. And depending on how you look at that. And I’ve heard people who I know really well who are debating this, you know whether, to use the frequent metaphor, whether Poroshenko’s record on reform in general, and on corruption in particular, is a glass half empty or a glass half full.

Dyczok: Can I ask you what your position on that is? You don’t have to answer but I’m curious because this speaks to his electability, right?

D’Anieri: Yes. I’m an American, I don’t necessarily feel like it’s necessarily my business to intervene too far in terms of who Ukrainians should vote for. I try to analyze things. I think I would say two things. I think we have to recognize that Ukraine is a democracy with divided government by constitution. The parliament plays a big role, the cabinet plays a big role. I think we need to look well beyond just what the President is doing in terms of whether reform proceeds or doesn’t proceed. That being said, I don’t know anybody who isn’t disappointed with what’s been accomplished in the last 5 years. I think the question is not are we happy with how much reform there has been or how much corruption still exists, but whom do we blame for it? Do we believe that Poroshenko’s done as much as he could, or close to as much as he could have? Or do we feel like he could have done a lot more?

Dyczok: Well I think that’s the key question in this election, because in many ways this is an evaluation of Petro Poroshenko’s term as President. And the other question is, is there anybody out there who could possibly do any better? And I’m just wondering if you think that we will have one of the established players, or one of these new players, appealing more effectively to the electorate. 

D’Anieri: So, this gets to what I think is the wild card in this election. And that is Zelenskyi.

Dyczok: For our listeners who don’t know who Zelenskyi is, could you please briefly explain?

D’Anieri: Yes. He is a Ukrainian comedian, actor, who is in a Ukrainian TV show, the title of which translates into English as ‘Servant of the People.’ And in this television show he plays an average Ukrainian who through some strange set of circumstances finds himself as President of the country, and then does all of these things. So, this is a bizzare instance, potentially, of life imitating art

Dyczok: Wouldn’t that be something!

D’Anieri: Where someone who has played a character on TV is now going to try and play the character in real life, which is to become a non-politician who becomes President of Ukraine. He has backing, by all accounts, by some powerful oligarchs. So, he’s sometimes seen as a ‘project,’ as Ukrainians say, or as a virtual candidate. But in my estimation he’s becoming less of a virtual candidate and more of an actual candidate all of the time. I think it’s fairly easy to discount him, right, he’s a comedian he’s not a politician, he plays this role on TV, and so on. But. Non-politician candidates have been doing very well in elections around the world in recent years. In the United States, of course, we elected somebody with a real estate and reality TV background, with no real political experience to be President. In Italy, the Five Star movement is now essentially part of the ruling coalition. That was started by a comedian, Beppe Grillo. There’s enough populism in Ukraine, as there is throughout Europe, and throughout the democratic world these days to imagine somebody like this doing better than we might imagine. And in particular, as we get to the second round. [Ukraine’s electoral law stipulates that unless a candidate wins over 50% in the first round, the vote goes to a second run-off round between the two candidates who received the highest votes in round one.] There is enough negativity surrounding both Mr. Poroshenko [incumbent] and Ms. Tymoshenko [high poling candidate] that a sort of ‘I’m against all establishment candidates’ vote might end up piling up for someone else.

Right now, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are the two leading candidates. They are also the two candidates with the highest negative ratings.

So, if they go into the second round against one another it will be very interesting to see what happens. But if either of them ends up in a second round against a lesser known candidate, the kind of populist backlash against the establishment that we’ve seen elsewhere might lead to an upset in Ukraine.

Dyczok: Populism is indeed on the rise globally, and there’s a question about how this relates to the more traditional politics, and political parties. Because in Ukraine, and you’ve studied this, written about this, political parties exist, but they are not the main players. And yet, there’s going to be a Parliamentary election coming up in the fall. Some people have linked the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, that some leaders of political parties are running for the Presidential election to raise the profile of their parties. I’m thinking of someone like Andriy Sadovyi, who’s the head of the Samopomich Party. He clearly has very few chances of winning for President, but this will give him a platform to publicize his party. Do you see a link between the Parliamentary election and the Presidential election?

D’Anieri: Yes. And, actually, there’s pretty good cross-national political science evidence, you know, data, to show that in situations where a parliamentary election follows closely on a presidential election, the presidential election has a knock-on impact on the parliamentary election. In the case of Ukraine, people have tended to rally around the president and the president’s party. Over time, that would fall off to some extent. But because these elections are so close, whoever wins the presidential election will likely get a boost for their party in the parliamentary elections. But to your question: what about the other candidates who have no hope of winning the presidential election? You’re absolutely right; they’re trying to boost their profile and their party’s profile for the parliamentary election, because that will give them more influence and power. They may also be, in the cases of some of these candidates, hoping to boost their visibility for some future presidential election. They may also be hoping to get enough votes in the first round to put them in a good position to maybe make some sort of alliance with one of the candidates in the second round. In return for potentially a cabinet position, or something else down the road.

Dyczok: Let’s shift gears away from the politicians and back to the electorate. There are estimated 2 million internally displaced people in Ukraine, from Crimea, from the Donbas, they have not been able to vote in previous elections. And I’ve been following that there’s legislation that’s been drafted to allow them to vote in these elections. But I haven’t seen whether these laws have actually been adopted. What about these people? Are they going to be disenfranchised in these two very important elections?

D’Anieri: I think the short answer is yes. They’re going to be disenfranchised. Voter registration in Ukraine is based on one’s place of residence. And there’s this sort of catch-22 for internally displaced people, is that as long as they’re registered as a resident of one of the occupied territories, they’re eligible for some kind of benefits as IDP’s (internally displaced people). If they set up shop somewhere else, they potentially can lose those benefits. So, there’s that tension in the short term between retaining IDP status and obtaining the residency status somewhere else to vote. One would imagine that with enough attention to it, one could register these people to vote somewhere else. But that will be tricky.

It’s fairly easy to say that people who are temporarily displaced should be able to vote in national elections; what about regional elections, what about local elections, if their status somewhere is considered temporary? So, figuring out exactly how this should work is not a simple matter.

And then of course actually implementing a solution is not a simple matter. Actually, registering the people and deciding where they’re going to have the right to vote, not only for national candidates but for local candidates will be tricky. And there will be a potential for fraud and for manipulation in doing that. The last point I would make is that because of where these people come from, and because people might make assumptions about how they’re likely to vote or for whom they’re likely to vote, a lot of the politicians who get to decide a solution to this might have a pretty significant interest in them not voting. If you assume that everyone from the Donbas is more likely to vote for a particular kind of candidate, which has been true in the past, although how being displaced may have affected them we don’t know-

Dyczok: Well, that’s just it, that’s just it, the people-

D’Anieri: … but we’re making the assumption that if you’re a politician from the rest of Ukraine, you may want to disenfranchise them.

Dyczok: Yes, I think that’s a very good observation. But the people who have chosen to leave, it would seem to me, are the ones who didn’t want to stay under the new regime.

D’Anieri: Yes.

Dyczok: So, they are not the ones who would be voting for the pro-Russian parties anyway.

D’Anieri: I think that’s a good point, and I wish—and there are people out there who are trying to do it and it’s really hard work to do—to collect good data on the political opinions of people who are displaced.

Dyczok: Well, perhaps a project we could work on.

D’Anieri: Yes, it’s a great question about sort of selection bias.

Dyczok: You mentioned the possibility of some types of abuses during the electoral process. The last few elections in Ukraine have been pretty clean. There haven’t been wide-scale incidents of corruption. Do you have any projections on how the elections will function? Do you see that they’re going to be clearer, as in fair? Or do you see any potential for manipulation of voters lists and that sort of thing? Is there any danger of that?

D’Anieri: I’m not the biggest expert on the micro-level stuff, but from everything I read and from the people I’ve talked to, I don’t think there’s the level of concern for this election that there was for example about the 2012 parliamentary elections, or certainly the 2004 presidential elections, where it was sort of obvious going in that preparations for all sorts of shenanigans were under way. Or even the 1999 presidential elections, where we saw a lot of stuff being done with bussing voters around, with inducing, coercing people to vote particular ways, and so on. So, there will always be some of that, but I think there’s a fair amount of confidence that that will be relatively limited, and that international observers are going to have fairer access to be able to report what abuses there are.

Dyczok: Can we expect any surprises with these elections?

D’Anieri: Well, Marta if we expected them they wouldn’t be surprises. But what we can expect, we can expect there will be surprises, we just don’t know which ones they’re going to be. You know, the first kind of hint we got at this was the declaration of martial law-

Dyczok: Yes, martial law.

D’Anieri: Of martial law, you know in November. And the first surprise was that it happened; the second surprise was that it ended when they said they were going to end it. Was that a trial balloon on the part of Poroshenko to see what the reaction would be and see what he could get away with? We just don’t know. And in this respect, obviously Poroshenko as the president has a lot of levers he could pull. For example, potentially ramping up the conflict in the east, or laying out some new diplomatic initiative. He’s already, you know, put a lot of focus on the new status of the Ukrainian Church.

But, of course, the other actor who could pull a lot of levers would be Mr. Putin and the Russian government. Which is, at any time, as they did in November, at any time they can ramp the conflict up, or add a conflict in a new area.

And while certainly if they knew that it was going to manipulate the election, and they knew that it was going to give them the effect they wanted, I would expect them to do it; I think it’s difficult however, to exactly predict whether a ramping up of the war in the east for example, would help a candidate that Russia wanted to get elected, or might hurt the candidate. So, we’ll just have to see.

Dyczok: Well, Ukrainian elections are always interesting and unpredictable, so I think we’re got a lot to watch here. Actor running for president, possibly picking up some protest votes or dissatisfaction votes; different political parties in the mix. Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask you?

D’Anieri: Yes, I mean I think I would emphasize the incredible importance of the point that you just made and of the whole conversation. Which is, we’re a couple months out from this election, and we don’t know who is going to win.

Dyczok: Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that democracy?

D’Anieri: And the same thing is true of the parliamentary elections, and frankly, that’s not true in most of Ukraine’s neighbours. And that’s something that, a few years ago when Ukraine looked like it might come to an end—there have been a couple times in Ukraine when it looked like that might come to an end— so for all of the problems, and I would not minimize them at all, somehow as flawed as it is, Ukrainian democracy continues to be very competitive. And I do think that’s worth recognizing.

Dyczok: Well, thank you very much for your analysis. We’ll be watching as this develops, and maybe we’ll have you back closer to the election or post-election show.

D’Anieri: I’d be happy to do it. Thank you.

Dyczok: Thank you very much. We’ve been speaking with Paul D’Anieri, Professor of political science at the University of California Riverside. This is Marta Dyczok for Ukraine Calling. Thanks for listening.


Independent Church

Ukraine’s parliament adopted a bill spelling out procedures for transferring church property after a new unified Ukrainian Orthodox church was granted independence.

The bill could potentially affect some 12,000 churches in Ukraine and vast amounts of property, including the gems of Orthodox Christianity like the vast Pechersk (or Caves) Monastery in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv controlled by the pro—Russian Orthodox Church that remains loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.  The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople earlier this month granted independence to a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, formally severing its centuries-long ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Captured sailors

Russia has extended the detention of captured Ukrainian sailors. On 14 January the sailors were led into Moscow’s Lefortovsky district court in groups by masked Russian officers wearing camouflage, some armed with assault rifles. The men have been held in the city’s Lefortovo prison since they were transferred from Crimea in late November. Ukraine considers the sailors as prisoners of war and their lawyers argue that Russia was is violating the Geneva Convention by trying them as civilians. The court rejected these arguments and ordered the pretrial detention of at least 20 of the sailors be extended until 25 April.

Remote-Control Killer Robots 

Ukraine is developing remote-control killer robots to be employed in the war against Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian company Global Dynamics recently unveiled its 4×4 Iron Clad UGV weighing only 1.2 tons, with an articulated two-segmented configuration with sophisticated all-terrain capabilities. It has a dual fiber-optic and radio-link control system and hybrid diesel-electric propulsion—though the 12 KW generator means the vehicle can only jog at 12 miles per hour.

Manafort case

A prominent US law firm has agreed to pay $4.6 million to settle charges it lobbied illegally for Ukraine, in a case linked to Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. The US Justice Department said that Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP had failed to register as a foreign agent when it contributed to a public relations campaign in 2012 aimed at defending the then Ukrainian government’s prosecution of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.


This week we have a new song for you, just released by the band called Royalkit (Роялькіт). They describe is as a musical mystery, to round off the holiday season, which in Ukrainian tradition is celebrated through this weekend’s Shchedriy Vechir. The song is called Коза (Koza – Goat), one of the characters in the Christmas nativity play – Vertep. Enjoy!


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 Marta Dyczok, Malika Navruzova, Caitilin O’Hare and Leah Wagner.  News by Ira Zolomko. Music selected by Andriy Kulykov and Marta Dyczok. Sound engineers Adam Courts, Andriy Izdryk and Dmitry Smiyan. Web support by Kyrylo Loukerenko. Special thanks to 94.9 CHRW Radio Western.

Hromadske Radio is facing a financial crunch and is appealing to listeners for support. Should you feel inclined to donate to keep this project going, please follow the link to the crowdfunding campaign.


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