Ukrainians don’t like to entrench power, they don’t like five years of the same person, — Brian Bonner
Chief Editor of the Kyiv Post and a long-term Ukraine watcher Brian Bonner analyses chances for Volodymyr Zelensky and Petro Poroshenko to win in the presidential elections
Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Alexandra Wishart for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. We’re bringing you our feature interview, followed by some new music.
In this interview, our host Bohdan Nahaylo talks to veteran journalist Brian Bonner about the Presidential race in Ukraine, as they look at the results of the first round of voting, and focus on the battle for the second round.
Nahaylo: Welcome to our in-depth discussion. This week, obviously, given what has been happening in Ukraine, we will be looking at the elections and the aftermath, and where we stand. I am very happy to have as my guest the Chief Editor of the Kyiv Post and a long-term Ukraine watcher. That’s Brian Bonner – welcome Brian!
Bonner: Hey, good to be here Bohdan!
Nahaylo: Well, the obvious questions. I suppose most people know the results: Zelensky 30 percent of the vote, Poroshenko around 17, Tymoshenko barely 13, and many others far behind, apart from maybe Boiko with 10, 11 percent or so. So the significance of it all now that the dust is settling: what’s your take on what actually happened on Sunday? What did those results tell us?
Вonner: Well the results tell us that Ukrainians don’t like to re-elect their presidents. Only one has been reelected, Leonid Kuchma, and he had to cheat to get that done. Or had to apply a lot of pressure to get that done in 1999. Obviously, this is a big vote for change. It’s a big vote for disappointment in President Petro Poroshenko’s first term, even though the President has obviously had some big, significant, achievements, objective achievements, in his first five years: led the nation’s war, defense, against Russia’s war. And I wouldn’t count him out completely at this stage.
Nahaylo: No, he’s still got state resources – huge – and he can obviously manipulate symbols and come across as Ukraine’s defender. Hasn’t one of the weaknesses of Zelensky’s approach been that he hasn’t given the content, that he hasn’t given a program yet? So the supporters of Poroshenko are saying “Don’t vote for Zelensky because you are buying ‘a cat in a sack’’ basically – that is the Ukrainian expression – something you don’t know. You’re buying a promise, or an image but you don’t know what the substance is.
Bonner: Yes. It’s amazing that Zelensky won so decisively with no real program, and with his connections to Ihor Kolomoisky, the billionaire oligarch who is definitely not a popular creature here. I wrote an op-ed online just for the sake of the journalistic intellectual exercise on five ways how Poroshenko can still win. And I have to say right up, it’s going to be a steep, steep, uphill climb. Very steep uphill climb. One, is clean the house. I think he has to get rid of some of the unpopular, unproductive people that are seen as obstructing the corruption fight. And he can start with the prosecutors, both the Prosecutor General and the Special Anti-Prosecutor. He needs to reach out to critics, he cannot demonize people and then expect that they come back to him after they have been demonized. I also think that he needs to reach out to the losers. One of the big surprises I think was Ihor Smeshko, the former SBU (State Security Service) chief who with very little effort got six percent of the vote and probably took it away from Anatoly Hrytsenko and Yulia Tymoshenko helping Poroshenko to get into the second round.
Nahaylo: Yes, I think that Hrytsenko’s performance was rather disappointing given that he represented a coalition of democratic figures including Sadovy, mayor of Lviv and leader of the Samopomich [Self Reliance] Party, and they barely got seven percent. And Smeshko coming from nowhere, a former security chief who went into politics for the first time, suddenly gets six percent.
Bonner: Well there are other shocking elements to this race, I think. I was surprised that Boyko, Yuriy Boyko former and Vilkul…
Nahaylo: Former Regions Party, pro-Russian, people..
Bonner: Pro-Russian people who together got 15 percent of the vote. Obviously, Yulia Tymoshenko is out. I think you remember, Poroshenko some months ago was in single digit territory, so he has risen…
Nahaylo: Largely by playing on national feelings, the Tomos, language…
Bonner: Yes, yes. Army, Language, Faith! And I think he is going to hammer away at Zelensky’s inexperience, and is going to hang Igor Kolomoisky around Zelensky’s neck.
Nahaylo: Is it fair to present Kolomoisky as the villain of the piece, as the Poroshenko camp is doing? We hear nothing about Akhemetov, Firtash. We have not heard about them for a long time other than them having courts reinstating their property [seized by the state] in the last week or two.
Bonner: Well, that’s what I mean. I think that that this explains why the President took such a drubbing in the polls. People did not see that he was doing anything to disrupt the oligarchy, fight corruption, and I think that’s what people voted for. I think people want change and right now you know the anger over the status quo, or disappointment over the status quo, is far greater than the fear of the unknown with Zelensky. Well I am going to write an op-ed about five things Zelensky should do to win. I don’t think he has to do much. I think he may just run out the clock. I don’t think he will debate and I think that Poroshenko wants him in that debate because Poroshenko is very good at speaking, he is very good at policy. He is very persuasive.
Nahaylo: And he’s got the facts and figures in his hands and in his mind. So obviously Zelensky would be at a clear disadvantage if he went into it.
Bonner: Could be, could be. But as you remember, Ronald Reagan also was not that good at facts and figures, but good in the big picture. But unfortunately, there is no debate culture in politics here. In America, you are expected to debate often. Here, remember, Poroshenko did not want to debate Yulia Tymoshenko in 2014.
Nahaylo: I’ve forgotten that, thanks for reminding us!
Bonner: And has been averse to debates and confrontational…
Nahaylo: Well this is the great paradox about him, as he is such a good communicator abroad when he speaks in English, when he speaks to the BBC or whoever else, yet at home he has not really been a communicator with his people.
Bonner: Yes, and I think they [Poroshenko’s team] think they are going to pull through this. I think they are hoping that Ukrainians will wake up and say: Hey wait a minute who do you want to represent yourself, represent your nation at the world stage? But the time is very, very short. However, if Zelensky gets in, he had better have a reform program right from the word go. If the reformers turn out to be window dressing he’s going to have a very short honeymoon I think, if he gets elected. And also, I think that if I were him, I would purge, or not have anybody associated with Kolomoisky in the administration.
Nahaylo: Yes, he has to prove that he is his own person. That he is not, as he is being accused, a puppet on somebody else’s strings. But as you rightly point out, he needs to get a credible program, or at least the contours of a program out in the next days. He doesn’t even have the three weeks. Because people have to see that he is serious about being a President.
Bonner: Well you saw and you yourself told me about you know he’s got ex-Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk, and that he laid out a program that looks pretty good.
Nahaylo: Yes, for starters, it looks very good. What Danyliuk stressed on 2 April, was: Look, we’re interested in being a majority party in parliament. What we’re doing now, and what we’re preparing, is not just to win the election. We want to have enough seats in the new parliament that will be elected in October to be able to put through our policies and our reforms.”
Bonner: Yes, and Bohdan you’ve got that right. And I think that if the incumbent President wins, he is going to get a natural following in parliament, and maybe the big winner here will be Volodymyr Groysman because he’s going to stay probably as Prime Minister.
Nahaylo: But we know that there was behind the scenes, if not friction, than shall we say a distancing of the Prime Minister from the President.
Bonner: How do you think, if Poroshenko’s not elected – I know they’re not thinking of Plan B if they get defeated, but…
Nahaylo: Well I think they’ll just try to rally what they can for some kind of core group that’s left in parliament. And live to fight another day.
Bonner: And I know you’ve written about this and we’re both, you know, patriots of Ukraine: we need a unified transition. Do you think that there’s going to be, whoever loses is going to be a good loser and can do something to unite the country?
Nahaylo: At this stage, no. But both candidates, realize that they have to appeal to the middle ground and to win over the millions of undecided voters. And the other thing I wanted to interject in parentheses – let’s return to this – that turnout was expected to be 70 percent plus, even reaching 80, a week or two ago, yet on the day it was 63, 62 percent, something like that. Why did millions of people not turn up at such a critical moment? It was nice weather in Kyiv. What kept them away?
Bonner: Well I think that goes back to the need for electoral law reform. I think the registration process has to be easier. I think those who moved, faced some bureaucracy: re-registering and then having to re-register again. I think there were not a lot of internally displaced people who voted. I still think that voting procedures for Ukrainians who live abroad could be easier. So, there was that, and of course there was that – you know, you talk to everybody, you talk to more people than I do – people were very unhappy with the choices. But I really sense this feeling that though they’re unhappy with the choices, Ukrainians don’t like to entrench power, they don’t like dynasties, they don’t like five years of the same person.
Nahaylo: Authoritarian rule, and somebody dominant. It’s what we call the ‘Hetman’ syndrome, no one is more important than me. If there are two Ukrainians, you know there will be three Hetmans. But, I think that’s also a reflection of this individualism that borders on anarchism, here in Ukraine, in our history. Cossacks, Mazepa, and everybody else. But let’s also look ahead now. So, the dust is settling, as I say, both teams are catching their breath and trying to come up with the most effective strategy. What do you think Poroshenko will do? You’ve said what you think he should do, what do you think he can actually do in the two weeks that are left?
Bonner: Well, I think in the two weeks that are left I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of black PR ops. I’m not sure how much of it will stick. I think he does have to take some decisive moves in getting rid of some people who have been obstructing the corruption fight. I think he has to signal that he’s going to really fight corruption if he gets back in, and I think that that requires him to name some people. I think that he’s going to have to appeal to at least, if not the losers, then their programs – and maybe he can find some ways to appeal to their programs. Hopefully, it’s going to be honest and clean. We had a good, honest, clean first round.
Nahaylo: More or less.
Bonner: More or less. Yes, Yulia Tymoshenko wouldn’t agree, but I don’t think he needed to apply a lot of pressure and plus, it was a very intensely observed election. So, he needs to do it all democratically. He’s got a very short time.
Nahaylo: You’ve noticed that when he was watching the exit polls, Poroshenko acknowledged that he had heard the signal of the disappointment in the protest vote, and then he made that statement: “I hear you, young people.” What can he offer at this stage to placate and win over the younger voters that have gone for an unknown quantity, but who is younger and offering change?
Bonner: That’s going to be a difficult sell with the young people, but I think he’s going to project himself as a statesman, as the one who can speak English, who can hold his own with anybody, as the one who’s not…I think he’s probably going to try to tag his opponent as pro-Russian even though Zelensky’s obviously said he’s not going to make any concessions in that area. But he’s running out of time. He’s got to do a lot in a hurry to change a lot of people’s minds.
Nahaylo: And yet Zelensky doesn’t have to do so much. Come out with some basic points about policy and direction forward, and not make mistakes, not say the wrong things.
Bonner: I’d be very surprised if he came out with an activist program. I mean in this next two weeks. I think he’s got the lead and it’s very hard to see how… Where do you think the Boyko/Vilkul voters will go?
Nahaylo: Well, I think part of them some of them won’t vote, obviously, being disgusted that they got a relatively poor showing. Some will vote for Zelensky.
Bonner: Poroshenko has to win over 60 percent of the other voters to even have a chance.
Nahaylo: Yes. That’s huge! But you notice in the east, the Luhansk and Donetsk regions voted for Boyko, and Vilkul, they’ve remained, despite all the effort that’s been invested in winning back the mentality of these people. They’ve voted for the pro-Russian candidates, which is also worrying. Whoever comes in is going to have a huge task, not only on the economic and, social fronts, as regards reform, but even, you know, in terms of keeping the unity of the country intact.
Bonner: What do you think the legacy, if this is it, of Petro Poroshenko will be? I mean, he did have outstanding achievements: led the nation’s defense during war; secured visa-free travel; signed an historic economic agreement with the European Union; won independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. What happened?
Nahaylo: I think he made a very good start, but I think he let this side down by being torn between being a businessman and an primus inter pares among the oligarchs who had more or less agreed to him taking power, taking the pieces of the pie away from the Yanukovych clans, and his role expected of him as a statesman, as a national leader. He said much of what was expected of him, but it seems that behind the scenes he gave preference to the balance of interests and the status quo, the economic status quo, keeping the structures that exist.
Bonner: Which is not what Ukrainians want.
Nahaylo: Not after the Revolution of Dignity. And then it’s been very difficult for him, even though he played on the national card and on national feelings. Like with the Tomos, getting independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow, things that are very important – but why didn’t he start that three years ago? Why bring in a bill on the status of the Ukrainian language, which has been very important for Ukrainians, but is potentially divisive at a time of elections, into the parliament on the eve of the elections? And it was blocked, showing how difficult all of this is.
Nahaylo: And today somebody commented, because the Deputy Speaker, pro-Poroshenko, Herashchenko said “We’ll get parliament to force them to debate. I’m going to introduce a bill to make it mandatory for the two remaining candidates to have a debate.” Another MP, a woman MP replied, to her, “It’s not going work, you don’t have time, it has to go through the Preparatory Commission, but more importantly, it’s not fair because you’ve put so much emphasis on the language law, now suddenly for political interests something else takes precedence, and you want to put it on the back burner because it suits somebody at the top.” So, not all simple. But as we approach the final minutes, I think one thing that I’d like to ask you about is, that clearly this was a victory for democracy. It was a victory in the sense that the elections happened, but it was also a victory for affirming Ukraine’s Western orientation. Surprisingly perhaps, the election was not about going back to Russia, or the war being stopped at any cost, though this issue was manipulated. So it really was about internal matters; about how the country should be managed.
Bonner: It was, and I think that the debate over the foreign policy course is settled. It’s pro-European Union, it’s pro-NATO, it’s pro-democracy.
And now the issue is that voters want not just talk about transformation; they want their leaders to undertake the real steps and changes, because they want an end to the oligarchic privileges. It’s not about throwing people in jail anymore; I don’t think that’s possible, I don’t even think that’s probably wise at this point. It is about ending the privileges going forward, and even there we have resistance now. But you’re right about the election. It was really done in a civil way. I don’t know that we can say that we have, or know any country that has, including even my own, America, a true democracy. But we have as as many people said, oligarchic pluralism. There isn’t just one dominant authoritarian interest, there are competing interests, and an active civil society pushing forward. So I think that we are a triumph in democracy, and we are a golden beacon, certainly compared to some of our neighbors, Belarus, Russia…
Nahaylo: But let’s just finish off with Russia. I mean surely this is a huge blow for Putin, because with a Russian-speaking candidate winning the first round so convincingly, what does this say as regards the justification Putin has used to intervene in Ukrainian affairs, seize its territory, etc.
Bonner: Done, finished, gone! I mean, the only danger I see is that, as I said, Boyko, Vilkul – I’m a little bit surprised that they got as many votes as they did. It shows how many people still feel – disaffected – in those areas. An encouraging sign I think, in terms of national unity, is that Zelensky was able to do pretty well –
Nahaylo: And got a lot of the votes that would otherwise have gone to the pro-Russian candidates. Do you think, if he’s successful, long-shot, a Russophone President, who will switch to Ukrainian of course, but who appeals and protects the interests of the Russian speakers, if he does well, that he will win over some of those who are still pro-Russia?
Bonner: Yes. But I also think he’s – we’ve got to make big economic improvements. And on that I don’t envy the next President. I think it’s going be a huge challenge. I think vested interests are going to be very strong, but I think that economic improvement is going to be decisive, very decisive, in how people view him. And I think he’s got to show, obviously, his achievements, before the October Parliamentary Elections. And you know, if Poroshenko and the Narodniy Front of Yatsenyuk, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, play a constructive role, I still believe that there can be progress. Because we can’t – Ukrainians have said this – we cannot go on like this, with the economy at such a low level, growing at such a slow pace.
Nahaylo: Finally, any last thoughts you’d want to share? Advice to journalists who are covering the election? Maybe listening outside, not necessarily based in Ukraine?
Bonner: I think that Zelensky was an awakening to people outside. And although I didn’t watch him, he’s a very familiar face to Ukrainians in the last twenty years on TV. He’s not just out of nowhere. And Servant of the People is brilliant satire; he understands what’s wrong with this country, and what’s wrong with how it runs. I hope that he’s genuine. And I hope that the reformers come. But I think that, I mean if you’re betting now, the odds are there’s going to be a change. But journalists outside should know, and we’ve heard this many times before, Ukraine’s going to survive this. Ukraine has survived so much worse, and when Ukraine is under attack, it’s when Ukrainians and their friends – foreign friends, and I consider myself one, will rally to the cause. So hopefully he can appeal to this patriotism that Ukrainians feel, and that their friends abroad feel. And journalists should give Zelensky a fresh look if he becomes President. But you know, it will become pretty clear whether he’s going in the right direction by the people he surrounds himself with. And we also shouldn’t hesitate to be critical if – and I don’t think Ukrainians will hesitate to be critical – they see him going in the wrong direction.
Nahaylo: Right. Well thank you very much. I’ve been talking to Brian Bonner, the Chief Editor of the Kyiv Post. Thanks so much Brian for sharing your thoughts with us.
Bonner: Thanks for the time.