Foreign Policy Blogs

Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential Elections: The Yuri Tymoshenko Risk

In a worst-case
scenario, political-technological trickery could, after the first round of
Ukraine’s upcoming presidential elections, unsettle social stability in Ukraine.
Cynical puppet masters are prepared to risk the outbreak of a major domestic
civil conflict for the sake of securing re-election of Ukraine’s incumbent
president.

The relatively pluralistic political competition
that emerged after the collapse of the USSR has seen the emergence of new political
manipulation strategies outlined in Andrew Wilson’s seminal monograph Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in
Post-Soviet World
(Yale UP, 2005). This type of distinctly cynical usage of
various deception and falsification tricks for the sake of achieving an electoral
victory has become known under the label “political technology” – a major
vocation for thousands of alumni of post-Soviet “politology” departments. The
roots of “political technology” go back to tactics of the KGB for promoting disarray,
mistrust and factionalism among anti-Soviet dissidents and emigres. While the prime
social function of traditional political science is to help making democracy
work, the purpose of post-Soviet political technology is to prevent democracy
from working as it is supposed to do.

What Is in a Name?

A major instrument of “political technologists’”
ruses, over the last thirty years, has been to subvert fair political
competition via purposefully misleading voters, via word games, about the
choices they are making on election day. Post-Soviet politics has a rich
history of the creation of pseudo-parties associated with names and programs specifically
chosen to confuse electorates about the identities and ideologies of real competitors
in elections. The, perhaps, most infamous such example is Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s
ultra-nationalist “Liberal-Democratic Party” that the Soviet ancien regime invented in 1990, initially
as a mere instrument, to discredit and obscure the real liberal-democratic
movement emerging, in the late USSR, at that time. Since then, there have been hundreds
of examples of elections, in the post-Soviet space, muddled by the appearance
of so-called “technical” parties and candidates the names or/and programs of
which sounded similar to those of some genuine political force whose electoral
support they were designed to dilute.

One would have hoped that Ukraine has overcome
this pathology, at least on the national level, after almost 30 years of
independence, and its three pro-democratic upheavals since then, the so-called Revolution
on Granit of 1990, Orange Revolution of 2004, and Revolution of Dignity of
2013-2014. Alas, this year’s presidential election sees a surprisingly egregious
revival of dirty political deceit strategies, among them the use of, at least,
two especially “technical” candidates. The 2019 presidential candidacies of the
two political nobodies Yuri Tymoshenko, a volunteer soldier, and Yuliya Lytvynenko,
a TV journalist, have clearly the purpose to confuse the voters on election day.
Every Ukrainian citizen has, of course, the right to propose her or his candidacy,
in the elections. Yet, these two candidates are such marginal political
personalities that they are not even mentioned in most opinion polls published
in the run-up to the elections.

The appearance of these two names on the ballot
sheet that voters will be filing in, on 31 March 2019, is a plain attempt to mislead
some of those who would like to elect Yuliya Tymoshenko. A certain amount of voters
will probably make their marks on the wrong line, in the list of presidential
candidates, and mark not Yuliya Tymoshenko, but the minions Yuri Tymoshenko or
Yuliya Lytvynenko. To be sure, both of them have biographies that do not make
them entirely inapt participants of Ukrainian politics. Yet, most Ukrainians
would not be able to identify these two persons who have neither sharp public
profiles nor a political organization or campaign, behind them.

The False Tymoshenko

The re-appearance of such dirty electoral manipulation
strategies could be seen as a minor incident. But the phenomenon is noteworthy
for, at least, three reasons. First, the successful registration, as
presidential candidates, of Yuri Tymoshenko and Yuliya Lytvynenko would not
have been possible without the silent approval from the very state that
currently benefits from large-scale Western support. Ukraine’s president, parliament,
government, general procuracy and electoral commission are permitting or even advancing
this and other trickery, in the run-up to the presidential elections, in spite
of their loud adherence to “Western standards” and “European values,” as well
as pompous claim for soon accession to the EU and NATO. That this and other “political-technological”
deceit is still being actively used in a country with a ratified and especially
far-reaching Association Agreement with Brussels and a Strategic Partnership
Charter with Washington should give Kyiv’s Western partners reason for pause.

Second, during the last two months, the manipulative
candidacies of Yuri Tymoshenko and Yuliya Lytvynenko have, in view of changing
opinion polling results, acquired a potential importance they had not had
before. As a result of the sudden rise of the recent presidential candidate
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the competition for the second place during the presidential
elections’ first round on 31 March has transformed into the major issue of this
vote. According to surveys, Zelenskiy will most probably win in the first round.
But, so far, it is an open question whether incumbent President Petro
Poroshenko or challenger Yuliya Tymoshenko will take the second position – and thus
also advance to the election’s second round on 21 April. Only the first two
candidates in the March round have a chance to become elected president in the April
final vote.

During the last weeks, opinion polls are
producing contradictory results on who will come second in the first round. In
some polls, Poroshenko is ahead of Yuliya Tymoshenko. In others, she takes
second place after Zelenskiy while Poroshenko falls to the third position. The
latter would mean that the incumbent does not make it to the second round and will
have no chance for re-election. Poroshenko’s and Yuliya Tymoshenko’s shares of
support in most polls, regarding the first round, are close or even very close
to each other.

In such a situation, the hitherto irrelevant “technical”
candidacies of Yuri Tymoshenko and Yuliya Lytvynenko have become politically explosive.
That is because a scenario has become possible in which Yuliya Tymoshenko could
come third in the elections’ first round, but may not be ready to accept such a
result in view of the impact of the two “technical” candidates. An
uncompromising stance by Yuliya Tymoshenko would gain legitimacy in the case
that the difference between her voters’ support and Poroshenko’s winning result
would be approximately similar or even smaller than the percentages acquired by
the political nobodies Yuri Tymoshenko and/or Yuliya Lytvynenko. The problematic
aspect of such an outcome would be especially grave, if Poroshenko would then
go on to win, in the second round, against Zelenskiy. In such a case, it would
become plausible to argue that Yuri Tymoshenko and/or Yuliya Lytvynenko stole Yuliya
Tymoshenko’s presidency.

To be sure, Ukraine has its way to deal with such
a situation. In autumn 2004, the Ukrainian elite and population did not accept
the results of the second round of the presidential elections fraudulently won
by Viktor Yanukovych. What followed was a two-months electoral uprising that
became known as the Orange Revolution – which was, by the way, principally led by
Yuliya Tymoshenko. The second round of the elections was repeated on 26
December 2004, after which Petro Poroshenko’s then patron Viktor Yushchenko was
duly inaugurated as President of Ukraine, on 23 January 2005.

Against the background of this and other Ukrainian
uprisings, it is not unlikely that, in case of a dubiously obtained electoral
advantage for Poroshenko, Ukraine could see new mass protests by disenchanted
Tymoshenko voters. If the difference between Poroshenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko
will be smaller than the share of voters for Yuri Tymoshenko or/and Yuliya
Lytvynenko, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across Ukraine could start demanding
a repetition of the elections’ first round. A crucial difference of such a new uprising
from that of 2004 would not only be that, given the enormous amount of fire weapons
nowadays circulating among Ukrainians, it could easily turn violent.

After Me the Deluge

A third and the major worrisome aspect of the
candidacies of Yuri Tymoshenko and Yuliya Lytvynenko is that such potentially explosive
political manipulation happens at a time when Ukraine is in a war for survival.
To be sure, the probability of the above scenario is low. Most likely,
Poroshenko will either come third. Or he comes second and the margin of his
lead, compared to Yuliya Tymoshenko’s result, will be sufficiently significant to
avoid fundamental questions. In such a case, Yuliya Tymoshenko could – at
least, in that regard – not plausibly claim that the voters were deceived and
the elections stolen via this particular “political technology.” An ambivalent
situation would only emerge, if Poroshenko overtakes Yuliya Tymoshenko with a very
small margin – a constellation that will hopefully not emerge.

Yet, the likelihood of this outcome, in the
first round, does not equal zero. While the odds of such a scenario are certainly
small, the stakes are massive. A major conflict inside Ukraine between
pro-Western forces, who may even end up using firearms, would lead to ecstatic celebration
in Moscow, and deep frustration in the West. Worse, large civil unrest in
Ukraine could provide the Kremlin with a window of opportunity to snatch
another chunk of Ukrainian territory, or even crush the Ukrainian state in its
entirety. Again, this is not likely to happen, but cannot be fully excluded, in
the case of an obviously illegitimate loss by Tymoshenko, as a result of dirty “political
technology.”

The fact that the current power-holders are
ready to run such an – even if only improbable, yet – enormous risk in order to
preserve their power is not encouraging. It a stark illustration of the
continuing rapaciousness, immorality and pseudo-patriotism of the loudly pro-Ukrainian
incumbent clan nowadays dominating, in Kyiv. Most Western observers hope for a
continuation of Poroshenko’s presidency after April 2019. Their expectations of
his possible second term should, in view of the dangerous tools Poroshenko’s “political
technologists” have been employing to achieve it, not be high.

 

Author

Andreas Umland
Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), has been a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation at Kyiv, since 2014. He has held fellow- or lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, Catholic University of Eichstaett, and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (ibidem-verlag.de/spps) and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (comfas.org) as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (kyiv-dialogue.org).

Personal web site: ieac.academia.edu/AndreasUmland

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