- - Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Presidential elections in Ukraine are still a year away. The contest will be nasty, with the consequences for that country and the region hanging in the balance. Some 60 percent of likely voters haven’t decided on a preferred candidate or party, reflecting wide disenchantment with all the available choices. Polls show former Prime Minister and perennial presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko holding first place in a crowded field, with constant ups and downs among the other contenders.

At this point Mrs. Tymoshenko appears to be the early frontrunner with about 25 percent of the electorate firmly with her. In a country where corruption remains a major concern, her ability to sustain her lead and win a two-candidate runoff is open to question.

It will be harder as competitors hammer her history of questionable associations amid recent scandals. Among the most current is Mrs. Tymoshenko’s falling out with erstwhile protg and Rada (Parliament) Deputy Nadia Savchenko. Ms. Savchenko is famous for her confrontation with Russian prosecutors in her 2016 trial for war crimes, for which she was pardoned and later exchanged, receiving a heroine’s welcome back home.

But after entering the Rada in Mrs. Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchina (“Fatherland”) faction, Ms. Savchenko moderated her tone and even advocated direct talks with the leaders of the Lugansk and Donetsk entities supported by Russia. In March 2018, Ms. Shavchenko was arrested and accused of plotting to assassinate fellow Rada members.

Second, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) — a key agency supported by Western governments — has launched an investigation into Mrs. Tymoshenko’s alleged receipt of nearly $5 million in illegal campaign contributions from former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Third, the Washington lobbying firm Avenue Strategies — which the Daily Beast has described as hiking its fees in light of its valuable ties to the Trump administration — in March filed with the Justice Department as an agent for Mrs. Tymoshenko under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for a hefty $780,000 annual fee. Yet Mrs. Tymoshenko denied any knowledge of the agreement and the engagement was terminated abruptly when Ukrainian journalists began to question details about the agreement. Paperwork with the Justice Department shows the contract was signed on her behalf of a Delaware-registered LLC, Two Paths. Two Paths representative Marlen Kruzhkov reportedly has previously represented Russian oligarchs — raising the issue of who in fact was paying the bill, and for what reason.

Fourth, it’s hard to see how Mrs. Tymoshenko could afford the lobbying contract according to her wealth declaration filed with the Ukrainian government — amounts that seem low considering her past wealth.

It should be remembered that Mrs. Tymoshenko spent several years in prison under former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed in the February 2014 “Maidan” revolution. In what was considered by many a politically motivated conviction, Mrs. Tymoshenko was accused of abuse of office to enrich herself via a natural gas purchase deal with Russia.

How any of this will impact Mrs. Tymoshenko’s popularity with Ukrainian voters is unclear. It is also unclear how this might impact her relationships in Washington, where she has long cultivated and enjoyed broad support, especially when she was a prisoner of the despised Viktor Yanukovych.

No candidate is expected to win the first round of the election outright. Mrs. Tymoshenko is likely to be one of the two run-off finalists, unless there is a drastic and unexpected fall in her rating.

Less certain is the identity of the other finalist. Volatile polls show a number of candidates vying for the second spot. These include extreme nationalist Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party, Yuriy Boyko of the Opposition Bloc, and current President Petro Poroshenko.

Mr. Lyashko, a former political ally of Mrs. Tymshenko, will have to contend for support with other candidates in a nationalist spectrum that includes some decidedly unsavory elements. Mr. Lyashko himself was cited by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for abuses committed in 2014 in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, he has denied rumors about his personal life that are a liability.

Mr. Boyko’s Opposition Bloc is regarded as a reconstitution of Mr. Yanukovych’s generally pro-Russian Party of Regions. Aside from solid opposition to him from the U.S. and Europe, Mr. Boyko’s potential voting base has been diminished by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in the Donbas. His virtual impossibility of prevailing in a runoff might dissuade some voters in Ukraine’s east and south from supporting him in the first round.

Despite Ukraine’s tilt toward Hillary Clinton in 2016, Mr. Poroshenko has worked diligently to strengthen ties with the Trump administration. He has worked closely with Kurt Volker, the U.S. point man for Ukraine, in an attempt to find a solution to the Crimea and Donbas crises. Both Washington’s and Kiev’s relationship with Moscow are nearing an all-time low.

Mr. Poroshenko’s best chance to win requires a lasting peace to be worked out before the election, which is a long shot though not impossible. Potentially valuable as a go-between, Mr. Boyko, who is from Lugansk, might be a prospective governor should this region return to Ukrainian control. Another candidate from eastern Ukraine who could play a role is “For Life” Party candidate Vadim Rabinovich, who is also president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress.

In any case, in a country where politics and politicians are anything but boring, the Ukrainian presidential race will be one to watch.

• Robert Zapesochny is an independent writer in Rochester, N.Y.

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