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Ukraine goes to polls under Russia’s shadow

EURASIA LIVE
29 March 2019
Main Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Volodymyr Zelenskiy. REUTERS.
Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2019 report identified Ukraine as one of this year's trouble spots, citing the country's conflict with neighboring Russia, contentious upcoming elections, and a challenging program of political and economic reforms. On Sunday, Ukrainians will head to the polls to choose their next president amid rising concern for the future. Eurasia Group expert Alex Brideau explains what to watch for in the vote.

What issues are defining this election?

This year's election campaign has been dominated by the public's antipathy toward the political and business establishment. Ukrainians are frustrated by the continuing war against Russia-backed separatists in the east and concerned about their wages and higher prices, while reforms aimed at improving the economy and fighting corruption have moved slower than many voters would like. They question whether veteran Ukrainian political leaders will be able to fix these problems. This issue of faith in the establishment has provided an opening for actor/comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to take off in the polls and become the frontrunner against two longstanding political figures: President Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Zelenskiy can win, but it is not entirely clear how strong his support base is, and whether he has convinced skeptics that his lack of political and public service experience will be a benefit when trying to tackle the country's problems. The public remains divided, which means none of these candidates is going to get the more than 50% of the vote needed to prevent a runoff election in April.

Will the next president be able to address these concerns?

The next president, regardless of who wins, is going to face a skeptical public. Zelenskiy would have to show that he can deliver results, while Poroshenko or Tymoshenko would enter office with high negative ratings. To get things done, the presidency will be highly dependent on getting a parliament that it can work with. Parliamentary elections in October are unlikely to deliver a unified legislature, however. Pro-West reformists, populists, and pro-Russia politicians will vie for influence in a fragmented parliament. Oligarchs, the country's politically influential business elite, will still have a seat at the table when it comes to new policies. The reform program of the past five years will continue, as will Ukraine's critical cooperation with the IMF and other financial backers, but progress will be slower than in the past.

How will the conflict with Russia factor into the election?

An end to the war in Ukraine's east is among the top issues for voters. All three candidates have campaigned on the return of occupied areas of eastern Ukraine and Crimea on terms favorable to Ukraine, with Tymoshenko and Zelenskiy advocating new dialog. Pro-Russia candidates who historically drew support from the east and Crimea are hurt by the loss of Russia-sympathetic voters in those areas. But the lack of a pro-Russia candidate among the top three contenders also reflects a change, where Russia's influence is weakening while the EU's influence grows. As the economic relationship with Russia has deteriorated, ties with the EU have deepened in terms of trade as well as the number of Ukrainian workers sending remittances home. The EU's importance will be a long-standing feature of Ukrainian politics.

Will Russia try to interfere and what does it want from election?

Ukraine's elections are very important to the Russian government. Attempts to interfere are likely, whether through an influence campaign or more direct efforts in support of or against a candidate. None of the three leading candidates is especially pro-Russia, though the Kremlin is clearly not interested in a Poroshenko reelection. Russian efforts may also include attempts to discredit the vote results, playing on voters' skepticism of the integrity of the election system. Whatever Moscow tries in the presidential election will likely be followed up with moves ahead of the fall's parliamentary elections. These efforts could further upset the US-Russia relationship and lead to additional sanctions against Russia.
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