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Will strongman Hrytsenko appeal to Ukrainian voters?

Viktor Yushchenko’s former minister of defence and his bid for the 2019 elections.

January 30, 2019 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Then Defense Minister of Ukraine Anatoliy Hrytsenko with his American counterpart Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 Photo: Master Sgt. James M. Bowman, U.S. Air Force. (Released). U.S Public domain

Election season is upon us and presidential candidates are appearing like mushrooms after rain. The Ukrainian presidential elections are different in three ways from presidential and parliamentary elections held in the West. The first is that in the West presidential candidates and party leaders stand only once. If they lose the election, they leave politics or resign as party leader and importantly, they do not stand again as a candidate in future elections. Anatoliy Hrytsenko and Yulia Tymoshenko are standing for a third time in 2019. If they lose will they stand a fourth time in 2024?

The second is that Ukrainian presidential candidates believe they are fighting an election in a presidential system where the winner has absolute power. Ukraine is a parliamentary mixed system and the elected president has to work with a parliamentary coalition which in turns creates the government. This system failed after the Orange Revolution as President Viktor Yushchenko could never work with the parliament or with prime ministers. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine/NUNS was never the largest faction and was divided between pro and anti-Tymoshenko wings. The system has worked since 2014 because President Petro Poroshenko has co-operated with the two largest factions (the Poroshenko bloc and Popular Front).

If a candidate wins in March who has no large political force, then Ukraine could return to the political instability as seen under the Orange coalition. Tymoshenko’s party Batkivshchina (Fatherland) has 20 deputies, which could increase in the October elections. Yett the height of Tymoshenko’s popularity was in 2007 when the Yulia Tymoshenko Bluck received 30 per cent. (In addition, it is commonly believed that Tymoshenko is difficult to work with.) And if Hrytsenko won the elections, how would he work with the parliament where his Civic Initiative has never won seats (in 2014 it received only three per cent).

The third factor is that the West has been at peace since the Second World War and therefore in Ukraine, which is at war with Russia, voters in March will be electing not only a president and but a commander-in-chief at a time of war.

An important factor to bear in mind is that opinion polls do not always give the best indication of the outcome of elections. We know from the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US elections that this is the case. The high poll support for Hrytsenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy are unlikely to translate into votes on election day; only two and five per cent of voters, respectively, believe they will winHrytsenko won only 1.3 per cent in 2010 and 5.5 per cent in 2014 (when Ukraine was at war with Russia).

There are many reasons why Hrytsenko has an image problem which includes the lack of charisma, an image of always losing (which is important in influencing Ukrainian voter preferences) and a hard-line stance that rules out compromise, which is the basis of Ukraine’s parliamentary system. Unclear is how will Hrytsenko would change Ukraine to a presidential system when he has no political presence in the parliament. A final factor is how his Bonaparte nature translates into what some would claim as a penchant for authoritarianism.  What’s more, Hrytsenko’s image of being isolated from the mainstream was seen at the Yalta European Strategy conference in September 2018, when nobody came to speak with him in the coffee area (I witnessed this) after he had given his presentation and been interviewed by BBC Hardtalk’s Stephen Sachur.

Hrytsenko has five areas that make his candidacy weak. First, even though he is a military man with professional and academic experience of national security, it is unclear why he refused to be a commander of self-defence forces on the Euromaidan. Second, at a time when Ukraine’s existence as an independent state was under threat, he declined Poroshenko’s offer made to be Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council (RNBO). Third, similar to Tymoshenko, Hrytsenko never once visited the Donbas war frontlines and both of them are disinterested in visiting Ukrainian troops and volunteers fighting for their country. Why have two Ukrainian presidential candidates who if elected will be commander-in-chief never been to the frontlines when the author of this blog – a British citizen – has visited the area many times to conduct research? Fourth, why did Hrytsenko as a former military man not join a volunteer battalion or visit a conscription office to join the army to fight for Ukraine when it is fighting Russian military aggression? Fifth, when will Hrytsenko admit that as minister of defence in the Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych governments in 2005-2007, there was mass theft of military equipment which undermined the ability of the Ukrainian army to properly function?

Hrytsenko attracts Ukrainian voters who are pro-western but don’t like Poroshenko, Tymoshenko or even Andriy Sadovyy (the mayor of Lviv); but who believes Hrytsenko will win?

Nevertheless, three things are for certain. Firstly, Hrytsenko will lose the 2019 elections. Secondly, Hrytsenko will stand again for a fourth time in 2024 and will again lose. Finally, Hrytsenko will remain uncharismatic and isolated from mainstream politics.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science National University “Kyiv Mohyla Academy” and Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS. Joint author of The Sources of Russia’s Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order.

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