Ukrainian politicians continue to lie in Brussels – and to their voters
A recent panel in Brussels gave five Ukrainian presidential candidates the opportunity for a surrogate to give a speech on behalf of their campaign. Most of them were utterly deceptive, simply lying, rejecting the firm positions of their candidates to tell the European audience what they wanted to hear. Such deception reveals a troubling future for Ukraine if one of these anti-Western populists takes the presidency.
On February 25th 2019, the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels held a half day conference entitled ‘Future of Ukraine: A Test Through Elections.’ Representatives of five leading presidential candidates were invited to join a panel and outline their election programmes to the audience. These included Rostyslav Pawlenko (representing Petro Poroshenko), Hryhoriy Nemyrya (Yulia Tymoshenko), Iryna Venediktova (Volodymyr Zelensky), Svitlana Zalishchuk (Anatoliy Grytsenko) and Oleg Voloshyn (Yuriy Boyko).
Poroshenko was the only candidate of the five represented whose election programme includes NATO and EU membership. I said during the discussion that of the main presidential candidates, only Poroshenko and Lviv Mayor and leader of the Samopomych (Self Reliance) party Andriy Sadovyy include support for NATO and EU membership in their election programmes. Grytsenko and Tymoshenko, who are allegedly “pro-Western” politicians, include nothing about NATO and the EU in their programme’s. Pro-Russian Boyko also does not mention NATO or the EU. Since the conference Sadovyy has dropped out of the elections and is backing Grytsenko. This reduces the number of candidates with NATO and EU membership in their programs to even fewer in number.
Abandoning the goal of the EU and NATO
Zelensky’s election programme ignores the EU while making a bizarre suggestion: “The movement of Ukraine to NATO and other security associations is a guarantee of our security, which I believe in and which should receive confirmation through an all-Ukrainian referendum.”
The only other “security association” besides NATO is the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (also known as the Tashkent Treaty). Even Viktor Yanukovych did not support Ukraine’s integration into the Tashkent Treaty, and Zelensky is therefore the first Ukrainian politician to make such a statement. Overall Zelensky is similar to Yanukovych in the 2010 elections, when he supported membership of the EU and CIS Customs Union – which is impossible. Zelensky seems to think Ukraine can be in both NATO and the Tashkent Treaty.
In discussing their candidates’ programmes, the three representatives of Tymoshenko, Grytsenko, and Zelensky were deceptive, trying to sound pro-European, saying what they thought the Brussels audience wanted to hear. Boyko’s representative was the more honest in saying his candidate did not see EU membership as realistic while claiming NATO membership is too provocative to Russia. Nevertheless, even Voloshyn sounded deceptively pro-European.
Nemyrya has always been in favour of NATO and EU membership and it is difficult to understand how he squares this with Tymoshenko’s disinterest. The only explanation is he was lying, completely deceiving his audience, promising something he knows Brussels wants to hear but that his extremely problematic candidate is absurdly against. Listening to Nemyrya’s pro-European speech you would not have realised that his candidate – Tymoshenko – is not a supporter of NATO and EU membership. Tymoshenko’s anti-EU stance is in contradiction with Batkivshchina’s membership of the centre-right European Peoples Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament. UDAR, the other Ukrainian member of the EPP, is an ally of Poroshenko.
The absence of any mention of NATO and EU membership in both Tymoshenko and Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko’s election programme’s is also in contradiction with their voting for changing the constitution to include these two goals. Is this a sign that Batkivshchina and the Radical Party continue discredited multi-vector foreign policies?
Nemyrya exclaimed “Ukraine is Europe” and said, “Ukraine wants and has a right to participate in the European project” and “Europe and Ukraine belong in the same place.” But listening to the panel, how, I wondered, can Ukraine be part of the “European project” when Tymoshenko’s election programme does not support NATO or EU membership?
A question from the audience asked all five representatives to answer “Yes” or “No” to NATO and EU membership. The representatives of Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, Grytsenko and Zelensky all replied that their candidates supported a “Yes” and “Yes” to NATO and EU membership, while Boyko’s representative said “No” and “No”. Nothing has changed among some Ukrainian politicians, who continue to tailor their speeches to the audience, in this case telling audiences in Brussels their candidates are “pro-European.” For them, honesty is unimportant.
Zalishchuk and Venediktova described Grytsenko and Zelensky, respectively, as “pro-European” candidates. Zalishchuk said Grytsenko supports Ukraine’s European and Trans-Atlantic integration, which is the “undeniable choice” after the Euromaidan Revolution. Ukraine’s future will be a strong factor in Europe’s development, Zalishchuk added. Why then does Grytsenko ignore the EU and, especially as Ukraine’s former Minister of Defence, NATO in his election programme?
Zelensky and Tymoshenko both back the use of referendums as an alleged means to expand democracy in Ukraine. After seeing the disaster that Brexit has brought to Britain, the use of referendums is a very bad idea. Zalishchuk and Venediktova said their candidates, Grytsenko and Zelensky, would if they were elected president only serve one term – a claim which was hard for Ukrainians who were present to believe. Evidence mounts that their entire speeches were dishonest and divorced from the reality of their candidates.
A presidential system and their threat the constitution
Ihor Burakovsky, president of Kyiv’s largest think tank, the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting, asked an important question that is often overlooked with Ukraine’s presidential candidates. All of the candidate’s programmes move into competencies beyond those of the president: would they therefore support changing the constitution into a more presidential system, with the prime minister under the president? In Ukraine’s current hybrid system, the president cannot do what he or she wants unless they have a large parliamentary representation (which Viktor Yushchenko did not have, and Poroshenko had). Grytsenko’s Civic Initiative party and Zelensky’s Sluha Narodu party have never had a presence in parliament while Batkivshchinas has only 20 deputies. All three candidates, if elected, would have to cooperate until the October elections with current political forces in parliament where the Poroshenko Bloc and Popular Front have nearly 50 per cent of seats.
Nemyrya said that Tymoshenko is the only candidate supporting Ukraine moving to a parliamentary system. This policy is though is at odds with Tymoshenko’s many policy proposals that require a strong president who is able to implement them and an assumption that there will be little or no parliamentary opposition to these steps. In discussions with Ukrainian experts after the event, none of them believed that Grytsenko or Tymnoshenko had personalities that would permit them to compromise with parliament.
Ukrainian politicians and their representatives have learnt little from the Euromaidan. They continue to try and hoodwink Ukrainian voters and Western audiences, the former by lying to them, while the latter by telling the audience what they think they want to hear. The audience in Brussels heard from Tymoshenko, Grytsenko, and Zelensky’s representatives that they were “pro-European” and supported Ukraine’s NATO and EU membership. Based on their election programme’s, this is not true.
The only two candidate’s representatives who were honest at the “Future of Ukraine: A Test Through Elections” in Brussels were Poroshenko and Boyko’s. Pawlenko and Voloshyn’s presentations were in line with their candidate’s election programmes, showing Poroshenko’s supports NATO and EU membership, while Boyko’s does not.
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.