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The Yuri Tymoshenko risk

There is a dangerous scenario for the first round of Ukraine’s upcoming presidential elections: political-technological trickery could 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.

March 27, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Yulia Tymoshenko at the European People's Party Summit March 2011 Photo: EPP (cc) flickr.com

The relatively pluralistic political competition that emerged after the collapse of the USSR has succumbed to the emergence of new political manipulation strategies, as outlined in Andrew Wilson’s seminal monograph Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in Post-Soviet World (Yale UP, 2005). The 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 “technical” parties and candidates the names 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 Revolution on Granit of 1990, the Orange Revolution of 2004, and the 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 Yulia Lytvynenko, a TV journalist – are clearly to confuse 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 March 31st, 2019, is a plain attempt to mislead some of those who would like to elect YuliaTymoshenko. A certain amount of voters will probably make their marks on the wrong line, in the list of presidential candidates, and mark not YuliaTymoshenko, but the minions Yuri Tymoshenko or Yulia 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 Yulia 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 claims of proximate accession to the EU and NATO. That this and other political-technological deceit is still being actively practised 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 Yulia Lytvynenko have, in view of changing opinion polling results, acquired a potential importance they did not have 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 March 31st 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 Yulia Tymoshenko will take the second position – and thus also advance to the election’s second round on April 21st. 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 Yulia Tymoshenko. In others, she takes second place after Zelenskiy while Poroshenko falls to the third position. The latter would mean the incumbent does not make it to the second round and will have no chance for re-election. Poroshenko and Yulia 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 Yulia Lytvynenko have become politically explosive. That is because a scenario has become possible in which Yulia 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 on the unfairness of vote by Yulia 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 or Yulia 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 or Yulia Lytvynenko stole Yulia Tymoshenko’s presidency.

To be sure, Ukrainians have their own way of dealing with such situations of hijacked elections. 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 Yulia Tymoshenko. The second round of the elections was repeated on December 26th 2004, after which (Petro Poroshenko’s then patron) Viktor Yushchenko was duly inaugurated as President of Ukraine, on January 23rd 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 Yulia Tymoshenko will be smaller than the share of voters for Yuri Tymoshenko or Yulia 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 2004 would not only be that, given the – as a result of the war in the Donbas – enormous amount of weapons circulating among Ukrainians today, it could easily turn violent.

After me the deluge

A third and the major worrisome aspect of the candidacies of Yuri Tymoshenko and Yulia Lytvynenko is that such potentially explosive political manipulation happens at a time when Ukraine is in a hybrid war for survival against Russia. 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 Yulia Tymoshenko’s result, will be sufficiently significant to avoid fundamental questions. In such a case, Yulia 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 Yulia 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 – after a possible escalation – end up using firearms, would lead to ecstatic celebration in Moscow, and deep frustration in the West as well as confirm Kremlin-spread negative stereotypes of Ukraine in Europe. Worse, large civil unrest in Kyiv 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 improbable, but – enormous risk in order to preserve their power is not encouraging. It is 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 are currently employing to achieve it, not be high.

Andreas Umland is Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for European Security of the Institute of International Relations at Prague, Principal Researcher of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation at Kyiv, and General Editor of the ibidem­-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and “Ukrainian Voice” distributed by Columbia University Press.

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