George P. Kent
April 2019

Ukraine Is a Pluralistic Society

What elections are about

Elections should be about choices.  There are many choices in play in Ukraine in the two upcoming cycles – Presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.  Ukraine has always been a pluralistic polity, with multiple centers of political, social, and economic power.   Over the past five years, Ukrainians have fought and died, from the Maydan, to the eastern front in the Donbas, to Kherson, for the right to decide their own future. 

In 27 years of independence, there never has been a clear majority for one party – in that sense, Ukraine is very much a typical European parliamentary democracy.  And the only time a Presidential candidate won a first round majority – in 2014 – it was because the second most popular candidate agreed to step aside and not compete in the first round, in recognition that Ukraine was a country at war, and needed renewed unity as quickly as possible.

Ukrainian society is also very much in transition.  The struggle between “Old Ukraine” and “New Ukraine” since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity continues to play out in every ministry and institution, in every city, town, and community.  Progress is not even, nor is it linear.

But there is progress beyond the headlines, particularly when one gets outside of Kyiv.  I’ll mention three positive trends:

  • Decentralization continues de facto, even if the final vote to amend the Constitution has been put on hold related to the war in the Donbas and the so-called Minsk process.  Budgetary authority and power to decide has been devolved to communities that, in the case of eastern and southern communities that were traditionally part of the Russian empire and never part of interwar Poland or Austro-Hungary, for the first time look to themselves, not a capital, to solve their own problems.  That empowerment generates excitement, and helps reduce a traditional gap between democracy and governance.
  • The localized geography of memory:  the face of public spaces of Ukraine has dramatically altered in the past five years, compared to the previous 70.  Gone are the Lenins, felled en masse in 2014 in what was known as the Leninopad, a play on the word for snowfall, snihopad.  Deemphasized are the WWII memorials.  Freshly constructed on squares and main streets are memorials to the Heavenly Hundred who died on the Maidan in 2014, and the growing number of local men and women who died on the Eastern front defending Ukrainian territory from Russian aggression. This is what Ukrainians see daily walking on streets, visiting schools and institutes, and museums and parks.
  • Civil society saved Ukraine in 2014, when there was partial state collapse, under the slogan: “if not we, then who?” (Ukr., yakshcho ne my, to khto).  Ukrainian society has changed more than its politics, and remains its hope for the future.

Factors playing into the election

That said, in the short term, turbulence is certain to continue, driven by domestic politics and external aggression.  Some of you may have seen last week’s Gallup poll about levels of trust in government globally.  For the second year in the row, Ukrainians expressed the lowest level worldwide – only 9%!

On the one hand, separate polls conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) show that the majority of Ukrainians nationwide, except for two localized areas – rural Odesa province and Donetsk/Luhansk provinces that are partially occupied – now no longer expect centralized authority to solve their problems, but rather create the conditions to allow citizens to lead successful lives and solve their own problems.  Again, that should be considered normal, by Western standards.

On the other hand, such low levels of trust do not augur well for incumbents running for reelection.  Indeed, while incumbency is generally seen as an electoral advantage everywhere, that has not been the case in Ukraine the past quarter century.  The only time an incumbent won, that is, President Kuchma in 1999, he essentially engineered a second-round matchup against the communist candidate who had no chance of winning. 

Polls for much of the past year have shown that a majority of Ukrainians would not be inclined to vote for President Poroshenko under any circumstances.  In other words, they seek a chance to say “no” at the ballot box, to protest the current ruling elite and status quo.  This year’s current front runner for President, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, is a comedian and businessman who has never run for public office.

Again, this Ukrainian sentiment fits very much into trends seen elsewhere in Europe and in North America in recent election cycles.

And yet. Polls by IRI and NDI also show that Ukrainians continue to have a remarkable ability to distinguish between what matters most to them personally (high prices and utility payments) and the greatest challenges facing the country (war in the east and corruption).  According to a recent NDI poll, 71% of Ukrainians believe that they are worse off in economic terms now than they were in October 2014.  A December 2018 IRI poll reported that 70% of Ukrainians believe the country is going in the wrong direction.   

Remarkably, this may not end up being decisive.  In most countries, people vote their own pocketbooks and personal situations, not national interests.  But this documented ability by Ukrainians to bifurcate, and consider the national interest, offers President Poroshenko a potential path to victory.

U.S. policy

For the United States, we support process and principles, not specific candidates. Ukrainians deserve an election process that lives up to the promises of the Revolution of Dignity: an election free from vote buying and manipulation, without harassment or violence against political opponents, the media, and civil society, and in which the participation of all Ukrainian citizens is facilitated. 

As a supportive partner, the United States has implemented a broad, interagency assistance program to strengthen Ukraine’s election institutions and to promote greater transparency and fairness.  We are working with Ukraine to fortify the cyber-security of its electoral system, supporting efforts to increase participation in the elections and raise awareness among voters of electoral processes and party and candidate platforms, and promoting diverse, balanced, and issue-focused independent media coverage of the elections.

We are ready to work with whomever the Ukrainian people choose as President and in parliament, which will determine the composition of the next government, in support of a prosperous, secure, democratic Ukraine, with accountable institutions and justice for all.

We stand with the people of Ukraine as they continue to face down the campaign of Russian aggression that began five years ago.  We remain committed to helping Ukraine achieve the aspirations so clearly enunciated by the Ukrainian people on the Maydan and throughout the country in 2014.

The Ukrainian transformation born five years ago is still only in its infancy. Systemic reform is difficult and takes time.  Since 2014, Ukraine has reduced the space for rent-seeking activities, stabilized the banking system and the macro-financial situation, created new anti-corruption institutions, and built a new police force based on Western standards.

The political will to reform depends on Ukrainians.  Where it exists, the U.S. is there as a supportive partner.  In the five years since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the United States has provided more than $2.8 billion in security and other kinds of assistance to Ukraine, along with another $3 billion in sovereign loan guarantees to stabilize Ukraine’s macro-economic finances.  We have provided over a billion dollars in security assistance, including lethal items like Javelin anti-tank missiles, to help Ukraine build its long-term defense capacity, defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and deter further Russian aggressive acts. 

Such support is bipartisan, and strong within both the legislative and executive branches of government.

Russia as the external factor

Another issue that looms large in this election cycle and is foremost in our minds at the State Department is Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine.  Five years after occupying Crimea and launching the war in Donbas, Russia has undermined regional stability, flagrantly disregarded international norms, created Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis in a generation, and engaged in rights abuses on a systemic basis. 

Our position could not be clearer. Crimea is Ukraine. Donbas is Ukraine – all of it.  We will not recognize Russia’s attempted annexation of Ukrainian territory.  We will continue to impose costs on Russia as long as it continues on its path of aggression and does not restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

While countering Russian aggression is a constant imperative, Ukrainians also struggle with the enemy within: weak institutions and the cancer of corruption.  Ukraine will not be successful in the long-term, or resistant to Russian pressure, or attract foreign direct investment to drive growth, to create jobs that keep Ukrainians creating value at home rather than seeking employment abroad, if it does not strengthen its democratic institutions and its justice sector in particular.  Without justice, there can be no dignity.

Nadiya ye: There is hope

Despite Ukraine’s ongoing Time of Troubles, cause for optimism remains. The flame of Ukrainian identity has at times flickered under the yoke of oppression over the centuries, but it has always endured, through war, mass starvation, and systemic oppression.  A renewed sense of identity and purpose has been forged by social revolution and war over the past five years. 

Obstacles remain, but the spirit of Ukrainians is pushing the country towards a new stage of development, marked by stability, prosperity, democracy, and further integration into Europe.  The United States is proud to be Ukraine’s partner on its transformative journey, and we will remain steadfast in our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and democratic development.

These remarks by Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent were delivered at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute seminar titled “Ukraine's 2019 Presidential Election: Between Past and Promise” on Monday, March 25, 2019.

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