As 2019 looms, Ukraine is gearing up for a presidential election that will, by all indications, be fiercely competitive and largely unpredictable. That unpredictability stems partly from candidates with complicated and often contradictory records in Ukrainian politics.
That couldn’t have been clearer on Sept. 15 at the Yalta European Strategy conference, or YES, in Kyiv.
There, two presidential contenders, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Defense Minister Anatoly Grytsenko, and one possible contender, rock star Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, took to the stage to present their vision of Ukraine’s future and answer questions from BBC HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur.
It was a discussion that put all three candidates out of their element, each in distinct ways.
In a flashy June conference widely viewed as Tymoshenko’s campaign launch, the veteran politician and current presidential frontrunner tried to project a new image, using graphics and statistics to appeal to a more urban and professional audience than her traditional electorate.
At YES — before an audience largely made up of Western and Ukrainian politicians and thought leaders — Tymoshenko seemingly returned to her traditional approach, using her introductory statement and answers to Sackur’s questions to launch into a boisterous campaign speech.
Tymoshenko stressed that the war in Ukraine’s east must end, but issued stirring criticisms of paths to peace that would legitimize the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula or the existence of Russian-backed separatist entities in the Donbas.
“We need peace, but not at the price of Ukraine’s capitulation,” she said.
Tymoshenko praised the Minsk Agreements for their role in moderating the conflict, but also noted that the year 2017 had seen a spike in ceasefire violations compared to 2016.
Then, she held up a copy of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Kyiv relinquished its nuclear weapons in return for a security guarantee from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
After she becomes president, Tymoshenko said, she thinks “we will have all the possibilities, without violating the achievements (built) on the foundation of the Minsk Agreement, to open a new window of possibilities and articulate a new strategy. And one of them is fulfilling the guarantees provided to Ukraine and returning to the Budapest memorandum.”
However, she largely left the meaning of this plan unclear.
Tymoshenko reiterated calls for passing a new constitution after the election to “reboot the governance system.” She also characterized the current period of Ukrainian history as full of empty speechmaking, fake successes, and unmet potential.
“I believe in my country. I believe in the creative class of my state. I believe in youth, and I believe in our future,” Tymoshenko said.
But for all her charisma, the veteran politician faced an unsympathetic crowd. When Sackur questioned how she could call herself a reformist when her party has a distinctly non-reformist record, the audience burst into applause.
In response, Tymoshenko asked for examples, appearing to catch the moderator off guard. She stressed that she had voted for the creation of all of Ukraine’s anti-corruption organs and for constitutional changes.
Playing it straight
In contrast to Tymoshenko, former Defense Minister Grytsenko likely faced a more sympathetic audience. As a politician aligned with the reformist and democratic opposition leaders he should have played well to the international and intellectual YES crowd.
But Grytsenko’s speech, delivered in deliberate, accented English, was distinctly staid. He characterized Ukraine as a “child state” that is “badly spoiled, badly addicted to corruption, populism, paternalism, irresponsibility.”
He called for the country to carry out a census — which would be its first since 2001 — to establish its exact population, a subject that seldom makes it into Ukrainian campaign pledges. Grytsenko also emphasized the importance of rule of law, independent courts, and financial security.
Distinctly absent from the former defense minister’s speech was anything related to Ukraine’s security. Sackur questioned whether this was because Grytsenko failed to strengthen the military during his 2005-2007 tenure as minister. When Russia invaded in 2014, the military proved weak and largely hollowed out by corruption.
In response, Grytsenko claimed that the Ukrainian military’s annual “white book” demonstrates that, under his tenure, compact readiness indicators doubled or tripled and social indicators also increased.
Grytsenko then called for a sustainable peaceful solution for Ukraine’s occupied territories to replace the temporary ceasefire. As a result of that settlement, the entire planet must recognize that no one — especially permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — can take anyone else’s territory or population by force, he said.
The presidential candidate said that his team has prepared a plan that embraces political, diplomatic, sanctions, informational, finance, and security issues to deliver that peace. They had even succeeded in putting that plan on the desks of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“It is clear that, unfortunately for us…the peaceful solution can be really looked for only after both the Ukrainian president and parliamentary election,” Grytsenko said.
Playing the crowd
The final — and likely most frustrating — participant in the panel was Vakarchuk, frontman of the hit Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy.
Vakarchuk has long been reputed to be planning a presidential run. He even spent autumn 2017 as a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, further fueling rumors that he would throw his hat in the race.
It was a clear reference to his possible candidacy.
Vakarchuk noted that some believe musicians should sing and politicians should work in politics, but that formula had yielded little beyond corruption over the past 27 years. He compared the situation to a vegetarian living in a city where all the restaurants are steakhouses.
“You will either go hungry or violate your principles and start to eat meat,” Vakarchuk said. “That’s all they offer you.”
“Are you ready to live in that situation? I’m not ready to live in this situation,” he added, asking the public to think about what they should do in these conditions.
For the rest of the talk, Vakarchuk commented broadly and at times vaguely on the problems of Ukrainian society.
He gave few hints about his political future. Sackur pressed him heavily on this issue but received no clear answers.
At one point, Sackur asked, “Slava, are you ready to eat meat?”
“I’m not ready to violate my principles,” Vakarchuk answered.
For all the political big names taking part in the panel, viewers gave it a mixed evaluation.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and current professor at Stanford, wrote on Twitter that Vakarchuk “sounded like a presidential candidate to me. Ukraine is fortunate to have so many strong presidential candidates!”
Melinda Haring, editor of the UkraineAlert blog at the Atlantic Council, had a different take. She praised Sackur’s questions, but was less impressed by the panelists. In a tweet, she noted a “palpable difference” between Tymoshenko and Grytsenko. The former was “feisty, fierce, and ready for tough questions.” Grytsenko, by contrast, was “very technical and no charisma.”
And journalist James Miller appeared unimpressed by Tymoshenko’s performance. He noted that she was defending her unpopular 2009 gas deal with Russia — made while she was prime minister — and simultaneously criticizing Poroshenko’s similar record.
“She’s spinning a web,” he wrote on Twitter, “but nobody in the audience seems to be stuck in it.”