Ukraine's presidential hopefuls and their winning formula for solving Donbas issue

Author : journal Nowa Europa Wschodnia

Source : 112 Ukraine

The suggested method of solving the conflict is the most significant condition determining Ukrainian voters’ support of a given candidate
09:15, 26 March 2019

As a result of the conflict in its eastern border, Ukraine is experiencing the deepest social and political crisis in the history of its state. Thus, official Kyiv has lost control over nearly 2,8% of the territory inhabited by 3,8 million people. More than 13,000 people have already lost their lives, and more than 25,000 have been injured as a direct consequence of the war activities. The scale of the drama in the east of Ukraine is also evidenced by the number of people indirectly affected by the conflict, those who need humanitarian aid, which is estimated at 4,4 million people. It is not unusual that the war in Donbas is indicated by the majority of Ukrainians as the most urgent problem, which should be solved by the Ukrainian state. Moreover, the suggested method of solving the conflict is the most significant condition determining Ukrainian voters’ support of a given candidate. For these reasons, the main pretenders in the race for the desk of the President of Ukraine cannot omit this issue and are forced to present more or less specific and coherent concepts of peace in the east of the country. Here you can find the programs and statements of the four candidates, leaders of the polls, who have the highest chances to take the position of the head of the Ukrainian state.

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From hawk to pigeon?

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is one of the main threads of the election campaign of the incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. Introduction of a 30-day martial law in ten regions of Ukrainian at the end of November 2018 might be considered the inauguration of his campaign and an attempt to use the incident to present his principled attitude in this matter. This approach is reflected in Poroshenko's electoral campaign – Army, Language, Faith – in which placing the military affairs in the first place underlines the role of the president as Ukrainian armed forces commander-in-chief. He adores taking joint pictures with the soldiers and give a speech while wearing a military uniform.

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Despite this military narrative and unambiguous indication of Russia as a state-aggressor conducting a de facto war with Ukraine, Poroshenko remains a supporter of the political and diplomatic settlement of the conflict in the east of the country. In his opinion, the only way to bring peace to Donbas is to implement the Minsk agreements and exert international pressure on the Russian Federation, primarily, imposing economic sanctions. The incumbent president also favors the participation of an international peacekeeping mission under the United Nations auspices, which would assume responsibility for security and temporary administration in the disputed territories.

It is worth noting that Poroshenko avoids mentioning Minsk agreements in public statements voiced in the country. He realizes that Ukrainian society is disappointed with the lack of effects of this format of cooperation. In speeches on international forums, President Poroshenko does not longer demonstrate the caution, stressing the attachment of the Ukrainian side to the Minsk peace deal. Reclining upon diplomatic means is the result of the lesson that Poroshenko has learned during the five years of the hostilities. During the previous election campaign in 2014, he announced that the anti-terrorist operation in the east of the country would last for few hours, not even months, and shortly after the elections, he announced the offensive of the Ukrainian army and the liberation of the occupied territories. He did not want his political competitors to accuse him of the unfulfilled promises, so Poroshenko has publicly apologized for unjustified hopes for ending the war.

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The image of the president built by Poroshenko's staff, which underlines particular importance to the security and defense sectors, might turn against him. The journalists of Nashi Groshi (Our Money) investigative program have disclosed corruption in procurement for Ukroboronprom state concern, which supervises defense industry production facilities, which the close associate of the president is supposed to be involved, might cause Poroshenko's reforms to be associated not with reconstruction and theft of the army. The corruption scandal in the defense industry has probably caused a small drop in Poroshenko’s rating, which has been growing for several months, giving him second place in the polls. Would this case prove to be a decisive factor in the efforts to re-elect the incumbent president – it is still an open-ended question.

Better and more efficient

Initially, the attitude of Yulia Tymoshenko (another wannabe prez, leader of the Batkivshchyna party, - ed.) to Donbas war was the opposite of Poroshenko’s attitude, and her opinions on the solution to the conflict were changing in the opposite direction than the evolution of the views of the incumbent president.  According to the revealed transcripts of the National Security and Defense Council meeting of 28 February 2014, at the beginning of the conflict the leader of the Batkivshchyna party strongly opposed taking any action against Russian aggression in Crimea: "We must beg the international community to defend Ukraine. This is our only hope. Not a single tank can leave the barracks, no soldier can take a weapon," she convinced her colleagues at the secret meeting just after the occupation of the Peninsula by the green man (Russia's “little green men,” as the unmarked Russian soldiers were called, seized Crimea's local parliament in 2014, - ed.). Another issue is why Tymoshenko has taken part in the meeting without being a member of this body.

Related: Can wannabe prez Zelensky end Donbas conflict?

However, within a few months, Tymoshenko has sharpened her rhetoric, advocating decisive actions in the occupied territories and distancing from the results of international negotiations. In September 2014, she and her parliamentary faction voted in the Verkhovna Rada to adopt the law on granting special status to the occupied parts of Donbas, which was one of Ukraine's obligations under the agreement reached in Minsk. Since then, the former prime minister has been an acute critic of the Minsk agreements, recognizing the signing of the Ukrainian authorities as a de facto "passing Donbas under the protectorate of Russia." During the ongoing election campaign, Tymoshenko announced that the restoration of control over Donbas and Crimea would be one of the main tasks of her future presidency. This uncompromising stance might be proved by the testimony of former deputy to the Ukrainian parliament Andriy Artemenko, who last July, in front of the American Robert Muller’s commission declared that Donald Trump's plan to withdraw Russian troops from Donbas in exchange for “leasing” Crimea of the Russian Federation for a period of 100 years, was directly negotiated with Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko proposes replacing Minsk negotiation format with more effective, in her opinion, diplomatic tool in the form of the "Budapest plus" agreement. Under this model, referring to the Budapest memorandum of 1994 and guaranteeing territorial integrity to Ukraine in exchange for giving up strategic nuclear weapons, the talks would be led by representatives of Ukraine, the US, the UK, Russia, France, Germany, China, and the EU. The plan on returning the occupied lands to Ukraine would be implemented by a specially appointed military committee, and the Ukrainian modernized army should facilitate this process. Despite the fact that compared to the other candidates, Tymoshenko’s election program is one of the most completed plans, it gives no answer to the question how the new format of international negotiations would contribute to the return of Crimea and regain control over Donbas. The role of the committee in this process is not defined, as well as the readiness of an armed force to participate in the military operations. Knowing the passion of the former prime minister to give the populist promises, it is not clear that the details of these announcements will be unveiled in the event of her possible victory in the elections.


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Online kneeling?

The leader of the electoral polls, actor and producer Volodymyr Zelensky, avoids interviews and communicates with his voters almost exclusively through the Internet social media, dosing the minimum information about his first steps after taking the post of President of Ukraine. His electoral program looks like a dream list rather than a serious political plan of the future head of the state, so reading it does not help to understand his actual intentions. The peculiarity of Zelensky’s election campaign has become a source of speculation about his opinions in the matters, which are of crucial importance for the country, including solutions to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Related: Plans of Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, Zelensky on solving Donbas conflict unrealistic, - Medvedchuk

The confirmation of this assumption are few interviews he gave over the last few months. His statements are characterized by ambiguity and broadness and in some cases by disarming naïveté. In one of his interviews from the end of 2018, he criticized the achievements of the peace process in Donbas, conducted under the auspices of the so-called Normandy format (with the participation of Ukraine, France, Germany, and Russia). In his opinion, the Minsk agreements have not passed the test, so it is necessary to conduct direct talks with the Kremlin, which completely controls the situation in the separatist republics. His conviction about the possibility of solving the conflict by direct talks with Vladimir Putin (instead of conducting arduous diplomatic negotiations) seems to be Zelensky’s real image of conducting foreign policy. In March 2014, he tried to appeal to the Russian president via TV shows, declaring that he was ready to kneel if it was necessary to ensure peace between, as he put it, fraternal nations. His attempt to convince the Russian leader, unfortunately, did not bring the expected results.

The actor has consistently expressed a categorical objection to any attempts to resolve the conflict by force. According to him, the most important goal is to stop further bloodshed, but without specifying what price would he pay for establishing an unconditional peace (if kneeling would be insufficient). In the case of disputes over Donbas, Zelensky allows the possibility of holding local referenda, which would decide on the most important issues of the region (membership and status of the disputed territories). In his opinion, it would be possible to conduct online voting. Zelensky has not yet clarified how to contact Putin (visit to the Kremlin, call him on the phone or use skype?).

Related: Ukraine's oligarchs and elections in 2019

Fists and dialogue

Yuriy Boyko, often seen on the Ukrainian political scene as a representative of Russian interests in Ukraine, positions himself as a cool and rational technocrat and as a strong and decisive politician. He strongly rejects the suggestion of pro-Russian views, and he is able to physically punish political opponents for formulating similar theses. He has proved it during a meeting (nomen omen) of the arbitration council in the Verkhovna Rada when MP Oleg Lyashko accused him of betrayal of the state to Russia; Boyko has whacked the notorious populist twice. After taking a series of blows with a poker face, he calmly sat in his seat.

However, personal readiness to use violence to resolve Donbas conflict has little in common with the Opposition Platform – For Life party. In this case, the force advocates a peaceful settlement of disputes and postulates direct talks with the participation of all representatives of the parties to the conflict, i.e. representatives of Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Boyko, as one of the few politicians in Ukraine, recognizes the subjectivity of self-proclaimed separatist republics and treats them as full members of the peace process. Russia, just like the United States, only ascribes the role of an intermediary in the dialogue between representatives of Kyiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk. According to Boyko, the basis for resolving the conflict should be the agreements concluded in Minsk.

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A little more information about the conflict resolution plan in the east of Ukraine was provided by chairman of the political council of The Opposition Platform - For Life party Viktor Medvedchuk, officially playing the role of a negotiator on the release of Ukrainian prisoners from the Russian prisons. The roadmap, presented during Boyko’s nomination, Medvedchuk advocated changes in the Ukrainian constitution that would guarantee regional autonomy for Donbas (and federalization of the Ukrainian state). These demands were recognized by the General Prosecutor's Office of Ukraine as a call for separatism, and the corresponding law enforcers have initiated an investigation against him against actions that violate the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state. Defending his political colleague, Boyko limited himself to giving full support for Medvedchuk’s position.

Krzysztof Nieczypor

Read the original text at Nowa Europa Wschodnia.

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