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Legacy of Ukraine revolution rides on March election

Author : Andrew Langley

Dozens of challengers are expected to try to unseat President Petro Poroshenko, who shows signs that he will seek a second term but hasn’t yet announced his decision
16:09, 9 January 2019

Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine
Bloomberg

Almost five years after deadly street protests toppled Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed leader, voters have a chance to offer a verdict on what’s come since. Dozens of challengers are expected to try to unseat President Petro Poroshenko who shows signs that he will seek a second term but hasn’t yet announced the decision. Poroshenko is weighed down by plunging popularity amid a geopolitical tug-of-war that reignited Cold War tensions. Ahead of the first-round vote, scheduled for March 31, Ukrainians are considering what their revolution accomplished, and where it fell short.

1. Why is the 2014 revolution still an issue?

Ukrainians revolted with the aim of building a modern, transparent state whose fortunes were locked westward to the European Union and no longer to Russia, its neighbor to the east. The split enraged Russia, which wants to maintain influence in its former stomping ground and discourage similar unrest at home. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, proclaiming a duty to defend the ethnic Russians who dominate the population there. Worse, in the eyes of many Ukrainians who longed for a transparent and accountable government, endemic corruption has endured.

2. Why is the president so unpopular?

The demonstrators who dislodged Poroshenko’s Russia-backed predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, knew the post-revolution path wouldn’t be smooth and were ready to accept short-term economic pain and Russia’s ire. They wanted one thing above all: meaningful steps to lock up crooked bureaucrats. In four and a half years under Poroshenko’s leadership, no senior official has been convicted, and Ukraine’s corruption ranking has barely improved. Transparency activists are routinely harassed, with one dying in an acid attack. The president is being blamed for this state of affairs, seeing his popularity slip below 10 percent. Being a billionaire whose name popped up in the Panama Papers hasn’t helped.

3. How is Poroshenko trying to win his voters back?

By taking a more nationalist tone in his campaign messaging. Gone is the “Living in a new way” slogan that helped him to the presidency in 2014; instead, there's “Army, language, faith,” which hammers on three key themes -- the lingering conflict with Russian-backed fighters, Ukraine’s post-Soviet identity and the Poroshenko-backed establishment of a church independent from Russia.

4. Who are the main challengers?

Leading the pack is Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who garnered worldwide attention as a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution (and for her famous hair braid) before being imprisoned by Poroshenko’s predecessor Viktor Yanukovych. Among her announced and potential rivals are former defense minister, Anatoliy Hrytsenko; Ukraine’s most-watched comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy; and the country’s biggest rock star, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. Of the more than 35 likely candidates, none is polling above 20 percent, meaning the March 31 election will almost certainly require a runoff, on April 21.

5. What issues separate the potential candidates?

No one with a shot of winning advocates shifting allegiance back to Russia from the EU. Rather, Poroshenko’s prospective challengers are pouncing on the persistent graft and financial hardship he’s overseen since taking power, with some making populist calls to cut utility bills and lower the interest rates on bank loans. The economy is an easy target, having failed to rebound strongly from the revolution-induced slump.

6. What would investors prefer?

After a year in which emerging markets like Argentina and Turkey were clobbered, the most important thing for Ukraine investors is that the new president maintains cooperation with the International Monetary Fund. While a $3.9 billion loan has been approved to get the country through the election year, populist candidates including Tymoshenko have suggested they’d print money and trim government-regulated utility prices, steps that would likely halt aid disbursements. With Ukraine frequently named among the most vulnerable developing nations to potential financial stress, an IMF cutoff would risk triggering a crisis.

7. Why should the world care about Ukraine’s election?

The West is invested in Ukraine’s success. On top of the IMF’s support, billions of dollars have flowed from the World Bank and the European Union, while the U.S. has provided loan guarantees and military aid. Russia, meantime, may be intent on gradually undermining Ukraine’s economy. Any destabilizing outcome of the election would offer fodder for Putin’s notion that uprisings bring only chaos.

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