The moment of truth is fast approaching in the high-stakes game of Three-Card Monte also known as Ukraine’s presidential election. Following a March 31 first-round vote only two of the three leading candidates will make it to a runoff slated for April 21.
The Joker in the deck is, literally, a joker. Volodymyr Zelensky, a comic actor who played President of Ukraine in a popular TV series is now, according to all polls, the leading candidate for the position he once spoofed. Initially considered only a protest candidate funded by Dnipro-based oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi as a foil against his erstwhile ally turned bitter enemy, current president Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky seems to have hit a nerve with a public sick of the same old, corrupt faces. “People want to show the authorities the middle finger, and he is playing the role of this middle finger,” says one Ukrainian analyst. Donald Trump would understand.
No one better embodies the old guard than the perennial Queen of Diamonds, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Long a fixture in Ukrainian politics, Tymoshenko, also known as the “Gas Princess” (for her prominent role in the shady natural gas industry), “goddess of the Revolution” (for her firebrand image in Ukraine’s turbulent post-Soviet history), and the “Princess Leia of Ukrainian politics” (for her trademark folk-motif braids) maintains both her populist base and her high-style image: “a kind of Eva Peron figure,” according to one US analyst, “on the side of the poor but in a fur coat.”
After losing the presidency in 2010 to Viktor Yanukovych (who in 2014 was unconstitutionally ousted), Tymoshenko was jailed for allegedly having abused her power when she negotiated a sweetheart deal with the Kremlin for transit of Russian gas to Europe on pricing terms disastrous for Ukraine. Her imprisonment became a cause célèbre among western governments as “selective prosecution” (few insisted the charges were false), claiming, correctly, that she was singled out for political reasons while others guilty of as bad or worse walked. Paul Manafort would understand.
Rounding out the troika of frontrunners is the incumbent President Poroshenko, known as the oligarchic “Chocolate King” because of his confectionary company, Roshen. He’s also sought to emulate another king, England’s Henry VIII, through creation of his own Ukrainian church, which late last year Poroshenko declared independent of the Russian Orthodox Church with assistance from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Istanbul and the US State Department.
Coupled with his hard line on Russia demonstrated by the Kerch Strait naval confrontation in November 2018, Poroshenko’s religio-nationalist campaign theme of "Army! Language! Faith!" seemed to give him a boost last month. It doesn’t seem to have lasted, though, with his church project stalled by internal dissention and rejection from worldwide Orthodox prelates. Worse, prompted by Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, reluctantly has begun impeachment proceedings against Poroshenko for alleged involvement in a scheme to skim money from Ukraine’s military industry in the form of kickbacks for smuggling spare military equipment parts from Russia at inflated prices. Jokester Zelensky accordingly provided his own interpretation of Poroshenko’s slogan: “To steal from the army, to selectively split people by language, so that there will be no faith in you.”
The accusations against Poroshenko highlight his (at best) mixed record when it comes to curbing Ukraine’s notorious corruption, which has been called so bad a Nigerian prince would be embarrassed. Poroshenko supporters, which include most western governments and think tanks, say he’s making progress. “Although the crooks remain at liberty, Poroshenko has done much to reduce the institutional and structural sources of corruption,” writes Rutgers professor Alexander J. Motyl. “Poroshenko is right to believe that institutional change is much more effective in rooting out corruption than convicting a handful of criminals.” Ukrainians, he says, should just “ask themselves just which candidate Putin hates most. That’s who should be president.”
While Washington applauds Poroshenko’s firm anti-Russian line, his performance on corruption lags in the eyes of US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who says efforts have “not yet resulted in the anti-corruption or rule of law reforms that Ukrainians expect or deserve.” As reported by Voice of America,Yovanovitch specifically wants Poroshenko to fire his special anti-corruption prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky. “Nobody who has been recorded coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges can be trusted to prosecute those very same cases," said Yovanovitch, referring to Kholodnytsky. “Those responsible for corruption should be investigated, prosecuted, and if guilty, go to jail.”
Yovanovitch may face her own pot/kettle problem when it comes to turning a blind eye to corruption. Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko told Hill.TV's John Solomon that in their very first meeting Yovanovitch gave him a “do not prosecute” list. “My response of that is it is inadmissible,” says Lutsenko – who is also is also investigating a claim from a member of the Verkhovna Rada that the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), Artem Sytnyk, attempted to assist the 2016 US presidential election of Hillary Clinton. “Nobody in this country, neither our president nor our parliament nor our ambassador, will stop me from prosecuting whether there is a crime,” continued Lutsenko to Solomon. Yovanovitch has also reportedly badmouthed US President Donald Trump to Ukrainian officials, telling them to ignore him because he’s going to be impeached. Predictably, Secretary Mike Pompeo’s State Department has rushed to the defense – not of Trump, but of Yovanovitch, who has also ruffled conservative moral sensibilities in Ukraine with her showy support for LGBT issues.
Paradoxically – given the “selective prosecution” accusation against Yanukovych for locking up Tymoshenko – one of the few high-profile prosecutions under Poroshenko has been against a political adversary, former parliamentarian Aleksandr Onyshchenko. The Washington Times reported in 2017 that Onyshchenko “was forced to leave Ukraine after being exposed as an opposition supporter. Charges and arrest warrants were issued as a result of Onyshchenko revealing audiotapes that exposed high level corruption in President Poroshenko’s inner circle.”
It’s virtually assured that Zelensky will pass the March 31 first round, leaving Tymoshenko and Poroshenko to fight it out for the other spot in the runoff. Tymoshenko is already laying the groundwork to cry foul if she comes in third. In Strasbourg, pro-Tymoshenko demonstrators recently urged “deputies of the European Parliament to join the electoral process in Ukraine as international observers with the view to preventing massive payoff of voters and to ensuring fair and transparent presidential elections.”
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who heads the national police, also is looking into Poroshenko’s alleged vote buying and has brought one of Poroshenko’s campaign heads in for questioning. He also has accused Poroshenko-loyal agencies, such the prosecutor general’s office and the SBU (the successor to the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet KGB), of harassing the opposition.
The bottom line is that in the first round, Poroshenko probably doesn’t even need to outpoll Tymoshenko to get into the second round. It would be enough to get within five points of her and let what are called locally “administrative measures” take care of the deficit.
In the second round, whether against Poroshenko or Tymoshenko, it’s increasingly plausible that Zelensky could become Ukraine’s next president on what, for Americans, would be a familiar wave of populist dissatisfaction. Nina Khrushcheva, vocal Putin critic and great-granddaughter of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, thinks that would be a mistake:
“Ukraine cannot afford to take a Trump-size risk with someone like Zelensky. But nor should Ukrainians have to put up with another five years of Poroshenko, whose primary focus is on feathering his own nest. That leaves Tymoshenko. Despite her faults, she is the only realistic choice for Ukrainians. And, having survived an unjust prison sentence, she has already proved her willingness to make hard choices on behalf of her country, despite the personal consequences. Whereas a win for Tymoshenko would offer Ukraine its best chance in these tumultuous times, a victory for Zelensky would turn Marx's famous dictum on its head: America's farce would reappear as Ukraine's tragedy.”
The bottom line is that at this point, anything can happen. The relevant question may be less who will win than who will lose and what he (or she) will do next. If Tymoshenko doesn’t make the second round she will be sure she was cheated, and so will many of her supporters. If the past is any guide, in Ukraine that means taking to the streets. The recent clash in Kiev between police and anti-Poroshenko demonstrators may be a harbinger of things to come.
Whatever the outcome, even if peace is maintained, the eventual winner will face the same intractable problems that have stymied Poroshenko, above all the sputtering conflict in Donbass, high prices, a weak currency, and a struggling economy. There’s no reason to think Poroshenko will do any better if reelected, nor that his opponents have a magic wand either.
It bears keeping in mind that in Three-Card Monte the “mark” always loses. In this case, the mark may well be Ukraine’s voters.