Desperately Seeking A Postwar President In Ukraine
(Article text ©2019 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Christopher Miller – KYIV, Jan. 25, 2019 – article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/desperately-seeking-a-postwar-president-in-ukraine/29730680.html)
Ukrainians say the biggest problem facing their country ahead of a crucial presidential election in March is the same one that ushered in the current head of state in the first place: war.
It’s been almost four years since officials from Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany agreed on a way to end a hot phase of the conflict between Ukraine’s central government and Russia-backed separatists in the east.
Fast forward to today, and that deal, known as the Minsk accords, has largely failed, much to the dismay of most of Ukraine’s 44 million citizens.
Sporadic fighting has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced 2 million more from an area sliced through by a 500-kilometer “line of contact” teeming with land mines. As the war grinds toward a sixth year, there is no end in sight.
But a growing field of challengers hopes that fellow Ukrainians are ready to turn the page on their wartime president, Petro Poroshenko.
Just don’t insist on seeing the fine print.
“Everyone is saying they will finish the war…and they may talk about general ideas, like international peacekeepers, as a way of moving forward,” says Oleksiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv’s Mohyla Academy and head of research at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a think tank. “But I think no politician is able to talk about specific details.”
Moreover, he adds, any candidate who is brave enough to offer specifics “would immediately be accused of making concessions to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
In fact, that’s already happened.
Talking To The Separatists
Candidates Yuriy Boiko and Oleksandr Vilkul, whose opposition parties are regarded by some as Russia-friendly or pro-Russian, have suggested any peace deal should include compromises and dialogue with the separatists — a nonstarter for many Ukrainians who equate such a move with capitulation.
One candidate who has laid out a “new strategy for peace and security” is Yulia Tymoshenko, a former gas executive and prime minister who lost a presidential runoff to Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 and looks like a front-runner in the looming race.
She proposed a “Budapest+” negotiating format involving the European Union, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The name is a reference to widely lauded quadrilateral talks in 1994 at which a newly independent Kyiv agreed to give up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in exchange for security assurances from Washington, London, and Moscow. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine marked a clear abrogation of that commitment, in most Ukrainians’ eyes.
Speaking to a packed house of supporters in the capital on January 22, Tymoshenko even offered up a hopeful vision to millions of eastern Ukrainians displaced by the war: “Gather up your fridge magnets, you’ll soon have someplace to hang them.”
But throughout, Tymoshenko was short on her plan’s specifics.
“It does not reject the Minsk agreements and does not say what may be compromised regarding Donbas,” Fesenko says in a reference to the eastern regions where separatists control large sections of territory.
Another candidate, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who plays a fictional president in a TV comedy series, recently offered voters something along the lines of “we’ll meet in the middle” when asked how he might resolve the conflict.
“‘Putin has his position; I have my position. We’ll decide something and then have a referendum,'” is how Haran characterizes Zelenskyy, who is running third behind Tymoshenko and Poroshenko in early polling. “Zelenskyy demonstrated that he’s totally unprepared for such questions.”
Growing Desire For Peace
Many of the two dozen people who have declared their intention to run — 17 of them already registered ahead of the February 8 deadline — have talked about ending the war, albeit in extremely vague terms.
“Absolutely it is the most important issue,” says Oleksandr Zenov, an eastern Ukrainian who has done humanitarian work during the conflict. “My [vote] will be based not only on the plans of action but also on the activities that have already been done.”
After all, he says, “most of the candidates have been in Ukrainian [politics] for more than 20 years.”
Polls have shown Ukrainians’ desire for peace growing as the election approaches.
A poll published in November suggested 57 percent of people saw the Donbas conflict as the country’s most pressing issue, ahead of corruption. That was up from 53 percent in June. Later the same month, another survey put that number at 66 percent of Ukrainians. By December, more polling said 72 percent of Ukrainians regarded the war as the country’s biggest problem.
Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Political Studies, says there are three main reasons why candidates avoid details when it comes to ending the war.
First, there’s no “meaningful alternative” to the Minsk agreements at hand, and the Ukrainian and Russian positions are “fundamentally different.” Second, Ukrainians themselves are not unified behind any single solution to the conflict. And third, he insists, Ukrainian voters and politicians are convinced that peace is most contingent on “Putin’s position, [and] his readiness for a real compromise.”
A peace breakthrough that could dramatically sway the race in Poroshenko’s favor is unlikely before the election, given Putin’s public disdain for the former businessman.
But both Fesenko and Haran suggest the war’s hold on many voters, at least those farther from the war zones, might recede as election day nears. They point to the same polls indicating that the war falls to third or fourth place — after economic issues, such as utility prices, salaries, and pensions — when Ukrainians are asked what the most important issues are for their families.
“The Minsk plan can be compared to a seriously ill patient who is in the intensive-care unit,” Fesenko says. “He can be saved from death, but he will no longer be completely healthy.”
Ukraine’s roughly 36 million voters must be wondering if the same is true of their country.