In Ukraine, Campaigning to Avoid the Crises

by Tammy Lynch

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was kind enough earlier this week to kick off Ukraine’s election campaign by attacking his Ukrainian counterpart. Therefore, this appears as good a time as any to look at how Ukraine’s likely candidates are attempting to convince voters to show them some love at the ballot box.

Despite election-day being five months away, the domestic political scene is awash with odes to the Ukrainian people. From property giveaways to billboard competitions to promises of fraternal love to the Russian people, politicians in Ukraine are campaigning (informally) with gusto. Unfortunately for Ukraine, this political posturing means that few political “leaders” have risked responding to the severe economic problems and foreign policy questions facing the country.

There are four major political figures expected to compete in the election on 17 January 2010: President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych and former Speaker of Parliament Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

According to a recent poll, Yanukovych, the man who would have been president in 2004, sits atop the field with 26%-30%. Tymoshenko’s rating is around 16%, with Yatsenyuk at 12-13%. Despite Yushchenko’s apparent belief that he remains popular – his rating hovers at 5%.

From his lofty perch, Yanukovych generally has maintained radio silence, with periodic bursts of activity to remind voters he exists. The strategy is understandable. Tymoshenko is taking the brunt of voters’ ire over the current economic situation; why interfere with her fun?

Following Medvedev’s broadside, Yanukovych predictably appeared. When he takes office as president, Yanukovych said his “first job” will be “a restoration of normal, neighborly, equal and mutually beneficial relations with our strategic partner, Russia.”

Tymoshenko has ignored Medvedev’s statements, but donned her martyr costume. “Today I am fighting one-on-one with the crisis. Everyone else is being irresponsible …,” she said.

Simultaneously, a billboard/banner campaign suddenly appeared in Kyiv. Each advertisement contains the tag line “She is working,” while suggesting, “They are interfering,” “They are obstructing,” or “They are talking.” The “she” and “they” aren’t identified, but does anyone really wonder?

Meanwhile, Arseniy Yatsenyuk debuted a billboard campaign, which features the modest statement: “To Save the Country: Arseniy.” Still, Yatsenyuk has yet to detail major economic policy initiatives to “save the country.” Perhaps, like Yanukovych, he understands that it’s best to save the country after the election.

In fact, this seems to be understood by most Ukrainian politicians. The parliament spent most of its spring session beset by internecine battles. As a result, a series of economic anti-crisis measures sat largely undiscussed. In the end, the government simply enacted the most desperately-needed legislation by direct decree of the prime minister.

The government also unveiled some old pre-election rhetoric, topped with a few treats; free apartments, an investigation of producers for setting consumer prices too high, promises to help companies upgrade their equipment, promises to pay wage arrears, etc.

All the while, Russian pressure over everything from the Black Sea Fleet to gas deliveries receives limited practical response, as does an agreement with the EU to implement energy reforms in exchange for a $1.7 billion loan. But what can we expect? There’s campaigning to be done, after all.

Tammy Lynch is a Senior Research Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy.