Still Reeling From Crisis, Ukraine Prepares For Presidential Vote

Apr 1, 2014
Originally published on April 1, 2014 9:11 pm

After a winter of lightning-fast changes – a president ousted and a peninsula apparently lost to Russia — Ukrainians are beginning to look ahead to elections on May 25 to replace Viktor Yanukovych.

The opposition leader who seemed to have the inside track a few weeks ago, ex-world champion heavyweight Vitali Klitschko, has taken himself out of the running. Klitschko will stand for mayor of Kiev and throw his support behind billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who made his fortune in the candy business.

Although not widely known in the West, Poroshenko has relatively broad appeal in this deeply divided country. He was a prominent backer of both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the recent pro-European demonstrations in Kiev's Independence Square.

Political analyst Brian Mefford says Poroshenko has also worked with Yanukovych in the past, and until recently had lucrative business ties with Russia.

"In a time when the country just lost a significant amount of its territory to annexation in Crimea, the voters are looking maybe less for a celebrity and more for someone that they see as an accomplished businessman and political professional," says Mefford.

Poroshenko has a long resume and has served as foreign minister, economics minister, national security chief and as a member of parliament.

Poroshenko's most prominent rival at the moment is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Since being freed from jail, she has promised to be "the candidate of Ukrainian unity."

Lagging In The Polls

But she has been lagging in the polls, a sign, analysts say, that voters may be concluding that the former heroine of the Orange Revolution is cut from the same cloth as the rest of the political establishment.

"As a leader, Tymoshenko is not a friend of democracy," says Mykhailo Minakov, head of the Foundation for Good Politics.

Like many top Ukrainian politicians, Minakov says, Tymoshenko has been linked to a number of oligarchs, who have raised their visibility since she announced her candidacy.

That's not to say Tymoshenko and her Fatherland party couldn't provide the stability Ukraine needs to build a better political system in the future, Minakov says. But no one should mistake them for pro-democracy reformers.

"It's not a democratic party, it's not a liberal party, and it's not the party that brings new quality in economic policies or political liberties," he says.

None Of The Above

In the eastern part of Ukraine, the home region of ex-president Yanukovych, there's little enthusiasm for either front-runner. To the south in Odessa, a strong pro-Russian minority is also looking for a "none of the above" option.

On the edge of a pro-Russian rally in Odessa on Sunday, coffee sellers Andriy and Nikita, who declined to give their last names, shrugged when asked who they would trust to lead the country now.

"Now, nobody has any trust," says Nikita. "People are coming to power and still trying to line their own pockets. Nobody thinks about us, absolutely nobody."

"We have these coffee machines," adds Andriy. "Ukrainian law says they're illegal, but we have to work. In Russia, all these laws on coffee carts were sorted out a long time ago."

The Crimea Question

Odessans are also casting an eye toward Crimea, now under Russian control but considered by much of the world to be occupied Ukrainian territory. Crimea is also on the minds of election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Spencer Oliver, the OSCE's parliamentary assembly secretary-general, says the group is leaving its options open about where all of its observers will be deployed on May 25.

"Of course there are questions about how we can monitor the elections in Crimea, or whether there will be opportunities for the Crimeans to vote in these elections," Oliver says.

"But so far it's been rather discouraging, because the Russians are unwilling to grant access to observers, but we're making every effort to try to accomplish that," he says.

Analysts say technical solutions such as voting online or by mail probably can't be set up in time, especially without the cooperation of Russia and the local Crimean authorities.

As with so much about Ukraine's future, these elections are likely to have a strong flavor of improvisation about them.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block, reporting this week from Dallas, Texas.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel in Washington. And we begin this hour with two questions: What's ahead for Ukraine after the Russian annexation of Crimea, and where might Russia act next? We'll start with the prospects for firming up Ukraine's democracy.

BLOCK: A presidential election is set for May 25, and there are two main contenders. One is a billionaire candy-maker-turned-politician, Petro Poroshenko; the other is the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Neither is popular in the east or south, and it's unclear if people in Crimea will be able to vote. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Ukraine.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: After the lightning-fast changes of winter, with the president fleeing and a peninsula disappearing into the Russian orbit, this spring's political shakeups seem almost routine. Ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko, for a time the political voice of protest movement that ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych, is out of the race. He'll be running for mayor of Kiev and throwing his support behind billionaire confectioner Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko is not widely known in the West, but by Ukrainian standards he has relatively broad appeal. Political analyst Brian Mefford says despite being an oligarch, his opposition credentials are solid. He was a prominent backer of both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the recent pro-European demonstrations in Independence Square.

BRIAN MEFFORD: In addition, though, in a time when the country just lost a significant amount of its territory to annexation in Crimea, the voters are looking maybe less for a celebrity and more for someone they see as an accomplished businessman and political professional. Poroshenko has a long resume as foreign minister, minister of economics, former national security chief, member of parliament and so forth.

KENYON: Poroshenko's most prominent rival is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She has promised to be the candidate of Ukrainian unity, but analysts say her sluggish performance in the polls reflects a feeling among voters that the former heroine of the Orange Revolution has turned out to be cut from the same cloth as other members of the political establishment.

MYKHAILO MINAKOV: As a leader, Yulia Tymoshenko is not a friend of democracy.

KENYON: Professor Mykhailo Minakov, president of the Foundation for Good Politics, says like other top Ukrainian politicians, Tymoshenko is linked to a number of oligarchs who have raised their visibility since she was freed from jail and declared her interest in running for president. He says it's possible that Tymoshenko and her Fatherland Party could provide the stability to help Ukraine move toward a better government in the future, but no one should confuse them with pro-democracy reformers.

MINAKOV: It's not a democratic party, it's not a liberal party, and it's not the party that brings new quality in economic policies or political liberties.

KENYON: In eastern Ukraine, ex-President Yanukovych's territory, there's little enthusiasm for either frontrunner. Here in the south in Odessa, a strong pro-Russian minority is also looking for a none-of-the-above option. On the edges of a pro-Russian rally over the weekend, coffee sellers Andriy and Nikita shrug when asked who they would trust to lead the country now:

NIKITA: (Through translator) Now, nobody has any trust. People are coming to power, and still trying to line their own pockets. Nobody thinks about us, absolutely nobody.

ANDRIY: (Through translator) We have these coffee machines. Ukrainian law says they're illegal, but we have to work. In Russia all these laws on coffee carts were sorted out a long time ago.

KENYON: Odessans are also casting an eye toward Crimea, under Russian control but considered by much of the world to be occupied Ukrainian territory. Crimea is also on the minds of election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. OSCE official Spencer Oliver says the group is leaving its options open about where all of its observers will be deployed on May 25.

SPENCER OLIVER: Of course, there are questions about how we can monitor the elections in Crimea, or whether there will be opportunities for the Crimeans to vote in these elections. But so far it's been rather discouraging because the Russians are unwilling to grant access to observers, but we're making every effort to try to accomplish that.

KENYON: Analysts say technical solutions, such as voting online or by mail, probably can't be set up in time, especially without the cooperation of Russia and the local Crimean authorities. As with so much about Ukraine's future, these elections are likely to have a strong flavor of improvisation about them. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Odessa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.