As Ukraine’s Presidential Race Heats Up, Politics Shift to the Right

A brand new face entered the Ukrainian presidential race, promising to clean up the country’s corrupt politics, but the three main candidates are all pro-West and political discourse has moved to the right as the far-right continues to gain influence. Prof. Tarik Cyril Amar analyzes the situation

As Ukraine's Presidential Race Heats Up, Politics Shift to the Right

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

A popular Ukrainian TV comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is the frontrunner in Ukraine’s presidential race. On TV he plays an honest president who outsmarts corrupt lawmakers and businessmen. Now he aims to play the same role in real life.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: People identify with me because I’m open. I get hurt. I get angry. I get upset. I do not hide my emotions on camera. I do not try to look different. If I’m inexperienced in something, I’m inexperienced. If I don’t know something, I honestly admit it.

GREG WILPERT: The two other main candidates in the race are incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and the longtime opposition leader and former prime minister Julia Tymoshenko. The first round of the presidential election is scheduled to take place on March 31.

Joining me now to take a closer look at Ukraine’s presidential race is Tarik Cyril Amar. He is associate professor of history at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey, and the author of the book The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderline City Between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists. Thanks for joining us again, Tarik.

TARIK CYRIL AMAR: Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So as I mentioned, the three main candidates are Zelenskiy, Poroshenko, and Tymoshenko. Briefly tell us about who these candidates are, and what they stand for, and who they represent.

TARIK CYRIL AMAR: Perhaps the first thing to say is that both Tymoshenko and Poroshenko are not new faces in Ukrainian politics at all, in the sense that they have long political careers in both cases that go back well beyond the last revolution, often called the Revolution of Dignity or Euromaidan, which, as you know, took place at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014.

Poroshenko, to give you an example, actually, at one point, was a minister in the Yanukovich government–for a short time, albeit. Tymoshenko, as you’ve already said, was prime minister once under President Yushchenko. Both also have a history of conflict. Among the three candidates the one who really is new is Zelenskiy, who has only thrown his hat in the ring as a presidential candidate a few months ago, really, and has since then seen a rapid rise in the polls.

Now, politically speaking, Poroshenko stands essentially for the status quo as established after the last revolution, after 2014. And that, above all, involves a policy of macroeconomic stabilization very much in line, or at least roughly in line, with what institutions like the IMF want. Many Ukrainians have suffered from this policy. The economy has recovered by now after a terrible slump in 2014 and 2015, but that recovery has certainly not reached the mass of the population. Poroshenko, to an extent, acknowledges that, actually. But insofar as many Ukrainians are actually disappointed with what happened after the revolution. Poroshenko, as the incumbent, is the one who has to deal with that disappointment, and it’s credited to him, as it were.

Tymoshenko has often been called a populist. I’m a bit wary of that term, but it’s very often attached to her in Ukrainian politics, as well. She tends to promise people social improvements, and of course, fight against corruption. She has also long been vying for the presidency, and this is perhaps her last shot at the office. Her electorate tends to be older.

Zelenskiy has a relatively young potential electorate, as far as we can see from the polls. Very interesting, unusual. And unlike both Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, Zelenskiy also has an electorate that concentrates–it’s not exclusively there–but in the south and the east of the country. And in Ukraine, of course, regional if not divisions then differences have always been important. Now, what Zelenskiy stands for politically is extremely hard to say, because he has been very cagey about it. His signature style until now is to evade interviews. He gives very few. And if he gives interviews they tend to be very softball, essentially. He also evades major debates. He works through social media, which he can control much better, of course.

But from what we can see, one of the things where he has gone out a tiny little bit on a limb is that he has gone public with saying that he would sit down with President Putin of Russia personally to try to find a solution to the de facto war between the countries, to the conflict. At the same time, Zelenskiy has been adamant that he as well as the other candidates who count in this race, cannot of course, imagine any territorial concessions to Russia.

GREG WILPERT: So one of the things, of course, that has characterized the situation in the Ukraine is the conflict between the Ukraine and Russia. Now, how is that conflict playing into this campaign?

TARIK CYRIL AMAR: It’s playing into the campaign indirectly, because the three candidates we are talking about here are the three candidates who have real chances to make it in the first round of the elections. And two of them, most likely, will make it into the second round. There are three candidates who actually matter. And all of them are similar in that none of them has a pro-Russian position. There are candidates that you could describe as roughly pro-Russian, but they don’t have a chance in this election. In that sense, the conflict is not a direct issue between these candidates. However, as already pointed out, there are different accents. Zelenskiy, as I’ve just said, is signaling some special readiness to talk to Putin directly. He has also talked very critically about some Ukrainian politicians. But he has kept it very vague. He named nobody who he essentially denounced for making profit or money from the war.

Poroshenko stands for a very different line. He presents himself very much in line with also offers of being the chief of the Ukrainian military, which he is, by his office. His election slogan, his main election slogan, is actually “The army, the language,” and I think the next one is “faith,” but I’m not quite sure. So it’s a very conservative election slogan that highlights his ability to present Ukraine also against the outside enemy.

Tymoshenko, once again, is very hard to predict. She has a history of striking deals with Russia, and especially with Putin, but that is a history that goes back before this conflict. And since then she has been careful to make extremely patriotic, you might even say nationalistic, noises.

GREG WILPERT: So, now, the West has traditionally or usually supported Poroshenko. Is that still the case? And how is basically the U.S., and also Western Europe, basically, influencing the campaign?

TARIK CYRIL AMAR: I think the main story about the West in this campaign as it’s unfolding, interesting enough until now, is what the West isn’t doing. You could have expected strong support for Poroshenko, but it’s not actually taking place. When you look at the recent statements, actually, by the American ambassador in Ukraine, they didn’t target Poroshenko directly, but through harsh criticism of ongoing corruption that’s of course by no means positive for him. So I think what is happening is a case of the best, if he can speak in these general terms, is that it’s hedging its bets. And that yes, Poroshenko is somebody that probably many people and institutions, once again like the IMF, would like to see him continue in power. But it is very clear that they’re not going out on a limb for him. And it’s clear that the West is getting ready to also, if need be, work with Zelenskiy, or even with Tymoshenko.

GREG WILPERT: And then finally, what role is the far right playing in all of this? I’m particularly thinking of the Azov Battalion; and also, the impact of Poroshenko has moved to the right. You mentioned he has a very conservative approach right now, especially this emphasis on language, for example. I understand that a new law was passed that basically outlawed all foreign languages from the Ukraine. How is that playing into the role of the far right?

TARIK CYRIL AMAR: The role of the far right is substantial. You can sometimes see in commentaries that it’s top down, because its direct, immediate electoral chances are not yet very bright. I think that’s something that might change, also, looking forward to the parliamentary elections that happen in the fall.

But the role of the far right is substantial because it has very successfully pushed a spectrum of Ukrainian politics and Ukrainian public discourse to the right in general. It has pushed specifically Poroshenko’s government to stress nationalist themes. And it has even pushed Poroshenko’s government on occasion to adopt very specific policies. For instance, the blockade of the territories that are either under separatist rebel or Russian control. This blockade was initiated in 2017 in the spring. Many people remember that. What a lot of people may have forgotten was that initially Poroshenko’s government was very clear about not wanting to do this. And they gave in because their hands were forced by far-right activists who went out and started the blockade on their own. So they have a very concrete example of how powerful the far right can be.

The far right is also closely linked to several oligarchs. That doesn’t mean that these oligarchs are necessarily right wing themselves. This might be a way of taking out insurance, in a very cynical way, on their part. But we know that the far right is partly linked to Ihor Kolomoisky, to Renat Akhmetov. Dmytro Firtash, probably, is also involved. The far right is closely linked in the case of the Azov Battalion, which is, essentially, a neonazi force. The minister of the interior, Avakov. Avakov by now has turned into an open opponent of Poroshenko, and vice versa.

One thing that we are seeing right now is actually sort of–not a sort of. We’re seeing open, very open, conflict between different power structures in the state, between the Ministry of the Interior, which, of course has the police; between the security services, which are still loyal to Poroshenko; between the general prosecutor. All of these forces are now publicly accusing each other of corruption, and so on, and so on.

And in this climate the far right has the capacity, if politics turn volatile again, and they might do that, to exert extraordinary leverage far beyond its numbers. And its numbers aren’t small.

This is something people often forget. The far right had quite a lot of influence on how the revolution unfolded, unfortunately. It was not a far right revolution, but the far right played its cards very well in terms of shaping it. If politics goes into the streets again, the far right is now even better positioned. It’s heavily organized. It’s armed. It has infiltrated business structures, security structures. It’s infiltrated the police. It has infiltrated the security services. It is much better positioned to play a similar role again.

And here’s my last point. What this means is that the far right as an interest group–and this is, I think, how we should understand them now in politics–is de facto institutionalized, and it has an incentive in it to promote instability. And when you look at the recent events around Poroshenko’s rallies, where he was basically driven off the stage by a far-right riot, by people who were essentially sponsored by his own minister of the interior, that’s exactly the signature destabilization tactics of which we might see more. Because the far right in Ukraine can only gain from another situation in which politics goes back to the streets.

GREG WILPERT: Well, we’re going to continue to follow the election campaign, and probably come back to you. I was speaking to Tarik Cyril Amar, associate professor of history at Koc University in Istanbul, Turkey. Thanks again, Tarik, for having joined us today.

TARIK CYRIL AMAR: Thank you very much.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.