Ukraine’s Presidential Elections: Oligarch against Oligarch

Registered voters:   30,056,127 Turnout:  62.86 % (first round), 62.07 % (second round) second round: Volodymyr Zelensky – 73.22 % Petro Poroshenko – 24.45 % The recent presidential elections in Ukraine have provoked rather similar reactions in the West and in the post-Soviet countries, including Russia. The overwhelming electoral victory of Volodymyr Zelensky over Petro Poroshenko

Registered voters:   30,056,127

Turnout:  62.86 % (first round), 62.07 % (second round)

second round:

Volodymyr Zelensky – 73.22 %

Petro Poroshenko – 24.45 %

The recent presidential elections in Ukraine have provoked rather similar reactions in the West and in the post-Soviet countries, including Russia. The overwhelming electoral victory of Volodymyr Zelensky over Petro Poroshenko – sensational but at the same time widely expected – was predicted by all major public-opinion polls.

The Western mass-media have been saluting this event by a salvo of excited editorials praising an unprecedented level of achieved electoral democracy (large number of candidates, no signs of significant violations,  And live debates on TV and even in a football stadium!). The Russian reaction tends to ask what course of action Ukraine’s president-elect will take regarding gas transport and conflict in the Donbass region. However, most of these commentators tend to overlook the content of mainstream political and economic processes that are currently taking place in Ukraine.

First, it is quite symbolic that the only ones to have made it to the run-off stage are the oligarch Poroshenko and a representative of a competing oligarchic clan – Zelensky. Trade-union leaders and civil-society activists were absent – even in the first round of voting.

Poroshenko is a figure fully symbolising post-Maidan Ukraine – the very Ukraine where in 2013 people, outraged by long-standing corruption, lies, social inequality, and the overall stagnation of public life, filled the streets to demand something better. These protests – although sincere and initially spontaneous – quickly became manipulated. There were almost no experienced organisations and movements prepared to wage a consistent battle to realise the demands people raised in Maidan. There were no powerful trade unions, no democratic leftist parties, no new social movements. Hence the leadership was in the hands of all sorts of manipulators – from disguised and obvious agents of NATO to those competing with then ruling regime of the Yanukovich oligarchs who were eager to get to the front of the pocket-stuffers’ line. These manipulators did not hesitate to bring along all sorts of radical nationalists and fascists, using them to spearhead the unrest.

Poroshenko’s Ukraine is the country that has consistently failed to reach the modest 2013/2014 (pre-Maidan) levels of production, not to mention the outputs of the allegedly ‘crisis-prone’ and ’inefficient’ economy of pre-1991 Soviet Ukraine. This is the country whose economic output is five times smaller than that of neighbouring Poland (before the collapse of the world socialist system Soviet Ukraine used to outperform Poland in terms of level of economic and industrial development). It is the country with an annual inflation rate exceeding 10%, huge public debt, and one of the highest levels of social inequality in Europe. The recent modest economic growth (+ 3%) is primarily due to a rise in world-market prices for metals and grain – two principal export commodities of Ukraine.

Poroshenko’s legacy includes a political system that is full of democracy’s simulacra, but where in reality left parties and public organisations are regularly persecuted; where numerous people are jailed and tortured in secret prisons; where it is dangerous even to mention the need to restore friendship, not between presidents and oligarchs but between the people of Ukraine and Russia; where the followers of the Nazi-collaborator Bandera march unimpeded in the streets; and where there is an ongoing war against the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, which has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties and brought immense suffering to the region’s population.

There are numerous examples of the Poroshenko government’s support of a pro-fascist agenda. They include many street renamings replacing the former names with those of the Ukrainian Nazis Bandera and Shukhevich; erecting a monument to the Nazi collaborator Teliga in Babi Yar, the site of the mass execution of Kiev Jews in 1941-1943; and, of course, the frequent torchlight processions by followers of Bandera. But this is only a show of force.  The force itself – the armed paramilitary Nazi formations – are much more dangerous.

This is the Ukraine to which its citizens were able to express a resounding ‘no’ on election day.

To whom then did they say ‘yes’?

Zelensky is a tragicomic figure. A former actor with considerable satiric talent, he is today a henchman of oligarchic clans that are rivals to Poroshenko.

His victory was the result, on the one hand, of the mass discontent of Ukrainians with the current authorities; and, on the other hand, of an aggressive populist PR campaign, extremely expensive and highly professional. The main emphasis of the Zelensky campaign was a mix of condemnation of the corruption-ridden authorities and a sprinkling of broad populist promises.

The electoral show and Zelensky’s empty promises, however, disguise a clear neoliberal and pro-NATO agenda. Masked by a pile of slogans, the programme  contains a number of steps that provide for a further shift towards commercial healthcare and education, the introduction of a private retirement savings system, increased expenses on security personnel (army and police) and  the transition to a professional army, and a tax cut (benefitting, of course, millionaires and billionaires). In the sphere of foreign policy it amounts to a new dose of Russophobia coupled to veiled hints at further rapprochement with NATO, plus vague promises to solve the problem of Donbass within the framework of the Minsk truce agreement. As a matter of fact, the electoral programme of the president-elect and his team is not particularly different from the course pursued by Poroshenko.

My quick analysis of the elections leads to a simple and pessimistic conclusion: Ukraine does not yet have a real alternative to the existing oligarchic-bureaucratic system of government.

Zelensky is not an alternative. Furthermore, the situation in the Donbass region is becoming even more complicated. Its struggle for independence continues, but there, to our great regret, the atmosphere of popular uprising is giving way to the rise of new oligarchic-bureaucratic powers that are squeezing the local left, including the Communist Party, out of the government structures at all levels without regard to the their former and current merits in defending and upholding the region.

There might still be a hope for a real, though uncertain, alternative. The main reality that inspires some optimism is the apparent dissatisfaction of most Ukrainians with the establishment as a result of the economic, political, and ideological system of Maidan. This became evident in the recent elections. Most people are eager for an alternative. So far, however, even the disadvantaged are infected with a blind faith imposed by propaganda and the politically dictated myths about the healing powers of nationalism, liberalism, and the help of the ‘generous’ West. That is, so far they are. But the reality of life, the contradictions of everyday existence, are slowly debunking these myths. Moreover, the Ukrainian left movement has not completely disappeared; it continues to fight (partly in exile!). Therefore, aiding the Ukrainian left as well as solidarity with the people and the left movement of Donbass are of paramount importance today.