The past week has seen a veritable media circus around the revelations of the Panama Papers, in which, among many others, the name of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko appears, accused of opening an offshore account while his country suffered its worst defeat in the war against Donbas separatists in August 2014. What is Poroshenko’s current standing and how long can the government headed by Prime Minister Arsenii Yatsenyuk last in office?
Responses to the Panama Papers came rapidly. While the leader of the Radical Party, Oleh Lyashko, immediately called for the president’s impeachment, several analysts rushed to the president’s defense. Poroshenko understandably insists that he has done nothing wrong. In another setback for Poroshenko, who at the time was on a state visit to Japan, the non-binding Dutch referendum voted against the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, decisively, albeit with low voter participation just above the 30% minimum threshold.
At present, few analysts can ascertain much from the limited information available on Poroshenko’s activities. Upon taking office, he promised to sell his chocolate company Roshen, but failed to do so, claiming that there were no offers during a time of military conflict initiated, in his view, by the leadership of the Russian Federation. That claim might be valid: the principal client for Roshen products prior to 2014 was Russia, but that country promptly banned all imports from the company after Euromaidan. Nonetheless, that situation was already evident at the time of the election, since it followed directly the Russian annexation of Crimea.
For Poroshenko and the ruling coalition in Parliament, these events come at a difficult time, in a number of respects. Some European states have been sceptical of the leadership’s failure to deal with corruption or respond to critiques from friendly sources. Though Parliament opted not to move to early elections, there are nonetheless generally negative sentiments toward the government of Arsenii Yatsenyuk, and the only difficult question is with whom to replace him. Poroshenko appears to have settled on the most palatable choice for himself, namely the Parliamentary Speaker, Volodymyr Groysman, the former mayor of Vynnytsia, rather than a technocratic reformer such as Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko. Neither it seems would win the overwhelming approval of the general population (see below).
I have suggested in earlier writings that Poroshenko at present is the least problematic leader of Ukraine, a compromise candidate during a period of polarized politics, economic problems, and constitutional issues such as decentralization, Donbas autonomy, and ‘Decommunization’. It is evident, however, that the coalition in parliament is fast disintegrating and new challenges are emerging for the leadership of both the assembly and the office of president. The population generally seems supportive of a concept like decentralization but dissatisfied with current policies, their own situations, and the lack of progress on eliminating deep corruption in society.
In an opinion poll conducted by the Razumkov Center in mid-February, three parliamentary blocs were more or less evenly divided in popular support: the Opposition Bloc at 11.3%, Self-Reliance at 11.2%, and the Poroshenko Bloc at 11.1%. Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna was slightly behind at 9.1%–based on responses to the question how respondents would vote were a election to be held on the coming Sunday (Feb 28, 2016). Also just above the 5% threshold were the Radical Party of Lyashko at 6.6%, and a party that does not yet exist in any tangible form, the Party of Mikeil Saakashvili at 5.8%.
Among the parties that would fall below the threshold for seats in the Rada were Svoboda at 3.7%, UKROP (the Ukrainian Association of Patriots) at 2.7%, the Civil Position of Anatolii Hrytsenko at 2.9%, and, distantly, the Popular Front of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk at 2%. To the analogous question on presidential elections, Poroshenko was ahead with 14.7% followed by Tymoshenko at 9.5%, and Andrii Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv, at 8.9%. The poll was based on over 2,000 respondents over the age of 18 in all areas of the country excluding Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Another poll conducted along similar lines (over 2,000 respondents across unoccupied Ukraine) almost immediately afterward by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology (Feb 23-March 8) offered somewhat different ratings that may indicate an emerging trend rather than contradictory results, i.e. momentum may be building for a new leadership at both levels of government. According to this poll, had the elections for Parliament been held in mid-March, 9.5% would have voted for Batkivshchyna, 6.7% for the Opposition Bloc, 5.8% for the Poroshenko Bloc, and 5.5% each for Self-Reliance and the Radical Party. As with the earlier poll, all the other parties would be well below the 5% threshold, and the Popular Front reduced to just 1%.
Concerning the position of Prime Minister, linked in social media discussions in recent months with Groisman, Saakashvili and Jaresko, Tymoshenko has now emerged as the most popular candidate, at 12.9%, with Saakashvili at 9,9%, Lyashko 6.5%, Sadovyi, 5.9%, and Yatseniuk 5.6%–with only 3.2% for Jaresko and no scores listed for Groisman. The figure for Yatsenyuk is surprisingly high given that 33.2% of respondents held him responsible for the “deterioration of the socio-economic situation in Ukraine over the past two years”; 24.2% blamed Poroshenko and 11.1% the Cabinet of Ministers generally.
On February 17, Batkivshchyna left the ruling coalition, after Yatsenyuk had survived a vote of no confidence. Tymoshenko and her party appear to have benefited from that move. Moreover, Tymoshenko’s support is the most committed of all candidates and she is the only candidate other than Opposition leader Yurii Boiko, to have broad support in the Donbas as well as leading all candidates in Western Ukraine. In the KIIS poll, she also led Poroshenko in a potential presidential poll (10.9% to 9.3%) and would win a theoretical second round against the incumbent president (i.e. a reversal of what actually happened in 2014).
The intriguing question that emerges from these polls—and following the Panama Papers revelations and Dutch referendum—is whether Tymoshenko can revive a career that appeared to have ended at least twice: following her imprisonment during the Yanukovych years; and her rather ignominious comeback after her release from prison during Euromaidan and the 2014 presidential elections. With her party now in opposition in the assembly, she can distance herself from both the passivity of the government on dealing with corruption and her onetime political partner but now unpopular rival, Yatsenyuk. Were she eventually to emerge as the new Prime Minister, or even President, it would be an event comparable to the resurrection of Lazarus.
Notably, in the KIIS poll over 56% of respondents did not support the “appointment of foreigners to important government positions in Ukraine,” implying that the alternatives as Prime Minister of either Saakashvili or Jaresko may not be palatable to most voters. For Western analysts who support reforms in Ukraine, the Jaresko candidacy was especially appealing but may no longer be feasible.
Thus among the more obvious questions today are the following: would Tymoshenko and Batkivshchnya provide a strong reformist government? Could Poroshenko work with a Tymoshenko government (it provided a particular problem for Viktor Yushchenko in 2005)? And could a Tymoshenko government form a working coalition either with the more radical blocs in the Parliament or with the Opposition, should there be no obvious alternative? Ukrainians seem reconciled to the fact that even in Poroshenko stays, Yatsenyuk’s time in office is limited.
Based on her past record, a coalition on similar lines to the former one built after Euromaidan appears improbable. Yet the alternatives are increasingly slim. Moreover the door to Europe, if not locked, is hardly wide open, whatever the background of and questions raised by the Dutch referendum; the position of the Russian Federation remains unfriendly if not outright hostile; yet the Russian-backed Minsk Accords brokered with the separatists under OSCE auspices remain for most Ukrainians the best possibility of ending the impasse with the two separatist regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk—66% of respondents to the KIIS poll supported this statement.
As for Poroshenko, the reemergence of Tymoshenko will stir memories of their past rivalries from 2005-06 when they clashed repeatedly during Yushchenko’s presidency and traded bitter accusations of corruption. Likely there are few political figures less appealing to him as a partner though their business backgrounds are not dissimilar. Both are senior political players who have been prominent in leadership positions over the past decade. He may concur that she would be preferable as a Prime Minister than yet again a rival for the presidency. But if the groundswell of popular support continues to rise, she is unlikely to be satisfied with the lower-ranking prize.