Ukrainians in 2018: Where do they stand?

David Marples

Ukrainian politics are always complex. For the past three and one half years the leadership, in the form of President Petro Poroshenko, has remained stable, though increasingly unpopular. He is likely to stand for reelection in 2019, if not sooner. Otherwise the clearest thing about the views of the electorate is that it it is not especially enamoured with any of the leading politicians. In fact, the third most popular politician in the country is a man with no political ambitions: Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, lead singer of the Okean Elzy, the successful Ukrainian rock band who is also the son of the former Minister of Education and Science.

November 2017 opinion polls, produced by four companies (SOCIS, Rating, Razumkov, and the ‘Committee of Voters of Ukraine’) allow one to make several further observations. Poroshenko retained a narrow lead in responses to the question of who respondents would support if the elections were held immediately, with 16.1%, followed by Yulia Tymoshenko with 14.4%, and Vakarchuk with 12.1%. A month later in a poll conducted exclusively by Rating, he had fallen to second place behind Tymoshenko (13.8% and 15.8% respectively), with Vakarchuk well behind at 8.4%. Yet almost a quarter of respondents declared they would not vote for Poroshenko ‘under any circumstances’, whereas the negative vote for Tymoshenko was only 5.1%.

If the election were to go to a second round–which seems almost inevitable if the current polls retain their validity–then Tymoshenko would have the support of 27% and Poroshenko 21%. An astonishing 37% would not participate in voting were these two politicians to be the only choices. Other names hovering around the 7-9% range in the first round were the former Minister of Fuel and Energy Yurii Boyko, leader of the Republican Party; businessman Vadim Rabinovich, leader of the For Life Party; Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Radical Party; and the leader of the Civil Position and former Minister of Defence, Anatolii Hrytsenko. Interestingly, Mikeil Saakashvili, the noisiest politician in Ukraine, does not enter the rankings.

About one-third of the population would support mass protests to remove the current leadership, whereas 54% would be opposed. And 38% would support the ‘immediate removal of Poroshenko’ from the post of president, whereas 45% believe he should be permitted to complete his term. None of these figures suggest that the electorate has much confidence in his leadership. On the other hand, no individual politician has really captured the attention of voters. By contrast, in 2011, when Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka suffered an economic crisis in the country his popularity had plummeted to an all-time low of 27%, far higher than that of any prospective Ukrainian president today.

Attitudes toward Russia also vary and are not as uniformly hostile as one might have expected given the protracted conflict in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Over half of respondents oppose a visa regime with Russia (32% support it). A substantial 63% oppose granting Russian the status of a state language, but 40% support bilingualism. On the related question of Ukraine joining NATO, which had seemed fairly emphatic in favour only two years ago, 47% would support it, 36% would be opposed, 13% were undecided, and 4% would not take part in a referendum. The firmest opposition was among voters of the Opposition Bloc and For Life parties, and in the East of the country in general.

The earlier poll carried out by all four marketing groups indicated that the biggest concern for residents of Ukraine remains the war in the east (51%), followed by socio-economic problems, price rises, low salaries and pensions, unemployment, and utility bills. Corruption in government was in seventh place at almost 23%, along with problems in the medical sphere.

According to UNIAN (January 2, 2018), the economy has recovered somewhat from the catastrophic years of 2014-15, with GDP rises of 2.3% in 2016, 2.0% last year, and a projected 3% in 2018, based on improved performances in industrial production, and foreign reserves will rise slightly from $19 billion to $20.7 billion. Nevertheless, the Hryvnia remains weak, inflation was 13-14%, and the economic recovery last year was less than some anticipated. The noted economist Anders Aslund offered a gloomy appraisal of Ukraine’s economic prospects in 2018 that contrasted with his earlier optimism ( ). The country has notably increased its imports of coal, an indicator of the costs of losing its major bases in Donbas.

Overall, a resolution of the continuing conflict, which costs the life of around one Ukrainian soldier per day–despite the exchange of prisoners with the separatists last month–would ease the tensions in Ukrainian society. The anti-government mood is notable, but likely not widespread enough to cause serious threats to Poroshenko as he enters his final year in office of the current term. His reelection, however, is quite another matter and now seems unlikely.

Yet Ukrainians are more emphatic about what they don’t like than of what they approve. Any analyst would have to assess seriously the chances of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former two-time Prime Minister under Yushchenko, of being the next president given her lead in the polls. Such an outcome, despite the polls, would be surprising given her divisiveness, and the way is open for new faces, and not necessarily lead singers of popular rock bands.



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