Just like in the past two months, the presidential election dominated domestic politics in Ukraine in March. The results of the election will define Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy agenda for the years to come. The election turbulence (with the first round on March 31) has become quite threatening in this context. International media have described the campaign as the “dirtiest race ever”. Amidst all the political turbulence, Ukraine’s economy has been surprisingly stable.
Corruption scandals and “Crimean arrests” – it’s getting hotter
The topic of corruption and the fight against it remained important in March. The major journalist investigations published in February and the notorious decision to abolish criminal responsibility for illegal enrichment by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine were met with a series of statements from international partners. On March 4, G7 and the World Bank urged the incumbent government to take every effort in the anti-corruption field in a joint statement. Transparency International believes that the IMF funding program and the visa-free regime with the EU will be frozen unless Ukraine finds solutions on the illegal enrichment clause in the Criminal Code.
President Poroshenko responded to the corruption scandal by dismissing Oleh Hladkovskiy (one of the key figures in the journalist investigations) from the office of First Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council.
Ukraine’s anti-corruption agencies, including the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAP), rushed to close dozens of cases on illegal enrichment, qualifying as criminal until recently, in compliance with the Constitutional Court’s verdict. According to NABU, 63 proceedings were closed fully or partially by the end of March. On March 28, SAP published updated data on the closed criminal cases – these amounted to 65. The estimated sums of the alleged illegal enrichment cases investigated by NABU were around shocking UAH 1,334,446bn, US $137,000 and EUR 531,000. These are only the 65 cases! In this context, the launch of the Higher Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine remains an open question: the President received the list of 35 nominees for the Court judges but has not yet taken his decision on them.
Clearly, this political context played into the hands of President Poroshenko’s opponents. Most candidates for presidency built their campaigns on the criticism of his performance in office. In the first round, Poroshenko landed second with almost half the votes for Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a popular comedian.
Another favorite of the presidential race, Yulia Tymoshenko, surprisingly arrived third and did not make it into the second round. She is now most likely to focus on the parliamentary election and the fight for the prime-minister’s portfolio. So will other candidates who used the presidential campaign as a rehearsal for the parliamentary race.
Whoever wins the second round of the presidential election, it is the parliament that will play the ultimate role in defining the country’s vector of development. There are three major scenarios for this. The first and the less likely one is a pro-presidential majority in parliament. This would give the head of state unlimited power while also placing huge responsibility on him. In the second scenario, a majority in opposition to the president will bring Ukraine back into 2005-2010 with prime minister and president playing tug of war and seriously hampering Ukraine’s development. The third scenario is an opposition majority that would curb the president’s powers to a minimum. The last possible scenario is a group of factions that cannot agree with each other and lead the country to chaos. Notably, the war with Russia provides fertile ground for the emergence of black swans. This means that Ukraine is facing a very difficult period.
The elections and the corruption scandals have unfairly overshadowed news about searches and arrests of Crimean Tatars in the Russia-annexed Crimea. As of March 30, 23 arrested Crimean Tatars were taken to the Russian territory where they would be placed in five pre-trial detention centers in Rostov Oblast.
By contrast to the political front, the economic one remains calm and stable. Continued cooperation with international financial institutions has been the main topic in this field for months now. According to the Minister of Finance Oksana Markarova, Ukraine generally meets all the conditions and structural benchmarks of the cooperation program with the IMF. In one of her recent interviews, Minister Markarova stated that Ukraine needs to borrow nearly $4bn in 2019 to service and repay its debt. The budget allocates UAH 418bn for this purpose. According to Minister Markarova, the EU has given good assessments on the program necessary for the second tranche of the macrofinancial assistance.
International partners support Kyiv and condemn Moscow
Despite all the corruption scandals and the elections, Ukraine continues to receive support both from the EU and from the US. David Hale, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, visited Ukraine in early March. He noted, among other things, that the US supports Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. Under Secretary Hale urged the Russian authorities to release Ukrainian sailors and political prisoners.
Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Brussels on March 20 and the meeting with the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament – a Ukraine-EU mini-summit of sorts – signals high-level support of Ukraine by the European officials. According to European Council President Donald Tusk, the parties have noted serious progress in bilateral relations in the past five years and set out the priorities for the next five years of cooperation.
Canada did not stay aside: it joined the EU and American sanctions against Russia in mid-March, thus expressing its support for Ukraine.
The EU’s statement calling on Russia to stop its illegal actions against Crimean Tatars, human rights advocates and peaceful protesters against the illegal annexation of Crimea was extremely important in the context of the recent searches and arrests of Crimean Tatars.