by Gordon M. Hahn
The victory of television comedic actor and producer, President-elect Volodomyr Zelenskii, over the increasingly ultra-nationalist oligarch, outgoing President Petro Poroshenko, marked a rejection by a slim Ukrainian majority in the western regions of the oligarchic element in the Weimar Maidan oligarchic-ultranationalist hybrid regime. In the country’s southeast it represents a full rejection of both the regime’s oligarchic element and its increasingly active and vocal ultra-nationalist and neofascist element in the regime. The presidential election has been a positive process that opens the way for a possible but far from certain way out of Maidan Ukraine’s dead end. However, the election in and of itself is not a turn towards a better Ukraine. That turn can now only just begin, and there is no guarantee of its success. To the contrary, there are powerful oligarchic and ideologically extremist forces who lost in the election and who face the prospect of a similar defeat in September’s Rada elections and who will do everything possible to retain power and their positions in the bureaucracy, the siloviki departments, and the economy.
Contrary to what the American people and other Western publics have been told, Ukraine is very similar to Russia in its political culture, which is corrupt and authoritarian overall. Elections have never been the core problem. The Maidan regime — now on the verge of being the new opposition — plans to emasculate the office of the Ukrainian presidency in what can only be regarded as a parliamentary coup against the constitution and the sovereign will of the majority of the Ukrainian people as expressed in the presidential voting. Zelenskii himself is likely to fight corruption, to be sure, but he is unlikely to challenge the ultranationalists, neofascists, and their militarized combat organizations. As I wrote on my Facebook page just before the election, “(w)ithout a coup, assassination or election cancellation, it’s Pres. Zelenskii, with all the promise and risk that entails” (www.facebook.com/gordon.hahn1/posts/10218743500560174). Thus, it turns out, the first option to Zelenskii’s presidency — a coup — appears to the chosen instrument of the Weimar Maidan oligarchic-ultranationalist hybrid regime. Finally, Zelenskii is unlikely to offer concessions that the DNR, LNR or Moscow will find acceptable for resolving the Donbass civil war.
Zelenskii’s Victory and the Presidential Elections
Zelenskii’s victory signified some decline in the acceptability overall in Ukraine of the Galician/Western line backed by Poroshenko countrywide’ fueled largely by a full rejection in the east and south. Zelenskii made it a central point of his campaign to bring the ostracized south and east back in to Ukraine and end the discrimination against the Russian language fostered by Poroshenko legislation. Thus, Zelenskii won more than 80 percent of the vote in each of the 11 more Russian-speaking regions in eastern and southern Ukraine and nearly 90 percent in several of them. Poroshenko took only nationalistic Lviv. In the rest of western Ukraine won, in many of these regions only by a slim majority, but he won nevertheless. He even took some 60 percent in Poroshenko’s native Volhyn region (https://elections.dekoder.org/ukraine/en?fbclid=IwAR36OdD3lrXL3EKKy9Zfdhk8k36Azgr6nNWLeYH3sYiYX9Ci51O86GVDhow). To the extent Zelenskii received great support in the east, his election represents a desire for an end of the slow-burning civil war in Donbass, of the east-west polarization inside the country, and of alienation of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians as well as for a normalization of Kiev’s relations with Russia. Poroshenko’s narrow but nevertheless defeat in almost all the western regions reflects the Galicians disenchantment with corruption far more than any significant rejection of Galician Ukrainian nationalism, ultrnationalism and neofascism in the west.
Takeaways from the electoral process itself are almost all positive. The election was clearly free and fair with the incumbent losing in a process characterized by democratic ‘outcome uncertainty.’ There can be little doubt that Poroshenko was preparing several ways by which he might cancel or subvert the second round of the vote, including withholding representatives to the election monitoring councils, SBU fake news claiming emails were hacked showing Zelenskii was colluding with the Kremlin (sound familiar?), and the last-minute court challenge against the Zelenskii’s registration as a candidate, among other scenarios being worked out in the presidential administration and SBU. Nevertheless, the second round took place and the votes were counted honestly delivering a resounding defeat to the sitting president. His ability to skew the results using administrative resources was clearly limited by the unwillingness of many bureaucrats and electoral racketeers to violate the law in Poroshenko’s support, preferring to jump ship.
The Nature of Maidan Ukraine’s Hybrid Regime
However, the problem in Ukraine has often been less with its elections being unfree or unfair (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/06/21/one-day-in-the-life-of-ukrainian-democracy/). Most often the problem has been with the rule of law, massive corruption, the theft of the state by various powerful oligarchs, the lack of a cohesive national identity, and a deeply polarized society. It is these aspects of Ukraine’s authoritarian side, its ‘stateness problem’ and political polarization and instability which are rarely understood in the West [see Gordon M. Hahn, Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War’ (Jefferson: McFarland, 2018)].
https://ukraina.ru/exclusive/20190302/1022868772.html; https://vesti-ukr.com/strana/328406-po-sem-sotrudnikov-sbu-v-okruzhkomakh-nou-khau-poroshenko-dlja-falsifikatsij-; https://vesti-ukr.com/strana/329991-khozjain-v-shoke-pered-vyborami-v-kvartire-propisalos-600-chelovek; and https://strana.ua/articles/analysis/187457-chto-takoe-setki-na-vyborakh-opublikovany-sposoby-borby-s-podkupom-izbiratelej.html?fbclid=IwAR1RMFf53uZLgvOviGi8bPglIfzmoYv5LG6w-b3uPfA7r2102tlLyoBchck). Journalists exposed an extensive vote-buying network created by Poroshenko’s campaign (https://strana.ua/articles/rassledovania/187131-kak-petr-poroshenko-stroit-hlobalnuju-setku-po-podkupu-izbiratelej-za-hosudarstvennyj-schet.html). The most potent symbol of the Ukrainian system’s corruption during the campaign, however, was the scandal that exploded into view in late February featuring Pororshenko’s deputy head of the Council for National Security and Defense (SNBO) and close business partner Ihor Gladkovskiy, whose son had masterminded a scheme that saw the purchase of Russian spare military parts and their re-sale to the Ukrainian army at exorbitant prices (www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-27/ukraine-military-procurement-scandal-shakes-presidential-race). Poroshenko was forced to fire his long-time associate, and the investigation continues thus far without any arrests.
The Ukraine is on the edge of a constitutional crisis. The country remains badly divided between the newly elected and at present popular president and his support base in the east and south, on the one hand, and Maidan’s outgoing president, government and Rada with its support base largely in the west. As at the beginning of the Maidan protests in fall 2013, there are many Ukrainians who want positive democratic change. Unfortunately, they are countered by a powerful oligachic-ultranationalist coalition that has been stealing the state, dividing Ukrainians along regional, ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines in order to stay in power, and is about to be relegated to the position of the Maidan-in-opposition. For now, Zelenskii is the new Yanukovych minus the corruption and pro-Russian inclinations. His positive image with the voters can be destroyed with new framing that can come with the ravaging of time in office as the elan of the victory in the presidential election fades and by effective Maidan-in-opposition propaganda. With Rada elections set for September, the first five-six months of Zelenskii’s presidency — should Poroshenko and the Rada radicals allow it to commence — will be bogged down in a bitter power struggle that can easily spin out of control. There is good reason to believe that the Rada leadership, the siloviki, and the ultranationalists and neofascists in Ukraine’s frequently uncivil society will be willing to repeat a use of violence of February 2014 in order to preserve their power and avoid the risk of Zelenskii investigations into their corruption and the Maidan’s original sin of that February 2014 snipers’ terrorist attack. Zelenskii may very well forego a serious investigation of the Maidan terrorist attack and a crackdown on the illegal armed formations and activity of ultranationalists and neofascists like the National Corps and C14. A bridge too far for any Ukrainian leader, given the weak state and powerful extremist element on the streets.
There are black swans on the horizon. One is Vladimir Putin. He ‘welcomed’ Zelenskii by issuing a decree easing requirements for immigration to Russia and the receipt of Russian passports and pension payments for residents in civil war-torn region of the separatist DNR and LNR. In this way, he seemed to remind Zelenskii of Russia’s now limited, albeit, direct military presence in the war zone. He further signaled his intent to run a hard bargain by refusing to congratulate Zelenskii on his presidential election victory unlike in 2014 when Putin congratulated Poroshenko. But Zelenskii may have walked into this slap. He threw down the gauntlet to Putin when declared after his election victory (and before these moves by Putin): “To all post-Soviet countries: Look at us, anything is possible” (www.rferl.org/a/poroshenko-concedes-after-exit-polling-shows-zelenskiy-taking-ukraine-presidency/29894814.html). He reiterated the point several days later specifically when responding to Putin’s decision to ease Donbass access to Russian passports and immigration (https://vesti-ukr.com/strana/334477-zelenskij-sdelal-zajavlenie-ob-idee-putina-vydavat-ukraintsam-pasporta-rf). If Zelenskii sees himself as the spark or leader of a wave of color revolutions in the former USSR, he will find the going with Russia tough, regardless of who the Russian president is. Russians fear both revolution and foreign interference far more than they do Putin. More importantly for Ukraine, such a stance will make a resolution of the Donbass conflict imossible.
Another black swan is that Ukraine now has a Jewish president. This is not evidence of the absence of anti-Semitism, which is robust among Ukraine’s substantial number of ultranationalists and neofascists. Anti-semitism has been overshadowed by such radicals’ lazer-like focus of their xenophobia on ethnic Russians. The fact of a Jewish president — in addition to the present PM being Jewish — poses the risk of an uptick in anti-Semitism and in the appeal of the ultranationalist/neofascist message if Zelenskii fails to improve the economy, cut corruption, and/or appears to be ‘caving in’ to Russian or Western demands to the detriment of Ukraine’s interests. The Jewish president will be a prime scapegoat in the case of such failure. These two dynamics – the inexperienced Zelenskii’s possible failure and the potential political repercussions of his Jewish roots — could tip the scales in favor of the ultranationalist wing of the Maidan-in-opposition and shape its calculus as to whether or not to undertake a coup, repeating what worked once in February 2014.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org; an expert analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com; and an analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), www.geostrategicforecasting.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the four books, most recently Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.