[lg policy] Petro Poroshenko’s Last-Minute Nationalist Makeover

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Apr 6 11:06:40 EDT 2019

Petro Poroshenko’s Last-Minute Nationalist MakeoverUkraine’s president is
making a desperate gambit to win re-election—and to remain politically
relevant if he loses.
<https://foreignpolicy.com/author/michael-colborne/> | APRIL
5, 2019, 11:54 AM
[image: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Feb. 15, 2015.
(Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)]
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Feb. 15, 2015. (Sergei
Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday night, it became clear that Petro Poroshenko may not be Ukraine’s
president for much longer. Judging from the increasingly desperate and
over-the-top rhetoric, he and his supporters know it.

With all the votes counted, Poroshenko had disappointingly secured less
than 16 percent of the vote. That put him a distant second behind the
front-runner, the comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky, whose only
political experience consists of pretending to be a president in a popular
Ukrainian TV show. The 41-year-old Zelensky won more than 30 percent of the
vote, outperforming the expectations of most pollsters. The two men will
face off in the second round of the elections on April 21.
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As the results came in Sunday night, Poroshenko sounded like a man who knew
he faced an uphill battle to be re-elected. He also sounded more like a
right-wing nationalist than the “consummate political pragmatist
who was elected five years ago in the midst of Russia’s proxy invasion of
eastern Ukraine, a war that has now taken an estimated 13,000 lives. “We
need a total mobilization of all Ukrainian patriots,” he said on Sunday. “A
total mobilization of all those who fight for Ukraine, putting aside all
political colors, putting aside all the insults, we can unite.” Poroshenko
went on to name the enemies he had in mind: populists, “pseudo-patriots,”
and “open agents of the Kremlin.” He added: “And behind the scenes there
are those who already negotiate the capitulation.”

During this week’s second-round campaigning across Ukraine, Poroshenko and
his backers have only amplified their nationalistic rhetoric while sticking
with their slogan of “Army! Language! Faith!” At the heart of Poroshenko’s
campaign is his portrayal of Zelensky as a pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian
figure, set to turn the country away from the West and toward Russia.
Whether Ukrainians will believe him remains to be seen.

Poroshenko began laying the groundwork for a nationalist campaign in 2018.
That’s when he secured an independent new Ukrainian Orthodox Church,
ushered in a new law on language in education (stating that all secondary
education had to be in Ukrainian, rankling minority language speakers such
as Hungarians in western Ukraine), and, overall, presented himself as the
only person able to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his
proxy forces waging war in Ukraine’s east. (Among the slogans he promoted
at this time was: “Either Poroshenko or Putin.”)

Rhetoric like this did little to address the dissatisfaction felt by many
Ukrainian voters, who have indicated in poll after poll that—aside from the
ongoing war with Russia in the eastern part of the country—they’re more
interested in issues such as rising prices and health care than they are
about issues of nationalism and language. According to a Gallup World Poll
a few weeks ago, just 9 percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their
government, the lowest in the world for the second straight year. In a
country that by some measures is the poorest in Europe, the post-Maidan
progress that Poroshenko and his boosters tout—economic growth, health care
reform, and a visa-free regime with the European Union, among
others—clearly hasn’t registered for most citizens.

Neither has Poroshenko’s attempt to mask his deficiencies through
nationalist rhetoric. The Ukrainian political scientist Olga Onuch said she
felt Poroshenko focused on the issue of the Ukrainian language too much in
his campaign to be successful (though she stressed that his campaign
rhetoric hasn’t, in her opinion, been what scholars would call radical
right-wing, “exclusive nationalist,” or “ethno-nationalist in nature”).

The current president seemed to have heard that message loud and clear
Sunday night. “I critically and soberly understand the signal society sends
today,” Poroshenko said. “This is a serious reason for a thorough work on
the mistakes made in recent years.” But soon enough, Poroshenko and his
fans were again reading from a familiar song sheet, asking for the “total
mobilization of all Ukrainian patriots” to defeat the Kremlin, Zelensky,
and his alleged backer, the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi—all, conveniently
enough, alluded together in the same breath. “We have one enemy, though his
faces are different,” Poroshenko said.

There’s little reason to think Poroshenko’s campaign will change course in
the remaining weeks before the second-round vote. “Poroshenko’s campaign
will become even more nationalist,” said Volodymyr Ishchenko, a sociologist
and lecturer at Kiev Polytechnic Institute. Zelensky’s larger than expected
lead over Poroshenko is so insurmountable, Ishchenko argued, that the
incumbent president could in theory win on April 21 only by engaging in
“massive outright fraud”—something that Ishchenko, fortunately, doesn’t
foresee happening. Instead, he said, Poroshenko’s strategy will be more to
“lose at least with some decent score,” such as 40 percent, “and
consolidate nationalist opposition around him.”

“I think Poroshenko will go full-bore mudslinging,” said Alexander
Clarkson, a lecturer at King’s College London. “Poroshenko is going to try
to double down in mobilizing the patriotic and even ultranationalist vote,”
he added. “For him to switch this strategy now would lack credibility.”

Ukraine’s hardest-core ultranationalists increasingly accuse Poroshenko,
the onetime pragmatist, of co-opting their nationalist slogans and
rhetoric. “The biggest part of work [of the Maidan revolution] was made by
nationalists, but the political dividends were taken by politicians like
Poroshenko,” one member of the far-right, neo-Nazi-friendly Azov movement
told Foreign Policy recently. Members of the movement’s National Militia
and the National Corps party—a group the U.S. State Department called a
“nationalist hate group” in a recent report
<https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/289437.pdf>—have been leading
violent protests against alleged corruption in Poroshenko’s inner circle.

[image: A boy points at cardboard cutouts depicting, from left to right,
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, and
Ukrainian presidential candidates Yulia Tymoshenko and Oleksandr Shevchenko
during a protest in the center of Kiev on March 29. (Sergei
Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)]
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ARGUMENT  <https://foreignpolicy.com/category/argument/>| CHRIS MILLER
[image: Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky on set in Kiev, Ukraine,
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ARGUMENT  <https://foreignpolicy.com/category/argument/>| ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
[image: Supporters of Ukrainian presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko at
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But it’s not the far-right nationalists who Poroshenko is hoping will
become his future political base; despite their street power and ability to
act with relative impunity, they’re not a large enough, nor popular enough,
group to offer the promise of a future political career. It’s Ukraine’s
more mainstream nationalists—in Ishchenko’s words, the “moderate
nationalists” who call themselves liberals—whom Poroshenko seems to be
hoping to rally with his nationalist rhetoric and populist attacks on
Zelensky. (That rhetoric hasn’t extended to attacks on Zelensky’s Jewish
background; anti-Semitic tropes about the comedian have largely been
confined to a few dark corners of the Ukrainian internet.)

There is, of course, a long list of legitimate criticisms Poroshenko and
others can make against the upstart Zelensky. He has been extremely vague
on concrete policies and positions, and he has no political experience to
speak of. He has been accused (not just by Poroshenko supporters) of being
a puppet of Kolomoyskyi, who owns the 1+1 network Zelensky’s show airs on
and has become an enemy of Poroshenko, evading Ukrainian charges in
self-exile in Israel for allegedly defrauding a Ukrainian bank of billions
of dollars. His campaign doesn’t seem committed to taking the high road
over the next few weeks: “We will destroy him,” Mikhail Fedorov, Zelensky’s
chief digital strategist, told
journalist Christopher Miller at Zelensky’s campaign headquarters Sunday
night. And Zelensky’s campaign has often left observers scratching their
hands, including a bizarre back-and-forth on Thursday with Poroshenko about
a possible debate—with Zelensky proposing the two meet in the largest
soccer stadium in the country after, of all things, a drug test.

But the pro-Russian charge leveled at Zelensky from some high-profile
supporters of Poroshenko, including in FP
is much less plausible. That’s partly why Clarkson believes Poroshenko’s
campaign would be better off focusing on Zelensky’s alleged connections
with Kolomoyskyi than trying to play the nationalist, “agents of the
Kremlin” card. “[The nationalist card] is a strategic error in that it
assumes that Ukrainian voters are unsubtle enough to conflate Poroshenko
with the state and the state with the nation,” he said. “This isn’t the
1990s anymore.”

Indeed, Zelensky made pains to put on a patriotic show on the last day of
campaigning before Sunday’s vote. At his final campaign event in a Kiev
suburb on Friday, Zelensky sang a (Russian-language) song with fellow
performers that they’d first performed
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_z2qqFyb1g> in 2014 called “I Love My
Country.” “But from Kiev to Lviv,” Zelensky and his fellow performers sang,
“Donetsk to Dzhankoy”—the former occupied by Russian-led forces in Donbass,
the latter a city in Russian-annexed Crimea—“I’ll never let anyone carve up
my country.”


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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