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30 Mar, 2019 10:13

The hidden 40th candidate? Ukrainian presidential campaign is largely about Vladimir Putin

Ukrainians will choose from 39 candidates this Sunday, but one name has received a huge amount of attention despite not being on the ballot – Vladimir Putin. The contenders seem to be unable to stop talking about him.
The hidden 40th candidate? Ukrainian presidential campaign is largely about Vladimir Putin

Of course, the leader of Ukraine's powerful neighbor is not unworthy of the voters' attention. But some candidates may have gone too far shaping their campaigns around Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For instance, Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent Ukrainian president struggling to stay in office, states in non-ambiguous terms that he is running against Putin. "Who is my opponent? I don't hesitate to say this openly, since others are afraid to do it. It's Putin."

The message was also given a prominent place during a big event in which the Ukrainian president announced his candidacy in January. Displays showed banners featuring him and his Russian counterpart with the slogan: "Either Poroshenko, or Putin." Some observers, including Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, snickered, asking if Putin was aware he was running.

Other candidates may not be running against Putin, but had their Putin moments too – mostly to explain how they would be able to talk to the Kremlin "alpha dog". Volodymyr Zelensky, a front-runner according to opinion polls, had to explain this week why he once offered to kneel before the Russian president. (It's OK, it was a desperate plea for peace, not some act of groveling.) Yulia Tymoshenko, a potential second round run-off participant, promised a face-off with Putin, with the US, France, Britain, and China behind her. Oleg Lyashko, the extravagant pitchfork-wielding head of the Radical Party, said he'll bring "steel balls and nerves" instead of Poroshenko's "flexible backbone" to the negotiating table.

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However, the job that all these people crave so much will primarily require dealing, not with Putin, but with boring things like the economy, the labor drain, and the growing influence of right-wing nationalists.

This year, Ukraine has to pay over US$15 billion to foreign creditors, which amounts to a third of its budget and will require borrowing at least $4 billion more, according to government plans. The country's economy is growing again, but it's far from pre-Maidan levels, after shrinking by a half over 2014-15. The country lost much of its industrial capacity, which relied on the Russian market to stay afloat, and failed to find a replacement in Europe.

The government estimates that 3.2 million Ukrainian citizens work in foreign nations on a permanent basis, while 7 to 9 million are employed as seasonal guest workers outside of the country. Ukraine's entire labor force is about 20 million and continues to shrink along with its population.

There is also political instability. A resent Gallop poll said Ukraine holds the world record in terms of public mistrust in its government, with just nine percent saying they have some trust. This is down from 24 percent in 2014, when Poroshenko was elected for his first term. The polling agency found Ukrainians despising the government and overwhelmingly certain that the upcoming vote will be rigged.

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The country has also tilted noticeably to the right after years of fervent nationalist propaganda from the leadership. Right-wing paramilitary groups allegedly acting under the umbrella of powerful officials like Poroshenko himself or Interior Minister Arsen Avakov are now a force to be reckoned with – and increasingly accepted by the public as a viable alternative to corrupt and inefficient law enforcement.

Deep corruption, rampant poverty, and aggressive nationalism were not things Ukrainians wanted when they took part in mass protests in 2013. They wanted political reform and European living standards, not necessarily in that order. Five years on, the people who want to lead the country into the future are busy measuring who would be the toughest on Putin.

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