For the Kremlin, the Ukrainian election is a choice of less than three evils

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MOSCOW / KIEV (Reuters) – Before Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in the east of Ukraine, Moscow had a Ukrainian president who did much of what he wanted. Now, as Ukraine prepares to elect a new leader, none of the leading candidates looks alluring for Russia.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reacts during a session of the parliament, after the legislators have supported his amendments to the constitution on the country's intentions to join the European Union and NATO, in Kiev, Ukraine, February 7, 2019 REUTERS / Valentyn Ogirenko

Viktor Yanukovych, the last Ukrainian president and friend of Moscow, was overthrown by protests in 2014 and fled to Russia, and Petro Poroshenko, his successor, posed fierce opposition to Moscow at the heart of his re-election campaign.

Challenger Yulia Tymoshenko, third in the polls behind Poroshenko, calls Russia an "aggressor country". And Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a television comedian who leads the elections, says the two countries are at war and wants Ukraine to join the EU.

Meanwhile Yuriy Boyko, former ally of President Yanukovich ousted by Russia, is in fourth position. While he has courted voters with promises to reverse unpopular tariff increases in heating, it is unlikely to win.

Part of the problem of Ukraine in Russia is rooted in arithmetic.

Many voters in the annexed Crimea and eastern separatist Ukraine, an area with a total population of about 6 million, according to figures published by the separatists, will hardly take part in the elections as they need to undergo a special registration process on Territory controlled by Ukraine.

Also 3 million Ukrainians living and working in Russia will not be able to vote.

The Moscow shares of 2014 mean that it has lost almost all the influence in the parts of Ukraine that it does not control, giving few options to shape the events. Kiev says that Russia is using IT efforts to try and stop the election to weaken its legitimacy, an accusation that Moscow denies.

"Poroshenko is obviously impossible to manage for us," said a source familiar to the Kremlin, according to which a Poroshenko victory could consolidate a political stalemate between Moscow and Kiev.

Although Poroshenko was the worst scenario in Moscow, other candidates also suffered a devaluation for Russia, the source said.

A second source close to the Kremlin agrees that a victory for Poroshenko was the least favored outcome in Moscow, but said that other candidates, in particular Tymoshenko, at least offered a weak hope that the two countries could start again. speak.

The source noted that Tymoshenko had experience of relations with Russia in the negotiations on gas prices when he was the Ukrainian prime minister and could be more pragmatic.

"OCCUPIES CAN NOT BE CHOSEN"

Despite his poll conducted, Zelenskiy, the comedian whose cool political face seems to seduce many Ukrainians, is seen as something of an unknown quantity from Russia.

This is partly due to its trade links with the Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, who helped finance militia groups to fight pro-Russian separatists.

Other aspects of Zelenskiy, from the Kremlin's point of view, could however be more attractive. A statement by Zelenskiy that he thought that direct talks between Russia and Kiev were inevitable to stop the war was widely accepted by the media supported by the Kremlin.

The two sources familiar with the Kremlin believe that a victory by Poroshenko could nullify any prospect of an agreement on Eastern Ukraine, while Moscow would welcome an agreement if it protected the interests of the Russian speakers while it brought to Russia financial aid and sanctions. .

Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko could at least be open to the possibility of talks, said Mark Galeotti, an expert from Russia and a fellow at the European University Institute of Florence.

Moscow had the hope that it could return the eastern Ukraine to Kiev, on its own terms, in exchange for a kind of soft recognition of Crimea, he said. Although the Ukrainian electoral training was not ideal for Moscow, the Kremlin would be happy with the prospect of a victory for Zelenskiy for that reason and therefore would not be tempted to meddle in the elections.

"If Poroshenko starts to make a serious awakening, this could change, but I think they are well aware of the risks of a violent reaction to electoral interference," said Galeotti. "They have little reason to upset the apple cart right now."

"I think the Russians would be happier with Tymoshenko, but the occupants can not be chosen".

The political atmosphere in Ukraine and the feelings of many Ukrainians towards Russia mean that whoever wins will find limited room for maneuver when it comes to dealing with Moscow.

Talking about talking with Russia is politically toxic in many environments.

"How can we talk about agreements with Russia when our territory is occupied," said Mustafa Djemilev, a Crimean Tatar parliamentarian who supports Poroshenko. "It would simply be a capitulation."

He said he considered some of the more than 40 presidential candidates as pro-Russian and warned against violent street protests if any future Ukrainian president made concessions in Moscow.

Egor Sobolev, an MP from the political party, Self Reliance, who calls himself a centrist, said that Ukrainian politicians who had previously supported Russia's interests had not changed their minds.

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But he said he understood that expressing those opinions was counterproductive at a time when Kiev was still involved in a conflict with separatists who according to UN estimates killed about 13,000 people.

"The only thing that has changed is how voters think," he said. "70% of Ukrainians now believe that Russia is a strategic enemy and not a friend like most people thought five years ago."

(For a chart on & # 39; Ukraine election interactive & # 39; click on tmsnrt.rs/2EEQ22R)

Additional report by Matthias Williams in Kiev; Written by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Philippa Fletcher

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