Inside Ukraine's Make-Or-Break Elections

Old battles are renewed in the May 25 vote to be Ukraine's next president. But the first order of business is to make sure the ballot takes place.

May 11 referendum in Luhansk
May 11 referendum in Luhansk
Valeri Kalnish

KIEV — The mood around Ukraine is tense, and some places are even seeing military battles. But in the capital, there is only one issue on the minds of the political elite: the Presidential elections, slated for May 25.

Ukraine has never been so eager to go to the polls. The country needs a new president in order to be able to interact with the rest of the world with a legitimate representative, whose mandate has been confirmed by the whole country. But is that simple goal achievable?

It’s obvious to everyone that the current presidential election in Ukraine is, like previous elections, a choice based on likability, “voting with the heart,” and facing the cold reality that none of the candidates actually has a solid electoral platform. The current candidates spend most of their time just saying that “everything will be OK,” mixed with some military rhetoric and talk of strengthening Ukraine’s armed forces as a top priority for the nation.

It seems, however, that Ukrainians are not too interested in a military president: The most strident rhetoric comes from the least popular candidates. Sociologists say that the real demand is for an economist, someone capable of increasing Ukraine’s standard of living. But that person should be honest and not provide growth by trading away Ukrainian territory.

A common theme among all of the candidates is the idea that Ukraine’s regions need to have more autonomy. That is an obvious response to the current situation, amidst clashes in the east, the loss of Crimea, and declarations of independence by self-appointed local "republics."

Many support the idea that local decisions need to be made locally, not through orders from Kiev. At the same time, no one is prepared to discuss the idea of a federalist Ukraine, or otherwise risking a loss of national unity.

In summary, the portrait of the successful candidate for president of Ukraine would be patriotic, would support local independence, especially in the economic sphere, would speak both Russian and Ukrainian and would be oriented towards Ukraine’s integration into the European Union.

Reliving past battles

Just over a week ahead of the vote, Petro Poroshenko is ahead in the polls, garnering some 33% support, ahead of once jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at 10%. The Razumkov Center, which conducted the poll, predicts, that Poroshenko is in a very strong position to win in the second round runoff.

Petro Poroshenko — Photo: Munich Security Conference

This is not the first time that Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have competed. In 2005, they both served in Viktor Yushchenko’s cabinet after the "Orange Revolution," and wound up accusing each other of corruption in a political firestorm that led Yushchenko to dismiss his entire cabinet.

The two leading candidates have remained more civil towards each other during the current campaign, though Tymoshenko has called Poroshenko “a compromise candidate for Ukraine’s oligarchs.”

At a recent press conference, Andrei Magera, deputy director of the Central Election Commission, said the May 25 vote "will take place no matter what." He acknowledged that there was the risk that voting in certain occupied territories may be hindered by the ongoing clashes.

Magera said the elections will be considered valid no matter how many areas do not participate, according to Ukrainian law on presidential elections. “It’s hard for me to believe that the entire Luhansk or Donetsk regions would not participate,” he said.

Theoretically, at least, there is a chance that the elections could be cancelled. The law provides for canceling elections in “emergency” situations. But it is unlikely that you would find any politician who would argue that Ukraine doesn’t need these elections.

Mykhaylo Okhendovsky, director of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, said in an interview to “Left Bank,” a Ukrainian magazine, said the campaign goes beyond the simple act of electing a president. "The elections allow the country to pull back the curtain of tension and not lead to the political alienation of any region,” he said.

In Kiev, everyone we talked to agrees: There is simply no option other than holding elections. The harder question is to know what might happen afterwards.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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