Ukraine’s Elections Suffer From a Manafort Hangover—And The Next President May Be Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky
People are so sick of the kind of politics Manafort played in Ukraine, they've made actor-comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, a fresh face, the leading contender for president.
KIEV, Ukraine—Before Hillary Clinton became his target in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Paul Manafort had for years concentrated his considerable skills at defamation and denigration on another prominent female politician, Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine.
Today, Tymoshenko's supporters will tell you Manafort's many years serving as an adviser to the country's disgraced former president, Viktor Yanukovych, left on Ukraine's politics a lingering stain visible still in an election campaign now underway.
And meanwhile the public is so fed up with all that, it might even choose a popular comedian as the country's next president.
To be sure, Manafort did not invent dirty politics here or for that matter when he served as Donald Trump's campaign chairman. But in a perverse way he branded them, and the ongoing skulduggery in Ukraine is widely referred to now as the “Manafort textbook.”
While Manafort is facing 19 years in prison for various fraud and financial crimes, his former employer is hiding in Russia—and Tymoshenko is a leading candidate once again. She is running against incumbent Petro Poroshenko, and a field of several other candidates.
Serhiy Vlasenko, a member of Parliament in her party, says that so far the race has been “awfully dirty, in the old Manafort tradition.”
“Unfortunately President Petro Poroshenko, who worked as Yanukovych’s minister of economic development, uses the same tools on TV to spoil our candidate’s reputation," said Vlasenko.
In a country where the Moscow-backed rebellion in the eastern region known as Donbass has left some 11,000 people dead, there could be no more bitter accusation against someone running for president of the government in Kiev than to call her or him “pro-Russian.” But that happens all the time.
“Today our opponents use Manafort’s textbook, the same manipulative story about our candidate Tymoshenko being a pro-Russian politician,” Vlasenko said.
And it’s not like Tymoshenko doesn’t give as good, or as bad, as she gets when she goes after Poroshenko.
Last week the plot thickened. Tymoshenko and a group of MPs from her bloc accused Ukraine’s president of treason. Tymoshenko blamed him for smuggling military spare parts to Russia. Tymoshenko called on the parliament to start impeachment procedures against the president.
In a recent interview with the Associated Press Tymoshenko said that Poroshenko was planning to bribe the electorate with $37 per each vote.
“According to our research, Poroshenko will spend up to $300 million of administrative resources on bribing millions of voters,” Vlasenko told The Daily Beast.
Tymoshenko claimed in a Facebook post that the Interior Ministry has started two criminal investigations against Poroshenko based on her testimony.
In fact, society is disillusioned with the old political models—and the old politicians. Both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are in their fifties, and the candidate leading in the polls right now is a 41-year-old comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky.
Ukraine has an electoral process where no candidate is likely to win in the first round on March 31, so everything rides on who makes it into round two on April 21. The latest polls show Zelensky is a shoo-in for the runoff with more than 25.1 percent of the votes. Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are slugging it out for second place with 16.6 percent and 16.2 percent respectively.
“Just like Trump broke into American politics, Zelensky—an actor, media manager and television producer—emerges on the Ukrainian political stage,” television host Yevgeny Kiselev told The Daily Beast. “He might not be knowledgeable about reforms or the economy but people still like him, as there is a huge demand for a change in the elite.”
Kisilev insists that Zelensky is the only major candidate who does not use the Manafort textbook to smear his competitors. But he’s certainly been the target of others who do.
Dmitry Razumkov, Zelensky’s campaign manager, says his competitors attack him with “false accusations” of corruption, of using drugs, of doing business in Russia. “Just like in Manafort’s textbook President Poroshenko has used false stories about our candidate. This is the most primitive method: first the authorities make up kompromats [compromising material] and then they distribute them through the media that they control,” Razumkov said.
“Manafort looked for social differences, pushed on sore issues; he divided our people, who speak both Russian and Ukrainian languages; we, on the contrary, try to unite all regions,” Razumkov said.
The pressure on Zelensky increased this week.
“In the past few days we’ve seen video clips attacking our candidate, both on television and on YouTube, negative advertising saying that he is under the control of an oligarch,” Razumkov said.
In fact, most of Zelensky’s critics say the comedian is not independent, that exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky is behind the actor’s presidential campaign.
That too sounded like an old political pathology: control of Ukraine’s political power by a club of rich boys.
Just a couple of years ago the International Monetary Fund lost its patience with Kiev after a number of multi-billion-dollar frauds involving Kolomoisky and other billionaires allegedly stealing taxpayers’ money.
Zelensky denied that Kolomoisky could control his decisions.
“If Zelensky wins,” says Razumkov, “neither Kolomoisky, nor any other oligarch would be able to influence his strategy, the state will influence the oligarchs.”
Zelensky’s supporters do not think much about his ties with the oligarchs. Many in today’s Ukraine just want to forget about Manafort, Yanukovych, and their corrupt and manipulative methods all together. “Imagine, if Zelensky wins, Putin would look like an old boring dictator and our young president would be an example of fun, a modern and successful leader, who is not like anybody we’ve had before,” Yelena Poplavskaya, an office manager from Odessa region said.
On Monday, Zelensky’s campaign staff discovered a bug monitoring their office on Belorusskaya Avenue. Ukrainian Interfax reported that the “listening device” was installed on the rooftop above Zelensky’s office.
“We just learned that somebody has bugged us and listened to us, sitting right next door to our office,” Razumkov told The Daily Beast. “I cannot remember technologies that dirty even during Manafort’s time.”