Ukraine – Law designed to prevent Vitali Klitschko from standing for the presidency

This is a guest post by Josh Black, the Editor of Vostok Cable (reesvostok@gmail.com, www.vostokcable.co.uk)

Vitali Klitschko is not a man to be knocked down easily. The multiple Heavyweight Boxing Champion turned politician first entered Ukrainian politics in 2006 when – unsuccessfully – running for mayor of the capital city of Kiev. After having led a variety of political formations in local and regional elections, Klitschko’s UDAR party (roughly translated as ‘Blow’ or ‘Punch’) entered parliament in 2012 winning 9% of seats. As leader of the UDAR faction, Klitschko has certainly not lost his punch. However, challenging the country’s ruling elite might prove to be his toughest fight yet.

Klitschko’s interest in running for the presidency of Ukraine has been a more or less open secret since he first entered politics. The official announcement, however, came with less fanfare than he might have hoped. On October 24, Klitschko was forced to stand in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s unicameral parliament) and denounce a law disqualifying presidential candidates who had paid tax abroad on residency grounds. Klitschko told the assembly that he hoped to run against the present incumbent, Victor Yanukovych, in 2015, and that he would not stand for attempts to disqualify him.

The row speaks to many features of modern Ukrainian politics. The country can essentially be considered a competitive authoritarian regime – there is electoral choice, and opposition candidates do sometimes prevail, but there is also an inordinate amount of unnecessary hurdles and dirty tricks, usually favouring the incumbent. There is a free press, to the extent that there are newspapers owned by rival oligarchs and there is no party with a majority in the Rada, save that which can be created and manipulated using administrative resources and compromising PR.

There are presidential elections, the last of which were deemed relatively free of corruption, save that President Yanukovych’s rival in 2010, Yulia Tymoshenko, was shortly afterwards convicted and imprisoned on charges of abusing her prime ministerial powers in 2009 (in order to restore gas supplies following a dispute with Gazprom and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Tymoshenko signed a new contract without the approval of the full cabinet. The law under which she was convicted dates back to Soviet times). Many in the European Union have perceived the case to be one of selective justice and have pressured Yanukovych to pardon the country’s most charismatic and recognisable politician.

The centrality of the presidency in Ukraine’s constitution makes this a particularly important battleground. With the parliament fragmented and dysfunctional, and trust in political parties low, presidential elections become the focus for opposition movements to exert influence, and for ballot spoiling on both sides. The President appoints the country’s Prime Minister, and has tended to be able to manufacture coalitions to avoid dealing with rivals. Potential presidential candidates are therefore a more serious threat. Yuriy Lutsenko, a former Interior Minister in Tymoshenko’s government (but from a different political background), was released earlier this year, yet while he has not given up his opposition to the current government, he has ruled out running for president. The current leader of Tymoshenko’s party, Arseniy Yatsenyiuk, soured relations with UDAR by self-servingly suggesting that the boxer run for Mayor of Kyiv instead.

Klitschko’s candidacy for the presidency introduces a new element of controversy to this kind of politics. Given Ukraine’s linguistic and cultural differences, as well as the influence of its more nationalistic emigre population, patriotism is a keenly discussed issue. Tymoshenko’s gas deal with Russia in 2009 gave Yanukovych’s party the perfect pretext to attack her as acting outside of Ukraine’s national interests (a widely discussed but relatively peripheral part of the charges against her), and Yanukovych in turn has been described as the Russian candidate for the presidency, having received considerable support from Kremlin spin doctors in his fraudulent campaign in 2004. The passing in 2010 of a law sponsored by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, making Russian an official language of state, led to riots and the rise of the nationalistic Svoboda party in 2012 parliamentary elections.

Against that background, Klitschko raises troublesome questions of what it is to be Ukrainian. While most ordinary citizens view his sporting prowess as a matter of pride (and mutter cynically that at least they can clearly discern the source of his wealth), the fact that he trains in Germany is far less flattering to national feeling. Now pro-government politicians are attempting to make capital from the fact that Klitschko’s honestly gathered millions are not benefitting Ukrainian tax collectors.

The timing may make Yanukovych’s Party of Regions seem cynical, but residency requirements are a common feature of many modern constitutions. Even the United States famously allows only those citizens born on American soil the opportunity to run for President. In the post-Soviet space, ten years residency is a common requirement, with Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan among those countries opting for 15-year residencies. Bulgaria is slightly more forgiving, at five years, while others have no residency requirements.

Only Turkmenistan specifies in its constitution that a presidential candidate must have worked in the country’s businesses or institutions (although primary legislation is beyond the scope of this article – if you know of similar regulations in any other country, please let us know in the comment section). However, Ukraine does fall into a class of countries including Kazakhstan, Moldova and Turkmenistan that requires presidential candidates to speak the state language to be eligible for election.

Before the latest attempt to nobble Klitschko’s candidacy, almost half of Ukraine’s population was believed to have a positive opinion of him. That level of support in elections would almost guarantee his success, something feared by politicians from all sides of the spectrum. On the other hand, it is important for Ukraine to progress towards democracy that so-called authoritarian elements are removed to make way for free political competition. Playing on national feeling is an astute tactic for the Party of Regions, but may underestimate the likely reaction from the EU, and the ability of ordinary Ukrainians to perceive this as a cynical measure. Above all, it will be a test of Klitschko’s own character, and his ability to unite disparate groups around a common direction for Ukraine’s politics.

Josh Black is the Editor of Vostok Cable, a blog for students of Russian and Eastern European Studies. In 2013 he completed an MSc at Oxford University, receiving a distinction for his dissertation on the causes of party failure following Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Vostok Cable is open to contributions and suggestions for new articles. For more information, e-mail reesvostok@gmail.com or visit www.vostokcable.co.uk

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