MainPolitical

The season's premieres

A new political season in Ukraine traditionally starts between Independence Day and the beginning of a parliament session. This year, its events and their intensity "multiply" because of the presidential campaign that has begun. LB.ua is analysing the main trends.

Presidential administration. Euphoria

The president's camp is buzzing. One may even say with euphoria, which has so far been unjustified.

"He started his campaign back on 23 August – by apologising for the unfulfilled promises he made in 2014 – and it was a very strong step. You would agree, no top politician, over all the years, did not do anything like this, did not acknowledge his mistakes," one of the close associates of the head of state says.

Photo: President's press service

The next "beautiful move" is scheduled for 31 December. According to the law, this is the first day contenders for the country's top post may declare their bids. It would be logical to assume that Poroshenko will take advantage of the exclusive option the president's holiday speech provides him with.

"You will see, Poroshenko's rating will go up in November. He has every chance to make it to the runoff. Together with Yuliya [Tymoshenko]. True, there is still a question how he is going to beat her in the runoff. We are working on it," the source continues.

However, he cannot explain clearly how a higher rating can be achieved by November (remember these lines, they are important).

"Governors, mayors, single-seat constituency MPs will chip in. There will be a symbiosis. Yes, we are building a grid, who could do without it?" the second source adds.

There is an important difference: whereas in the past the "grid" was made in accordance with the regions, the current one is based on constituencies. "We do not yet fully understand whether election law is going to change. In any case, if a person expects to get elected in a constituency without any resistance from the central government, it must be earned," the source continues.

Certainly, the president's successes in a given territory do not guarantee anything to an MP elected in a single-seat constituency, especially as far as regular budget financing of the entrusted territories is concerned (and they are well aware of this), but the presidential administration is still betting on them.

As was previously reported, Vitaliy Kovalchuk has indeed become the head of the campaign HQ. The main ideologist is Ihor Hryniv. Serhiy Berezenko, with whom Kovalchuk has not built the warmest relations, is in charge of the regions, which includes single-seat constituency MPs, local government, and coordination of party cells. Oleksandr Turchynov has tactfully disengaged himself from the process.

Given his status of the first deputy head of the presidential administration, according to LB.ua information, Kovalchuk will take an annual leave when the official campaign kicks off.

Meanwhile, on the way to the runoff, President Poroshenko is facing several challenges at once, which cannot be ignored. 

These are:

a) relations with the prime minister;

b) social and economic situation;

c) the lack of consolidation among elites and, as a consequence, the presence of a "slush fund", a campaign budget consisting of contributions made by wealthy partners, situational allies and other interested persons;

d) "Plan B" in case of undesirable developments in the spring of 2019. Specifically, constitutional reform, the first phase of which must begin without delay;

e) potential complications after receiving the Tomos.

Let us discuss them one by one.

Conflict with the prime minister. Myroslav Prodan and a Pandora's box

Ukraine is a country of contrasts. With Ukraine being a parliamentary-presidential republic, every prime minister dreams of strengthening the powers (is it possible at all?) in other positions; every president begins to "harass" the head of the government the day after his appointment, trying to pull over his powers.

Photo: President's press service
 

This "tradition" remains unchanged today. The presidential administration was making plans of how to remove Groysman back in the spring. However, at that time, they ran up against the wall of the constitution, which says the prime minister can be replaced in case of his illness, death, voluntary resignation or provided that the president or MPs come up with such initiative. The last scenario was seriously discussed in April. But Poroshenko did not want to be considered the frontman of the process, members of his faction did not want to get their hands "dirty" while others do not get involved at all. So, the question was left hanging in the air.

"The main problem in the relations between Poroshenko and Groysman is that the former is firmly convinced that he had bred up Volodya as a great politician. He made him the [parliament] speaker, then the prime minister. A fast career, both in terms of his age and status, is not it? At the same time, Volodya considers himself an independent, absolutely independent figure who has achieved everything by himself and does not owe anything to anyone," says a man who knows Poroshenko and Groysman equally well.

There are now more problems in their relationship. The main one is Myroslav Prodan. Groysman's closest associate, the acting head of the Fiscal Service of Ukraine fell into the focus of the Prosecutor-General's Office back in the late spring. In brief, the claims concern "extraordinary proceeds" (which, according to law enforcers, are allegedly directly related to his work), supposedly allowing his crony (certain Maksym) to begin the construction of a chic mansion for him in Stoyanka. Remarkably, it is the same street that PGO head Yuriy Lutsenko lives in. However, the mansion was later put up for sale (for not more than one million, which, according to law enforcers, is half of what was spent on its construction), but the "evidence" - copies of correspondence concerning the choice of the interior, furniture and other household bric-a-brac – is still available and kept by law enforcers. Plans for acquiring property in Turkey (where at least one building was bought) also did not go unnoticed. Last week, the case files were transferred from the PGO to the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor's Office. Prodan urgently took the annual leave. His crony Maksym, allegedly being Prodan's proxy in these cases, ran for the hills even earlier.

All of this gives law enforcers reasons to say that Myroslav Prodan is about to be declared a crime suspect.

Groysman is allegedly aware of this to the extent that he has seen the case files on the chief tax inspector.

"A scandal is unavoidable, it will deal a painful blow to the reputation of the authorities as a whole. Consequently, Volodymyr Borysovych was offered to "quietly" flush down the disgraced fellow-soldier to avoid being hurt himself," says a high-ranking source in law enforcement tells LB.ua.

Given that Prodan's resignation was not announced at a cabinet meeting, the "advice" appears to have been ignored (UPD: after the original article was published, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to dismiss Prodan "of his own will" on the morning of 5 September).

"If Prodan's story is made public, it will provoke a chain reaction. Everyone knows about the forest fraud but only the State Fiscal Service internal security subordinate to Prodan can explain what this has to do with the family of the prosecutor-general. So, it's better not to open Pandora's box," one of Groisman's companions decisively hints at a possible answer.

"No one will ever believe that the PGO is "working" on Prodan without Bankova's "blessing"," another source adds. "They just do not understand one thing: Groysman's "Prodan case" is personal. He will protect him in any case, whether he is right or not. "Surrendering" a team member close to you without resistance is unacceptable, [it is] a bad signal for the rest."

But there is more. 

A factor that is adding fuel to the cold war between Bankova [presidential administration] and Hrushevskyy [Cabinet of Ministers] is Volodymyr Groysman's personal ambitions.

Photo: Max Trebukhov

"Our people found out that he began to create staffs," says a person close to the president, whom we mentioned earlier in the text. "So, they began rattling the sabres! Without even understanding that his staffs are for the parliamentary election, not for the presidential one! But who cares, the chips are already flying."

Will the question of the prime minister's resignation emerge in the autumn? There is no specifics yet but the presidential administration does not rule out this at all. Answering the question about where they are going to get votes, given the loyalty to the head of the People's Front (which recently weakened significantly, to be honest), they say simply: People's Front people can be lured by... the post of the prosecutor-general. Say, Yuriy Lutsenko does not mind being promoted to prime minister after freeing his current chair. Not to mention the fact that Oleksandr Turchynov, in the opinion of his allies, would also have turned out to be a good prime minister.

The Bankova-Hrushevskyy confrontation (if it flares up on a larger scale) is fraught with problems for both teams. Instead of focusing on their further progress, they will have to be distracted by "extinguishing fires on the flanks".

In any case, the truth is that without the support of the prime minister (regardless of his name), Poroshenko's presidential campaign cannot be won. It is a fact.

Certainly, the election strategy of the incumbent president is aimed at "everything good, against all bad things": being as far from specifics and exact promises as possible. Focusing on what has already been achieved: visa-free travel, army success, etc.

But.

It's not 2014 outside. Back then Ukrainian voters were extremely mobilised, they joined forces in the face of a very real threat of a full-scale invasion (Russian tanks lined up along the northern border needed only two hours to get - via Chernihiv - to Kyiv). Today, the situation is essentially different, people are no longer ready to "buy air", they need specifics. Palpable specifics.

And this cannot be achieved without higher salaries, pensions and social payments. The economy is a fiefdom of the government, as we know.

In addition, as I have already mentioned, the distribution of money between the territories (in other words, single-seat constituencies) is also up to the cabinet.

Therefore, there will be no success without the harmoniously functioning tandem.

In this regard, there are two options for the presidential administration: either to "be friends" with the current prime minister, or to change him. 

There is no third option.

The prime minister's camp understands this, therefore they are keeping it cool and at the distance. They say: "They will come on their own and ask." "We have the highest - among all public offices - level of trust," they point out.

In reality, there is alarm behind the flashy bravado. Groysman has already admitted: an increase in gas prices for households (which is a requirement of the IMF) is avoidable. The next tranche is expected in late October and it should be done by that time. But next day you can... announce money creation. The ratings of both the president and the prime minister would certainly. But not necessarily the country.

"Slush fund" and the choice of elites

As I have already mentioned, the presidential administration designated Yuliya Tymoshenko as Poroshenko's partner for the runoff. For some reason, they consider her a more "comfortable" opponent than any candidate from the conservative flank (this could be Yuriy Boyko. The real fight has not yet begun in this field, new frontrunners may appear).

Photo: Max Trebukhov

At the same time, they point out: "Yuliya should be convinced to play fair. There should be an agreement to play by the rules." However, they do not explain why the obvious leader of the race should agree on something with the candidate No 4 or 5.

Anatoliy Hrytsenko, who scared everyone at the end of spring or early summer, hardly gets a mention now. Not because his ratings are falling, but because after he focused on the work "in the fields", he has been carefully flying "above the radar". 

As for Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, he made no fateful statements on Independence Day. And he will not. As one clever person says in this regard: "For an artist, the approval of the masses is important. It is important that he is loved, admired and applauded. And in politics, applause is rare. Even if you make the right decision, be ready to be booed." The status of an "opinion leader " is a much more advantageous (and in this particular case, more effective) role for him.

As for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, it is clear that nomination or lack thereof depends on the position of one particular citizen, the one who likes to drink coffee.

Similarly, the success of Poroshenko's campaign as a whole directly depends on whether the elites are going to rally around him. From the regional to top ones. The former "ensure results" in the regions, the latter form a "slush fund" and guarantee the support of key resources, in particular, TV channels.

By the way, about the "slush fund". It is a little over six months before election day but it does not exist yet. This means that key players still have not made their bets.

Figures of a smaller scale... are offered to finance Poroshenko's campaign out of their own pocket at all. "At one of the first meetings with regional activists in the presidential administration, they were told straightforward: guys, you have to invest in the victory of our candidate. At first, they were surprised, then they rebelled. Because they expected that they would be given a budget," one of them says.

Why is this happening? Because in the current conditions the main trophy, in spite of everything, is the results of a parliamentary campaign, not a presidential one. And the parliament speaker's chair is much more attractive than the president's one. It is what the key players will be competing for. They will place their bets on it during the parliamentary election, while the presidential one is just an excuse to "present themselves".

We will talk about it more in the near future. For the moment, let us just record the fact.

"Judicial marketing" and constitutional reform

Just like no-one talks about a rope in the house of a hanged man, the presidential administration keeps quiet about what will happen if Poroshenko loses. Although "Plan B" certainly exists. And it is called constitutional reform.

"There are a number of people in our team who consistently advocate limiting the powers of the president in favour of parliament. You may remember they have been pushing forward the issue since last year, in particular the People's Front, which caused opposition from Poroshenko. But the essence must not suffer because of this!" one of Poroshenko's associates says.

According to him, several weeks ago, the head of state promised his close circle that he would put up no resistance to the implementation of the first stage of reform. "He will not help, but he will not resist. Thanks for that," says a member of this closest circle.

"The first stage" is to secure 226 votes and subsequently transfer the bill to the Constitutional Court. There is still a month and a half - until the end of October to do this. If everything goes according to plan, the second vote will happen already at the next session, that is, in late February or early March.

"The tactics are very simple. If Poroshenko wins, at the decisive moment 300 votes will appear to be missing few. Let me remind you: this happened already in April 2004 when six votes were missing. It will not be necessarily the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, some members of Lyashko's faction or "independent groups" can push the "wrong" button". If another person becomes the president, it is easy to "do a bad favour" by voting for constitutional changes. In short, we need to get involved in a fight first and then we'll see," the source clarifies the plan.

So, perhaps in the near future, we will see a draft amendment to the constitution on the parliament agenda, which envisages not only the course towards the EU and NATO, but also a significant reduction in the president's powers (up to the president ending with foreign policy and defence only).

Photo: argumentua.com

Although it is possible that at the last minute the president will back off. He has already abandoned the idea of revising the term of the presidential term in favour of its increase.

As you know, the presidential term in Ukraine is five years. However, in practice, some hold the office a month or two longer or vice versa. There was an idea to ask the Constitutional Court to find out exactly how long Petro Poroshenko is to rule. Moreover, there were preliminary consultations with the judges of the Constitutional Court, where they confirmed their readiness to "serve the fatherland". True, they were concerned about reputational risks and public outcry, but they were ready to forget about them in case of Poroshenko's re-election.

"We calculated that even with a favourable outcome, the extension of powers by the court would give us an "additional" three or two weeks at most. We wish it could be a year... But this... " one of the president's allies commented.

It is clearly not worth reputational losses - both in Ukraine and abroad. Ihor Hryniv said this loud and clear to the president despite the fact that the entire staff has been working for two weeks on a scenario of how to implement the plan.

"Is it really as bad as Ihor says and we really do not need it?" Poroshenko answered in a thoughtful tone. "Well, no means no. Let's just turn the page," he concluded.

So, the presidential administration no longer considers the revision of the president's term. Viktor Pelevin's metaphor about "judicial marketing" as a modus operandi of authorities has been put on hold. 

"Vote or lose"

No alternative is the main motto of Petro Poroshenko's campaign. It was invented by Ihor Hryniv.

"Roughly speaking, it is either he or Putin," the presidential administration says, hinting at who his main opponent is. It is precisely the ephemeral ties between Yuliya Tymoshenko and the Kremlin that were chosen as the key counter-argument against the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc head.

"There is a surge of patriotism in the country. It's not a sin to take advantage of this," they say.

Another bet is being placed on the creation of a single Ukrainian Orthodox church.

This process, however, is not so simple as the president's technologists would like it to be. And it's not even about the constant postponement of the Tomos. After it is granted (and there is a very good chance of success, but it must be acknowledged that the receipt of the Tomos by Ukraine is not so much the merit of its secular authorities but a result of the overlap of a whole series of geopolitical and intra-church interests), it will just be the beginning of the most "interesting" part. According to the most conservative estimates, after the Big Day, the Moscow Patriarchate will lose about half of its parishes in Ukraine (today there are more than 12,000 of them, compared to 5,000 of the Kyiv Patriarchate). Gone with them will be the status of one of the most influential (after Constantinople) churches in the world. No doubt, the "Russian lobby" in Ukraine will not go "without a fight" (especially if the main battle for the Tomos is lost). And although one of the leaders of Opposition Bloc, Vadym Novinskyy, threatens even with a "civil war for the parishes", the most predictable point of conflict is who claims the Lavras. Let me remind you, that there are three Lavras in Ukraine: Kyiv Pechersk, Pochayiv and Svyatohirsk. Whereas it is more or less clear with the latter two (a more detailed article on this is coming), there may be a serious confrontation for the first one (which consists of a national reserve and a monastery). In the centre of the capital. On the eve of the first round of elections.

The presidential administration is certainly not considering such strategy of counteraction as "until the cock pecks". This would minimise if not nullify the success of the Tomos.

"It is okay, we can handle this," one of the senior representatives of the president's office says. "There is a time for everything. Today we clearly understand: Poroshenko stands a good chance. Well, who if not him? Remember how Boris Yeltsin was "bogged down" before the second term. And he still won. It will be the same here: "vote or lose"."

This approach is certainly eligible. Another question is how will the newly elected president, who has won on the verge of permissible, work? The head of state whose level of publicity, the credit of people's trust will initially be minimal.

Photo: President's press service

We will talk soon about what is happening in the ranks of the notional opposition. Follow updates on LB.ua.

Sonya Koshkina Sonya Koshkina , LB.ua editor in chief
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