By Daniel Pitcairn, Hugo Spaulding, and Daniel Urchick
Key Take-away: Ukraine’s local elections strengthened pro-Russian factions and local oligarchs in its southern and eastern regions, offering Moscow an opportunity for greater influence in the post-revolution political order.
Local elections on October 25 exposed cracks in post-revolution Ukraine that Russia may exploit. Candidates linked to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and prominent oligarchs that rival current President Petro Poroshenko earned more support than the president’s faction in the south and east of the country, areas that are vulnerable to Russian political destabilization. Former Yanukovych allies with ties to the Dnipropetrovsk-based owner of Ukraine’s largest bank Ihor Kolomoyskyi earned crucial victories in the Black Sea port city of Odesa and Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkiv. Mafia-linked Hennadiy Trukhanov was reelected in Odesa, marking a setback for Poroshenko, who has tried to overhaul the region historically plagued by organized crime with the help of provincial governor and reformist former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Former Yanukovych ally Hennadiy Kernes was reelected in the key northeastern city of Kharkiv after allying with a Kolomoyskyi-backed party that reportedly earned a majority of seats in the city council. Two mayoral candidates from the pro-Russian “Opposition Bloc” and one candidate backed by Donetsk-based former Yanukovych ally and Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov earned berths in runoff elections on November 15 in the provincial capitals of Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhia. The “Opposition Bloc” also earned victories inside government-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, including in the two previously separatist-controlled cities of Sloviansk and Lysychansk. Government authorities postponed elections in the key port city of Mariupol following allegations of ballot fraud favoring pro-Russian candidates backed by Akhmetov. These results highlight the challenges faced by Poroshenko’s pro-Western government in asserting control outside the western and central regions of Ukraine, where it largely preserved its influence.
Ihor Kolomoyskyi’s stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk has become the epicenter of competition between Poroshenko and his rivals since the October 25 elections. Poroshenko’s government reportedly backed the “Opposition Bloc” candidate and former deputy prime minister under Viktor Yanukovych Oleksandr Vilkul over the Kolomoyskyi-backed candidate, who will contest a runoff election on November 15. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) launched a “large-scale special operation” to detain Hennadiy Korban, a close associate of Kolomoyskyi and the leader of the oligarch’s UKROP (Ukrainian Association of Patriots) party, and his associates linked to organized crime in the southeastern city of Dnipropetrovsk on October 31. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Dnipropetrovsk to protest the arrest while a smaller protest was held in Kyiv against Poroshenko’s Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who was involved in organizing the arrest and is seen as an impediment to anti-corruption efforts. The timing of the arrest may indicate the intent of Poroshenko’s government to influence the outcome of the run-off election. Poroshenko’s rivalry with Kolomoyskyi previously escalated in March 2015, when Kolomoyskyi was deposed as Dnipropetrovsk governor along with his deputy, Hennadiy Korban. Kolomoyskyi was widely credited with preventing a Russian-backed separatist movement from taking hold of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in March 2014. The efforts of Poroshenko’s government to root out his rival from the key region could directly lead to the expansion of a Russian influence.
The success of candidates receptive to Russia in southern and eastern Ukraine highlights the risk Poroshenko faces as he moves forward with the decentralization measures required by the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement. If implemented, decentralization would offer greater authority to local officials, including those who oppose Poroshenko’s government in Kyiv and maintain ties with Moscow. Decentralization, in its proposed form, will grant broader fiscal powers to local governments rather than granting autonomy to Ukraine’s provinces, distinguishing it from the more debilitating federalization Russia initially pursued. Nevertheless, strengthened local governments in opposition to Poroshenko may present obstacles to his national reform agenda, which aims to root out corruption and overhaul Ukraine’s Russian and oligarch-controlled political economic order with the eventual objective of joining the European Union. The results of the October 25 elections reflect Russia’s ability to strengthen its political leverage over Ukraine without the need to escalate military operations in the southeast. Russia achieved political gains even as pro-Russian separatist forces continued to withdraw military equipment from the front lines in the southeastern Donbas region and remained largely compliant with a renewed ceasefire on September 1, 2015.
Russia seeks to prevent Ukraine from becoming a fully-fledged member of the European Union by leveraging its military intervention in Donbas to undermine the post-revolution government in Kyiv. Moscow successfully applied military escalation in January and February 2015 to set the terms of the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement, which locks Kyiv into making major political concessions, including decentralization and the provision of “special status” to separatist-held Donbas. The Kremlin now has the opportunity to cultivate ties with stronger pro-Russian factions and oligarchs in the south and east, preventing these historically pro-Russian regions from fully escaping its sphere of influence. Moscow may not be willing or able to reestablish a client government in Kyiv in the short-term but it will continue to exploit opportunities to prevent Ukraine from becoming a prosperous European nation unified against Russia.