Vitali Klitschko has had an easy ride as an opposition leader in Ukraine. Should he choose to run for the presidency, however, he will come across severe obstacles, as Josh Black explains.
Vitali Klitschko caused a ripple of excitement in the West last week, when a boxing website listed him as a contender for the Ukrainian presidency in 2015. An election in 2015 between Yanukovych and Klitschko would be of great interest to the West. The easy comparisons that could be made between the two would make for the most surefire hit since Rocky Balboa beat Ivan Drago. The editorials might as well be written by Sylvester Stallone. Heavyweight championship of the world it is not, but the presidency nonetheless matters a great deal to the Western image of Ukraine – an image that is built mostly on recognition of the poisoned visage of Victor Yushchenko, the wrongly imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko and the stolid, awkward autocracy of Victor Yanukovych.
But what are the practical prospects for a Klitschko presidency? What if Dr Ironfist actually won?
Recent polls suggest that Klitschko is the first choice of between 11% and 18% of Ukrainians. He is a few points ahead of Yanukovych, but incumbency is a bigger deal in Ukraine than in the West, as administrative resources and media outlets are frequently used to tar opponents. However, Klitschko does have an advantage over other members in that he is a political virgin. Despite three years in parliament, he has little record to condemn.
Winning the election would be the easy bit. So would choosing a foreign policy. Staying in power and maintaining a consistent policy would be trickier. As a popular figure in the West, and one untainted by Ukraine’s rough-and-ready politics, he would be received well internationally. So far, he has done little to offend pro-Russian Ukrainians, and by extension Russia itself. However, Russia imposed a trade blockade only last week in a bid to prevent Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the EU. Membership of Vladimir Putin’s rival Eurasian Union is something that even Yanukovych, with his political roots in the East, cannot face.
Yet the EU issue may be an ongoing diplomatic problem for Klitschko in 2015. To ensure that it is not, he must not only convince the Kremlin when he visits Russia later this year that NATO or foreign policy co-ordination is not on the agenda, but that closer integration with the EU is not an economic threat to Russia. With tougher policies on gas monopolies and arbitrary tariffs taking hold in Brussels, that will not be straightforward. Russia has struggled to come to terms with WTO membership, let alone the prospect of one of its biggest trading partners adopting EU regulations.
Domestic politics will be still more troublesome. After the Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s right-wing parties made three mistakes: they failed to hold parliamentary elections after the presidential one, locking in conflict; they fought each other, rather than the still unvanquished opposition Party of Regions, and lastly, they let international positioning exacerbate economic problems at home.
Since we have already dealt with international relations, we shall turn to domestic politics. Ukraine’s peculiar hybrid electoral system, its deputies’ frequent party-switching (political tourism, as it is known there) and the fact that presidential elections take place in between parliamentary ones makes for a political culture in which conflict is prioritised over consensus. Reform of this system proved beyond Yushchenko, and measures to make the system more effective could be dangerous in the hands of an unscrupulous politician.
With only 42 seats in parliament, Klitschko’s UDAR (the subtly named “Punch”) has little bargaining power even if its leader wins a decisive victory. That probably means making Arseniy Yatsenyiuk Prime Minister. Yatsenyiuk, a clever and experienced but uncharismatic figure, would then wield considerable power. If, as expected, Klitschko were to pardon Tymoshenko, she would also become an internal rival. Many UDAR members come from Victor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine, and represent the rump of the party that struggled to forgive Tymoshenko for her machinations in the period after the Orange Revolution.
Progress with the EU would alleviate some of these political sticking points, particularly if an Association Agreement were signed later this year or next. More than 40% of Ukrainians remain supportive of European integration and many more could be persuaded. Fulfilling the conditionality of the Association Agreement could form the basis for a political programme and override differences. Even so, it would take a firm and persuasive president to work. Klitschko has to prove that this is within his grasp.