March is a busy month for Ukraine. Not only does the country have presidential elections coming up at the end of the month, its autonomous republic of Crimea “celebrates” five years being under Russian occupation in a very anti-utopian way, which all looks a little strange, to say the least. But we’ll let you be the judge of that bringing you a report straight from occupied Crimea.
While Ukrainian lawmakers Pavlo Rizanenko and Svitlana Zalishchuk will be at our headquarters in Kyiv to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine’s presidential campaigns, its biggest wins and losses so far.
Andriy Kulykov (AK): How satisfied are you with the level of attention given to the Crimea issue throughout this presidential election period?
Svitlana Zalishchuk (SZ): I am not satisfied, neither by the level of the presence of this issue in Ukraine, nor by the level of discussion on an international level, because I believe it has to be a joint effort. We’ve seen today that a couple of the resolutions done by the US state department, EU, we expect tomorrow a resolution on Crimea, with unrecognition of Russian annexations, unrecognition is not enough, unrecognition is a passive word and we need proactive efforts by both Ukrainian powers but also by the international community. I can give a couple examples of what it can be. Of course at the moment we cant send army, invite NATO to de-occupy Crimea, but there are things we can actually do and I think must do. For example there is a legal, so called free economic zone with Crimea which allows certain Ukrainian oligarchs - businessmen - to trade with Crimea but in fact they have free trade zone with Russia and it has been legalized by Ukrainian parliament and has been changed since then and I remember that two years ago when we were adopting the legislation on the so called de-occupation and the leader of the Crimean Tatars in parliament; it was his ultimatum that we need to adopt this new legislation and to cancel this free economic zone because its unfair. We ask the whole world to put sanctions on Crimea business and companies that trade with Crimea but at the same time we create a special free zone for Ukraine to trade with Crimea. It's still there and unfortunately it has been cancelled (legislation the ban trade) because certain concrete businessmen are beneficiaries of the of legistratin (legal trade).
AK: Do those concrete businessmen support any presidential candidates and do they influence the state of the discussion of this issue.
SZ: Not publicly at least, of course you won't hear the voice ‘hey let's support this economic zone’. it would be very legitimate in society to have such discussion, but I'm sure they make a lot of effort to keep this free economic zone with Crimea and [Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro] Firtash by the way is one of those people that still enjoys this free economic zone and his titanium factory is enjoying this specific trade relations between Ukrainians and Crimea.
AK: Do the presidential candidates pay enough attention to the Crimea issue?
Palvo Rizanenko (PR): Whatever is said, we will not be satisfied or happy, until Russia troops and Russia is out of Crimea. Thats my first point that I will emphasize. As was said there is no short term military solution to this issue at all. Particularly with our western partners, they say let's concentrate on Donbas first and then let's talk about Crimea later. This is one thing said publicly and behind closed doors. They say we will not go war with Russia because of Crimea, because of you. It's viewed by all political participants in Ukraine as a more long distance problem that has to be solved in future perspective. With regard to economic ties or whatever trade, its minimized, i'm not quite sure what kind of economic free trade zone you are talking about. I have followed this titanium situation, I followed and fought as deputy head of specialised privatisation of control commission on taking back assets of Mr. Firtash and bringing them back into government custody, particularly titanium ore mining plants back in 2014. Mr. Firtash doesn't sell it formally to Crimea he sells ore to Turkey and via Turkey, he legally delivers to Russia and Crimea. So, I am not satisfied by the discussion by politicians about this one. Moreover, it's more about our internal, more current issues what is discussed now. This will be discussed on the other half of the program.
AK: Dear parliamentarians, what were the most unexpected things that happened to you during this election campaign?
PR: For me it's vote against, some voters that never were active in any kind of elections, my observation that thanks to new communication ways, like social media, they are more involved in pre-election process, it's much easier to click and share and repost something then go to the station poll or to participate in giving out leaflet or being member of poll station and so on. I think that many people are involved today, at least through social media in the election. I would say that they are more emotion driven, less reason driven. That's my assessment of how we see this high percentage rating of [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy for now. On the election day it might be a very different picture because clicking or sharing something on Facebook is very much different to getting up and voting at poll station. I think this is a surprise and I think it will be a surprise on the election day.
AK: Do you believe that the fate of the election is again between Mr. Poroshenko and Mrs. Tymoshenko?
PR: I would say that in our situation, we are democracy unlike Russia where you know for sure who will win, I think that no one can tell you who will be in the run off, unlike 2014 there will be a runoff and I think that 3, 4 candidates have chances to be in the run off.
SZ: I agree first of all that at the moment it's impossible to say about the results, and we still have to pay attention of that 30 percent who are undecided.
AK: I hear this every time and it doesn't work.
SZ: It can work. Given the current the situation the possible positive and negative trends can change people's mindset at the very last moment. Let's be aware of that and let's respect this possibility. With regards to unexpected things, Pavlo focused on positive things, so i'll play a role of balance here. Things that i didn't want to expect, it's hard to believe that after Euromaidan, that we still have vote bribing. Still after Euromaidan, after Donbas being occupied and Crimea annexed. We are talking about an undemocratic regime and witnessing undemocratic practices during this political campaign and it hurts me! What is also unexpected is the creation of these setka networks. This acts as the control networks with voter bribing and payments from the central levels to the local levels, and we observed that with a couple candidates, and in particular setka, which was created by Petro Poroshenko, the current president. I think this is also unexpected. Lastly, what i did not expect to happen was the use of administrative resources, the so called monetization - which is a positive phenomena, a positive reform - but it happens just before the election, but also this so called special help or assistance too more poor social groups is also a hard use of administrative resource. We understand that votes are being bought again. This is not what I would like to see in a democratic country.
AK: What would you make of the activation of the right-wing paramilitary groups prior to the election? We've been witnessing this for the last week or so.
SZ: It's important to analyze why it happens so that we can then talk about what we can do in order to avoid or prevent their influence on the election process. I see it as a challenge to the democratic elections for sure. I think it is up to the law enforcement bodies and prosecution to react to the problems that exist in during the political campaign so that it's not given to the paramilitary to react to those, but why it's happening. There is an explanation. I see the loyal prosecution and loyal law enforcement bodies don't react to legitimate concerns and facts of corruption and violation of electoral law and so that's why we need to deal with it. Certain people, even pro democratic, pro European, find argument s to justify these events. I can't find the arguments to justify these events because it will lead us to chaos, it will lead us to a military situation, where weapons and anarchy will decide the fate of the country. I wouldn't like it to happen.
SZ: There is a lot of talk about activations seemly aimed against the current president, actually organized by him and his team in order to give him a pretext prior to the elections. What do you think?
PR: Surely the incumbent president is in a different situation than other candidates because he is a candidate and at the same time he's the president. You can't get away from this, but as a president, he cant get away from his obligation to do his job. Surely these are important things and these important things are highlighted and broadcasted and talked about.
AK: And for some reason they couldn't have been done before?
PR: We are not talking about the President stopping his job through the election process. It never happens in any country and it doesn't matter what the name of the current president is, if it would be a different president, we would still be having this conversation; that incumbent president has some kind of advantage. This is just the set up we have in any situation in any country. Acting incumbent president in the US, or whatever country has this advantage. You cannot get away from this. I would like to comment on something; When we talk about undecided waters and social polls and so on, it's very interesting, when they do polls, 85-90% of people say they will come and vote, but the reality is different. These numbers - that 90% will come and vote, this opinion is reflected in the polls, but the reality is that the turnout on the elections is 60% and this is very high. The last election there was like 59%, the parliamentary election 54% or 55%. These polls reflect the opinion of some people who say they will come, when they will not come and this will be a big surprise on election day because voters who Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, Hrytsenko and Zelenskiy; they differ to some extent, in terms of whether they will come or not come (the supposed voters). They will be surprised by the numbers, some of the favorite candidates for polls will have less votes on election day because his base, youngsters, will not come to the election. Other candidates, not a single candidate, might have some higher numbers than are reflected in the polls. Historically it was always the case that Tymoshenko election base is in rural areas and villages, and pollsters made mistakes in the past, where they would not reflected that in the polls its harder to get there, just from an organization standpoint and so she might have higher votes than reflected in the polls to some degree. I would like to reflect on being votes and so on. I have had 6 campaign, on practical terms, running as a candidate, running as regional headquarters and so on and there is always a lot of talk about buying votes. Every election we talk about this, that some candidates organize buying votes. The discussion about this is over exaggerated. Work of headquarters for many candidates on mobilizing their election base, and doing - bad word but whatever, propaganda - information work on local level. Basically when they talk about setka and talk about setka when buying votes it's not for buying votes, it's for finding supporters, identifying them and getting their commitment to vote pledge. This is a normal practice in every country. If you take a textbook for running election. In the US they identify candidates who will vote for their candidate and get the pledge and sign the paper, in US, that they promise to vote for this candidate. Then there are calls, SMS messages and so on to mobilize them pre election day on election day and so on.
AK: I remember a cartoon on the front page of The Spectator magazine in the U.K., where a person representing John Major was standing on the threshold of a usual British household and there was a lady listening to him and he said ‘if you don't vote for me, I will hit you on the head with this hammer. That's getting the pledge.
PR: Let me finish this point. It's normal that if you organize a campaign, you have poll people that go around, and say okay this one will vote and this one won't and so on, so you have a list of your support base so you can mobilize them. That work is done by setka, but it's a network of volunteers that organize this work.
SZ: I am talking about a different setka, when you finish -- I will comment.
PR: What I see is several candidates, major ones, are doing their job, but they are accusing each other, it goes both ways, both directions, that those networks, of agitators -- whatever you call them, are created to buy up votes.
AK: By accusing one another they are doing their job as well
PR: Let me finish because I want to be very specific, I want to have a professional discussion, not a populistic discussion. What happened in 2014, which changed the law, which said that paying those agitators is illegal, it's prohibited, not illegal but prohibited. So many campaign runners can hardly find people to do this job for free. In many instances they are trying to find a way to pay these people working in regional headquarters and so on. It goes both ways, several candidates accuse each other that this is illegal but they are trying to misrepresent buying votes and paying their agitators.
SZ: I think we underestimate how the network is working, and I'm talking about illegal payments with a mobile group from the so called parallel headquarters of Poroshenko that are bring money the regional level, on a district level and so on, I have a whistleblower that explains how it works, having this parallel headquarters and operating with this money bringing it to Kyiv to the districts. We are talking about millions and millions of hard cash, which is illegal cash, and I think it's a very impactful factor on these elections which cannot be accepted in a democratic country.
PR: I invite you to my election district which is very close, 25 minutes from here, and we shall see.
SZ: I believe you but I don't think your experience can be extrapolated to represent the Petro Poroshenko campaign.
AK: Now we have 30 seconds for the assessment of the role of media in these elections. Mr. Rizanenko, how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with election coverage in Ukrainian Media?
PR: I'm trying to find unbiased media that will provide hard facts and informations but my assessment is that most media are favoring one or another candidate and we are having information wars - not fair coverage but information wars. Some media are on one candidates side another media on another candidate; you turn on TV on one channel and you see negative information about one candidate and positive about another and, and when you change channel, and you see opposite things. Major media are owned by oligarchs, we haven't got away from it and they are using that for their purposes.
SZ: I think we are in full consensus in this room, with regards to the definition of the problem with media. I think we also have to talk about how to solve it and i think that the problem is with the national commission on TV and radio that is not doing their job properly and I also think that public broadcasting system that is being killed by under-financing by 50%. It's the responsibility of the current government which is a big problem. We also have to think of how to demonopolize the influence of oligarchs on TV media, this is one of the challenges of the next power, whoever is there.