Will He, Won’t He? Rockstar Vakarchuk Leaves Ukraine Guessing His Political Plans
27 August, 2018

On August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day, Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy played a sold-out 70,000 people concert at Kyiv’s Olimpiyskyi Stadium. While it may seem like an event that has little to do with politics, many political enthusiasts kept a close eye on the gig where some believed the band’s frontman Svyatoslav Vakarchuk would announce his presidential ambitions.

Photo credit: UNIAN

Despite having a successful nearly quarter-of-a-century long music career, Vakarchuk has shown an avid interest in social activism and Ukrainian affairs. He actively took part in both of Ukraine’s 21st-century revolutions: the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013-2014 Euromaidan as a musician and an activist. The first one led to him running in the consequential snap parliamentary elections and entering the parliament as a lawmaker in the then-president Viktor Yushchenko’s Nasha Ukraina party. However, Vakarchuk’s parliamentary career only lasted a year. He resigned in 2008 citing “demoralizing constant arguments” between and within the [political] parties, which ruin Ukraine’s authority, as well as ruthless competition for power as reasons.

READ MORE: What Are Poroshenko’s Odds for 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election?

When Ukraine’s had its second revolution in a decade, Euromaidan, Vakarchuk continuously repeated that he can’t stay away from the processes happening in the country now.

Photo credit: Anna Tsygyma/HROMADSKE

In May 2015, Vakarchuk, together with investment banker Tomasz Fiala and former Slovakian Vice Prime Minister Ivan Miklos, founded the Center of Economic Strategy (CES). CES’ job is to study state politics with their main task centered around supporting reforms in Ukraine. Together with Fiala and Rustem Umerov (owner of ICG Investments), Vakarchuk funded the Ukrainian Leaders Development program.

Photo credit: Anna Tsygyma/HROMADSKE

Fiala told Hromadske that it is their “friendship and shared interest to make Ukraine strong and successful” that unites him and Vakarchuk. Since 2009, Vakarchuk has also been running a charity foundation called Liudy Maybutnioho (People of the Future).

Does He Want To?

In December, Vakarchuk published a video on his official Youtube channel where he declined having presidential ambitions.

“You know it well that I’ve never announced my presidential ambitions. I’m not going to do it today. Power as such doesn’t interest me,” he said in the video.

Photo credit: UNIAN

Vakarchuk also added that he had never worked with a single political scientist or even “discussed any (including hypothetical) political plans,” either.

“I never ordered any social researches to find out about my chances in presidency or politics on the whole,” he said.

READ MORE: Putin’s Friend Medvedchuk Reenters Ukrainian Politics

But, at the same time, Vakarchuk also addressed that 13 years ago he felt like he would be more useful to the country as a “social activist as opposed to a musician. These words are still relevant today,” he said.

Would People Support Him?

The points Vakarchuk made in the video could serve as a political campaign: change the legal framework, reform Ukraine’s Security Service and so on.

In August 2017 Vakarchuk started a course at Stanford University. One of his lecturers was Francis Fukuyama, famous political scientist, author of the book “End of History,” as well as former United States Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.

Photo credit: Uliana Boichuk/HROMADSKE

According to Ukrainian MP Mustafa Nayyem, Fukuyama tried to convince Vakarchuk to go into politics. Nayyem also said that Vakarchuk went on a trip to the U.S. to “think.”

According to Oleksandr Starodubtsev, one of Vakarchuk’s three coursemates, every student studying the program had a certain program focus. For Vakarchuk it was creating a functional juridical system and fighting against corruption among other things.

Photo credit: UNIAN

But Starodubtsev adds that Vakarchuk’s rhetoric to students and lecturers at Stanford was the same as to the nation: he sincerely doesn’t want to be president.

Some centers had already started including Vakarchuk in their presidential surveys. One sociological survey carried out by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in spring showed Vakarchuk to have 9.6% support. To compare, incumbent president Petro Poroshenko has 12.2%, while former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko leads the poll with 16.1%.

READ MORE: Survey Suggests Trouble For Poroshenko in 2019 Presidential Elections

Political scientist Serhiy Haiday is certain that Vakarchuk’s political position looks weak.

Photo credit: UNIAN

“As a political scientist not connected to Vakarchuk I can assert that his behavior looks like: ‘I wish I may.’ As in, I don’t have political ambitions but I have a personal plan for the country. So if people really ask me to, then ok, let it be, I’ll do it.”

Strong Sides

Apart from a vision, Vakarchuk has other features to be able to enter Ukrainian politics: virtually foolproof recognizability, positive support balance, as well as friends in the face of successful entrepreneurs who own media.

Vakarchuk has connections to other businessmen. Alongside Mikhail Fridman, Russian businessman and co-founder of Alfa Group, Vakarchuk is a member of Lviv’s Leopolis Jazz Fest supervisory board. Together with billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, Vakarchuk serves on the supervisory board of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.

Photo credit: UNIAN

The businessmen Hromadske spoke to assert: they are not pushing Vakarchuk into politics. Pinchuk, for example, said that any rumors about his endorsement for Vakarchuk are “nonsense” and questioned him going into politics in general.

But others close to Vakarchuk say that he has all necessary features to become a nationwide politician. Okean Elzy’s first general manager Vitaly Klimov who worked with the band before the beginning of the noughties, says that the singer has managerial talent.

Photo credit: UNIAN

“After I left, Okean Elzy hasn’t had a single general manager. This job was done by Svyatoslav himself. The result speaks for itself,” Klimov tells Hromadske.

While head of CES Hlib Vyshlinsky told Hromadske that Vakarchuk is a self-made man who constantly invests time into intellectual growth.

Our interlocutors are hesitant in criticizing Vakarchuk as a potential politician but off-the-record say that he is very sensitive to public criticism, which may become problematic seeing how much of it politicians receive.

READ MORE: Francis Fukuyama on Russia, Ukraine, and Political Ideology