The most recent presidential elections in Ukraine were held in two rounds on March 31 and April 21, 2019, respectively. In total, 44 candidates were registered as part of the campaign, with 39 of them appearing on the ballot. Volodymyr Zelenskyi was declared the winner.
The Far Right Candidate
Only one candidate who participated in the election belonged to a far right political group. In January 2019, the Svoboda party officially nominated former vice-speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Ruslan Koshulynskyi as its presidential candidate. The party announced its intention to do so back in October 2018. At the party’s pre-election conference, Svoboda leader Oleh Tiahnybok announced that nationalist parties such as the Right Sector, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, the organization С14 and people’s deputy Dmytro Yarosh (the leader of the Governmental Initiative of Yarosh DIYA movement) had declared their support for Koshulynskyi.“Кошулинського висунули в президенти від націоналістів. Що він обіцяє?” [Koshulynskyi was nominated as president by the nationalists. What is he promising?], BBC, January 22, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/news-46962882.
The candidate’s slogan – "Ruslan Koshulynskyi is the only choice for Ukrainians" – positioned him as the only nationalist candidate. However, the National Corps party, the second most popular political force on the far right, did not endorse Koshulynskyi. The party’s leader, Andrii Biletskyi, did not run in the presidential election.
Ruslan Koshulynskyi is known as the deputy chairman and the head of the Secretariat of the All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda party. A people’s deputy and deputy chairman of the Verkhovna Rada from 2012 to 2014, he has also served as an elected official on the Lviv Regional Council since November 2015 and came in second during the Lviv mayoral elections in 2015. Unlike other far right politicians, he is not known to engage in xenophobic or radical rhetoric.
According to the Central Election Commission, Ruslan Koshulynskyi received 307,244 votes in the 2019 presidential election – about 1.62 percent of the vote.“Результати голосування” [Election Results], Central Election Commission, 2019, https://www.cvk.gov.ua/pls/vp2019/wp300pt001f01=719.html.
The leader of the OUN volunteer movement, Mykola Kokhanivskyi, also planned to register as a presidential candidate, but was unable to do so because he was unable to pay the nomination deposit.“Чому я не зміг зареєструватися кандидатом на посаду Президента” [Why I was unable to register as a presidential candidate], OUN Volunteer Movement, February 4, 2019, http://oun.org.ua/chomu-ya-ne-zmig-zareyestruvatysya-kandydatom-na-posadu-prezydenta. In March 2019, the OUN movement urged voters not to support the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko,“Заява ДР ОУН з приводу виборів президента України” [Statement by the DR OUN on the elections of the president of Ukraine], OUN Volunteer Movement, March 16, 2019, http://oun.org.ua/zayava-dr-oun-z-pryvodu-vyboriv-prezydenta-ukrayiny. and made a statement criticizing both candidates ahead of the second round of voting.“Заява Добровольчого руху ОУН щодо загроз для України, як воюючої держави у період т.зв. 'зміни еліт'” [Statement by the OUN volunteer movement on threats to Ukraine, as a belligerent state during the period of ‘changing elites’], OUN Volunteer Movement, April 16, 2019, http://oun.org.ua/zayava-dobrovolchogo-ruhu-oun-z-pryvodu-zagroz-dlya-ukrayiny-yak-voyuyuchoyi-derzhavy-v-period-tak-zvanoyi-zminy-elit.
Despite modest representation and low results, far right political forces were unrestrained during the campaign, aiming to increase the visibility and recognition of their brands
The 2019 result was not unusual for Ukraine: in the 2010 election, Oleh Tyahnybok of the Svoboda party received 1.43 percent of the vote. In snap elections in 2014, Tyahnybok received 1.6 percent of the vote, while Dmytro Yarosh from the Right Sector party received 0.70 percent."Вибори Президента України 2014" [Elections of the President of Ukraine 2014], Central Election Commission, 2014, https://www.cvk.gov.ua/pls/vp2014/wp001.html. These vote totals indicate that the risk of a right-wing authoritarian regime being established in Ukraine was and is extremely low.
Another candidate close to far right circles is Illia Kyva, the head of the All-Ukrainian Trade Union of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He has played an active role in anti-drug campaigns (which Ukrainian far right groups often carry out) and often communicates with the well-known right-wing writer Dmytro Korchynskyi. The fact that the Socialist Party of Ukraine formally nominated Kyva illustrates that, in the case of Ukraine, formal ideological markers do not always coincide with political realities. Illia Kyva received just 0.03 percent of the electoral vote.
On the eve of the election, a scandal erupted around the incumbent president following allegations of corruption at the state-owned enterprise Ukroboronprom. The scandal involved the first deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleh Hladkovskyi, and his son Ihor, both of whom went by the surname Svynarchuk prior to 2014. The National Corps party and its subsidiaries, in particular the paramilitary group National Druzhyna – which held a series of demonstrations calling for Hladkovskyi’s resignation"Нацкорпус на акції: без бійок, але зі свинями" [The National Corps in action: without fights, but with pigs], BBC, March 16, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/news-47597236. – actively took part in inflating the scandal.
During the first round of the election campaign and between the two rounds of voting, the National Corps party actively spoke out against corruption, but was actually campaigning against Poroshenko. On top of expressing the party’s political grievances, this gave it an additional platform in the media. On the eve of the election, anything connected to the Hladkovskyis attracted significant press attention. Rallies involving stuffed toy pigs, a play on the Hladkovskyis previous surname Svynarchuk, were very visible in the public sphere. However, few other citizens or activists from other right-wing radical groups joined the protests.
The far right organization National Druzhyna, which is closely connected to the National Corps party, said its members planned to take an active part in election observation. The head of the organization, Ihor Mykhailenko, threatened to use force in the event of election violations. "I’ve been asked if we will use force at polling stations. All I will say is this: if we need to punch someone in the face in the name of justice, we won’t hesitate to do that.”Denys Tymoshenko, “Ліхачов: активізація «Національних дружин» – політична стратегія перед парламентськими виборами” [Likhachov: The activation of the National Druzhyna is a political strategy ahead of the parliamentary elections], Radio Svoboda, March 6, 2019, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/donbass-realii/29805371.html.
Despite these threats, there were no reported violent incidents involving members of National Druzhyna – with the exception of a video the organization published in which its members are shown shoving people who they claim were “carousel” voting in Vinnytsia.Національний Корпус, “#Вибори2019: Вінниця, дільниця №051451 #НацКорпус” [#Elections2019: Vinnytsia precinct No.0514511 #NatsKorpus], Youtube video, 3:06, March 31, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbXUxowPoVc.
In the same video (at 3:03), a member of National Druzhyna claims that these elections were "the dirtiest in the history of Ukraine,” although reports from international observation missions do not support this statement.“Вибори президента України відбулися чесно і вільно – місія спостереження CANADEM” [Ukraine’s presidential elections conducted honestly and freely – CANADEM observation mission], Radio Svoboda, April 1, 2019, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/news-canadem-sposterigachi/29854329.html. In total, 455 people from the organization were registered as official observers."громадська організація ‘Національні Дружини’" [The public organization National Druzhyna], Central Election Commission, 2019, https://www.cvk.gov.ua/pls/vp2019/wp145pt001f01=720pt169f01=35.html.
For the first time in the history of Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, a person of Jewish descent was elected president. Despite the fact that he is not a practicing Jew and does not emphasize his heritage, Volodymyr Zelenskyi has not managed to dodge anti-Semitic comments from the public. Other candidates were also targets of anti-Semitism. On January 27, in Chernivtsi, unidentified individuals drew swastikas and wrote anti-Semitic messages on political campaign advertisements for Zelenskyi and another candidate, Yuliya Tymoshenko.“У Чернівцях невідомі розмалювали сітілайти Юлії Тимошенко та Володимира Зеленського єврейським символом” [In Chernivtsi unknown individuals painted Yuliia Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyi with Jewish symbols], OPORA, January 29, 2019, https://www.oporaua.org/news/vybory/vybory-prezidenta/vybory-prezidenta-2019/46464-u-chernivtsiakh-nevidomi-rozmaliuvaly-sitilaity-yulii-tymoshenko-ta-volodymyra-zelenskoho-ievreiskym-symvolom.
On March 18, political analyst Oleksandr Palii, who has been linked to Petro Poroshenko, said that a Jew should not become the president of Ukraine. "I respect the Jews – a very wise people. But I am sure that the president of Ukraine should be a Ukrainian and a Christian, like the absolute majority of Ukrainians. That’s why I will not be voting for either Tymoshenko or Zelenskyi."Oleksandr Palii, 2019, “Поважаю євреїв - дуже мудрий народ” [I respect the Jews – a very wise people], Facebook, March 18, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/oleksandr.palii/posts/1145211028983904.
Nadiia Savchenko, a politician who was accused of plotting a terrorist act but then released from custody shortly before the second round of the election, also publicly made anti-Semitic comments."Савченко: При владі в Україні жиди: Гройсман, Вальцман і Тимошенко" [Savchenko: In Ukraine Yids Are in Power: Groysman, Valtsman and Tymoshenko], Gordon, March 28, 2017, https://gordonua.com/ukr/news/politics/savchenko-pri-vladi-v-ukrajini-zhidi-grojsman-valtsman-i-timoshenko-180585.html.
Writer Dmytro Korchynskyi made negative comments about Zelenskyi’s ethnic identity as well:
"I believe that the president of Ukraine should be an ethnic Ukrainian who lives [according to] Ukrainian archetypes and uses the Ukrainian language. A Kazakh, a Jew can be anyone, but the president is a national symbol. [...] Zelenskyi does not like the Ukrainian language and is not an ethnic Ukrainian, so he cannot be a national symbol of Ukraine.”“Зеленський не може бути президентом: Корчинський зробив шокуюче зізнання” [Zelenskyi cannot be president: Korchynskyi made a shocking confession] Znaj.ua, March 19, 2019, https://m.znaj.ua/politics/219982-zelenskiy-ne-mozhe-buti-prezidentom-korchinskiy-zrobiv-shokuyuche-ziznannya.
According to a report by Internews Ukraine titled “Chaos and Hate: What the Russian Social Network VKontakte Says About the Ukrainian Election,” openly anti-Semitic messages often appear on the platform. The report notes that on VKontakte, Volodymyr Zelenskyi is discussed using pejoratives like khabatovets and khabadnyk (referencing the Hasidic movement Chabad-Lubavitch, which is the dominant movement of Orthodox Judaism in the post-Soviet space) and the "Jewish capital" is also spoken of in a negative way. Jewish heritage is also attributed to people falsely, in what appears to be a way to defame candidates. For example, the name “Valtsman” is alleged to be Petro Poroshenko’s real surname.
As the authors of the Internews Ukraine report point out, anti-Semitism “is also a part of the ‘Russian world’ narrative of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine: the war on Donbass is often presented as a war of the pro-Russian ‘Slavs’ against the pro-Western ‘judeo-masons.’”“Chaos and Hate: What Russian Social Network VK Says About Ukrainian Election,” Internews Ukraine, March 27, 2019, https://internews.ua/opportunity/vk-and-elections.
A few other incidents underscore the role of anti-Semitism in the rhetoric around the election. On March 31, freelance advisor to the Ministry of Information Policy, Oleksandr Bryhynets, posted a caricature of Volodymyr Zelenskyi on his Facebook page in which the candidate’s appearance was slightly altered to emphasize his “Jewish” facial features.Oleksandr Bryhynets, 2019, “Молодці, патріоти Галичини!” [Well done, patriots of Galicia!], Facebook, March 31, 2019, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2261852517212730&set=pb.100001640119682.-2207520000.1556115361.&type=3&theater. Then, on April 22, in a blog commenting on the results of the election for Ukrainska Pravda, Andrii Biletskyi wrote, "Zelenskyi a priori does not have the psychological capacity to be a spokesperson for the national interest of the Ukrainian people." This statement could also be interpreted as a comment highlighting the ethnicity of the candidate.Andrii Biletskyi, “Підсумки виборів” [Election Results], Ukrayinska Pravda, April 22, 2019, https://blogs.pravda.com.ua/authors/bileckyj/5cbd8c2e2f3a1.
Among 44 contenders for the post of President of Ukraine there was only one candidate who can be formally attributed to the far right – Ruslan Koshulynskyi. He received 1.62 percent of the total votes. This is a fairly standard result for candidates from the right side of the political spectrum.
Despite modest representation and poor results, far right political forces were unrestrained during the campaign. Their public activity during the electoral race was quite noticeable and aimed at increasing the visibility and recognition of their brands. Throughout the campaign, far right organizations effectively campaigned against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and participated in the electoral process as official observers.
Yet, a candidate of Jewish heritage, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, won the election. During the campaign, anti-Semitic statements and vandalism were publicly used against Zelenskyi and other candidates in order to defame them.