On Sunday, 21 April, actor and political newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine in a landslide victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko, a candidate against whom some nationalist groups campaigned. First reports indicate that the elections were calm and without major irregularities. During the presidential election run-up in March and April, ACLED recorded some of the lowest demonstration event counts of the past year — indeed, demonstrations have been declining steadily since January 2018. However, this period of calm does not necessarily indicate that Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 2019, will be peaceful; instead, the restraint shown by typically active nationalist groups will likely be replaced with disorder as the political situation settles and those groups seize the opportunity to steer Ukraine’s new leader, and influence parliamentary elections, to their advantage.
The drop in demonstrations explained
Despite the high stakes and fierce competition during Ukraine’s presidential elections, demonstration events in the run-up to this election season have decreased (see graph below). This decline in demonstrations cannot be explained by voter apathy or by robust addressing of Ukrainians’ concerns. No major progress has been made to address grievances around corruption and limited economic progress, and self-reported willingness among Ukrainian citizens to participate in demonstrations increased over 2018 (KIIS, 6 February 2019). The decline is also not the result of government crackdown; few cases of police intervention have been reported since January 2018.
Demonstrations did not feature as a prominent election campaign tactic for several reasons. The thousands of people employed by the various candidates, who would otherwise be instrumental to orchestrating demonstrations, were engaged in door-to-door ‘canvassing’, rather than demonstrating, in recent months (Pravda, 26 March 2019). Rather than organizing mass demonstrations, Zelensky’s campaign followed an alternative strategy that employed heavy use of social media and theatre shows (Economist, 22 April 2019).
Nationalist groups dormant?
In addition, nationalist groups that are well-known organizing actors of demonstrations were involved in fewer activities in the run-up to the presidential elections compared to the first half of 2018. Internal divisions may have contributed, at least briefly, to the limited activity of nationalist groups in Ukraine during recent months (Kyiv Post, 28 January 2019). These nationalist actors, usually heavily involved in Ukraine’s political violence and protest landscape, are primarily nationalist political parties with paramilitary wings which have demonstrated their capacity for organized violent action on various occasions. These groups mobilized a devoted core of demonstrators during the 2004 and 2014 revolutions (Zabyelina, 2019); during late 2017, the three major nationalist parties — Svoboda, Right Sector, and National Corps — entered into a coalition agreement in order to improve their prospects for the 2019 elections. By December 2018, internal disagreement over the main candidate led National Corps, arguably the largest organization of the three, to break ranks and present their own candidate. This falling out may have contributed to a momentary reduction of activities of these three actors.
Additionally, nationalist groups were involved at this time in a multi-pronged approach largely intended to ensure the removal of the incumbent. During the presidential elections, nationalist group activity remained limited, with only one demonstration reported (_see_graph below). Candidates of Svoboda, Right Sector and National Corps stood little chance against the three favourites: incumbent Poroshenko, third time contender Tymoshenko, and newcomer Zelensky. Amidst allegations against Poroshenko of voter intimidation, National Militia (the paramilitary wing of National Corps) secured a role in monitoring the elections at stations and indicated it would use force to prevent voter fraud (RFE, 31 March 2019). National Corps also staged multiple demonstrations against Poroshenko in the lead up to the election. Allegedly, these actions were meant to implicitly support Tymoshenko’s bid for the presidency, who is supported by Internal Minister Avakov, alleged patron of National Militia (Atlantic Council, 29 March 2019). National Corps’ prospects for the parliamentary elections would greatly benefit from a president other than Poroshenko, who up till now has managed to capture much of the nationalist vote with his ‘Army, Language, Faith’ campaign. Supporters of Svoboda appeared to rally against Tymoshenko in February, but together with Right Sector remained largely uninvolved in demonstrations during the presidential election. The political incentive structure in the lead-up to the election was such that nationalist groups, with no candidate to explicitly back, were best served by lying low and waiting for the chips to fall where they may. Now that the chips are down, and parliamentary elections — where these groups’ candidates stand a chance of winning some seats — approach, their tactics may change.
Indeed, nationalist organizations have used violence to achieve their goals in the past, though their use of violence in the near future will depend on what advantages they can hope to gain from shows of force. They may want to avoid appearing violent and radical in order to attract more mainstream votes in the parliamentary elections, and some public statements of National Corps leadership point in that direction – for example dispelling fears they would interfere during the main debate (Pravda, 14 April 2019). However, much of the attraction of the nationalist groups lies in ‘maintaining security and order’ and bringing self-styled ‘justice’ where government institutions fail. A situation with the appearance of chaos and lawlessness (if needed, fabricated) in which paramilitary wings bring order through violent action could boost that image. In addition, Zelensky’s nationalist credentials are limited, certainly compared to Poroshenko. He will face pressure from nationalist groups to follow hard lines on Russia, the war in Donbass, and ‘traditional values,’ and will likely face increased violent activity by nationalist groups if he does not — as evidenced by post election statements (National Corps, 22 April 2019). Competition among the nationalist groups could also lead to political violence. After splitting ways, it is unclear if National Corps, Svoboda, and Right Sector can compete in the same ideological sphere without clashing. To date, no such clashes have been reported, but given their credentials for violence and the fierce competition in the parliamentary elections, it cannot be ruled out.
The peace leading up to and surrounding Ukraine’s presidential elections is a symptom of nationalist groups’ savvy political calculus, not their fading ideals or capacity for political disruption. As the situation shifts, so will their tactics; and as the parliamentary elections approach, it is possible that violence and demonstrations will again spread.