Petro Poroshenko’s Last-Minute Nationalist Makeover

Ukraine’s president is making a desperate gambit to win re-election—and to remain politically relevant if he loses.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Feb. 15, 2015. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Feb. 15, 2015. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday night, it became clear that Petro Poroshenko may not be Ukraine’s president for much longer. Judging from the increasingly desperate and over-the-top rhetoric, he and his supporters know it.

With all the votes counted, Poroshenko had disappointingly secured less than 16 percent of the vote. That put him a distant second behind the front-runner, the comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky, whose only political experience consists of pretending to be a president in a popular Ukrainian TV show. The 41-year-old Zelensky won more than 30 percent of the vote, outperforming the expectations of most pollsters. The two men will face off in the second round of the elections on April 21.

As the results came in Sunday night, Poroshenko sounded like a man who knew he faced an uphill battle to be re-elected. He also sounded more like a right-wing nationalist than the “consummate political pragmatist” who was elected five years ago in the midst of Russia’s proxy invasion of eastern Ukraine, a war that has now taken an estimated 13,000 lives. “We need a total mobilization of all Ukrainian patriots,” he said on Sunday. “A total mobilization of all those who fight for Ukraine, putting aside all political colors, putting aside all the insults, we can unite.” Poroshenko went on to name the enemies he had in mind: populists, “pseudo-patriots,” and “open agents of the Kremlin.” He added: “And behind the scenes there are those who already negotiate the capitulation.”

During this week’s second-round campaigning across Ukraine, Poroshenko and his backers have only amplified their nationalistic rhetoric while sticking with their slogan of “Army! Language! Faith!” At the heart of Poroshenko’s campaign is his portrayal of Zelensky as a pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian figure, set to turn the country away from the West and toward Russia. Whether Ukrainians will believe him remains to be seen.

Poroshenko began laying the groundwork for a nationalist campaign in 2018. That’s when he secured an independent new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, ushered in a new law on language in education (stating that all secondary education had to be in Ukrainian, rankling minority language speakers such as Hungarians in western Ukraine), and, overall, presented himself as the only person able to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his proxy forces waging war in Ukraine’s east. (Among the slogans he promoted at this time was: “Either Poroshenko or Putin.”)

Rhetoric like this did little to address the dissatisfaction felt by many Ukrainian voters, who have indicated in poll after poll that—aside from the ongoing war with Russia in the eastern part of the country—they’re more interested in issues such as rising prices and health care than they are about issues of nationalism and language. According to a Gallup World Poll published a few weeks ago, just 9 percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their government, the lowest in the world for the second straight year. In a country that by some measures is the poorest in Europe, the post-Maidan progress that Poroshenko and his boosters tout—economic growth, health care reform, and a visa-free regime with the European Union, among others—clearly hasn’t registered for most citizens.

Neither has Poroshenko’s attempt to mask his deficiencies through nationalist rhetoric. The Ukrainian political scientist Olga Onuch said she felt Poroshenko focused on the issue of the Ukrainian language too much in his campaign to be successful (though she stressed that his campaign rhetoric hasn’t, in her opinion, been what scholars would call radical right-wing, “exclusive nationalist,” or “ethno-nationalist in nature”).

The current president seemed to have heard that message loud and clear Sunday night. “I critically and soberly understand the signal society sends today,” Poroshenko said. “This is a serious reason for a thorough work on the mistakes made in recent years.” But soon enough, Poroshenko and his fans were again reading from a familiar song sheet, asking for the “total mobilization of all Ukrainian patriots” to defeat the Kremlin, Zelensky, and his alleged backer, the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi—all, conveniently enough, alluded together in the same breath. “We have one enemy, though his faces are different,” Poroshenko said.

There’s little reason to think Poroshenko’s campaign will change course in the remaining weeks before the second-round vote. “Poroshenko’s campaign will become even more nationalist,” said Volodymyr Ishchenko, a sociologist and lecturer at Kiev Polytechnic Institute. Zelensky’s larger than expected lead over Poroshenko is so insurmountable, Ishchenko argued, that the incumbent president could in theory win on April 21 only by engaging in “massive outright fraud”—something that Ishchenko, fortunately, doesn’t foresee happening. Instead, he said, Poroshenko’s strategy will be more to “lose at least with some decent score,” such as 40 percent, “and consolidate nationalist opposition around him.”

“I think Poroshenko will go full-bore mudslinging,” said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer at King’s College London. “Poroshenko is going to try to double down in mobilizing the patriotic and even ultranationalist vote,” he added. “For him to switch this strategy now would lack credibility.”

Ukraine’s hardest-core ultranationalists increasingly accuse Poroshenko, the onetime pragmatist, of co-opting their nationalist slogans and rhetoric. “The biggest part of work [of the Maidan revolution] was made by nationalists, but the political dividends were taken by politicians like Poroshenko,” one member of the far-right, neo-Nazi-friendly Azov movement told Foreign Policy recently. Members of the movement’s National Militia and the National Corps party—a group the U.S. State Department called a “nationalist hate group” in a recent report—have been leading violent protests against alleged corruption in Poroshenko’s inner circle.

But it’s not the far-right nationalists who Poroshenko is hoping will become his future political base; despite their street power and ability to act with relative impunity, they’re not a large enough, nor popular enough, group to offer the promise of a future political career. It’s Ukraine’s more mainstream nationalists—in Ishchenko’s words, the “moderate nationalists” who call themselves liberals—whom Poroshenko seems to be hoping to rally with his nationalist rhetoric and populist attacks on Zelensky. (That rhetoric hasn’t extended to attacks on Zelensky’s Jewish background; anti-Semitic tropes about the comedian have largely been confined to a few dark corners of the Ukrainian internet.)

There is, of course, a long list of legitimate criticisms Poroshenko and others can make against the upstart Zelensky. He has been extremely vague on concrete policies and positions, and he has no political experience to speak of. He has been accused (not just by Poroshenko supporters) of being a puppet of Kolomoyskyi, who owns the 1+1 network Zelensky’s show airs on and has become an enemy of Poroshenko, evading Ukrainian charges in self-exile in Israel for allegedly defrauding a Ukrainian bank of billions of dollars. His campaign doesn’t seem committed to taking the high road over the next few weeks: “We will destroy him,” Mikhail Fedorov, Zelensky’s chief digital strategist, told the journalist Christopher Miller at Zelensky’s campaign headquarters Sunday night. And Zelensky’s campaign has often left observers scratching their hands, including a bizarre back-and-forth on Thursday with Poroshenko about a possible debate—with Zelensky proposing the two meet in the largest soccer stadium in the country after, of all things, a drug test.

But the pro-Russian charge leveled at Zelensky from some high-profile supporters of Poroshenko, including in FP, is much less plausible. That’s partly why Clarkson believes Poroshenko’s campaign would be better off focusing on Zelensky’s alleged connections with Kolomoyskyi than trying to play the nationalist, “agents of the Kremlin” card. “[The nationalist card] is a strategic error in that it assumes that Ukrainian voters are unsubtle enough to conflate Poroshenko with the state and the state with the nation,” he said. “This isn’t the 1990s anymore.”

Indeed, Zelensky made pains to put on a patriotic show on the last day of campaigning before Sunday’s vote. At his final campaign event in a Kiev suburb on Friday, Zelensky sang a (Russian-language) song with fellow performers that they’d first performed in 2014 called “I Love My Country.” “But from Kiev to Lviv,” Zelensky and his fellow performers sang, “Donetsk to Dzhankoy”—the former occupied by Russian-led forces in Donbass, the latter a city in Russian-annexed Crimea—“I’ll never let anyone carve up my country.”

Michael Colborne is a journalist in eastern Europe who focuses on the far right and has written extensively about Ukraine's Azov movement.

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