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Poroshenko Camp In Damage-Control Mode As Ukrainian Election Nears

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) queues for food with soldiers in the mess hall during his visit to the 95th Airborne Brigade in Zhytomyr on March 11.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) queues for food with soldiers in the mess hall during his visit to the 95th Airborne Brigade in Zhytomyr on March 11.

KYIV -- Ukraine's presidential election is less than three weeks away and instead of focusing solely on campaigning, incumbent Petro Poroshenko and his camp are scrambling to put out numerous fires and fend off protesters at campaign rallies.

Still trailing in the polls but having gotten a small bump in late February, Poroshenko is fighting an uphill battle to finish in the top two in the March 31 first-round vote for a shot at reelection.

The first political blaze erupted two weeks ago, following a TV report by Ukrainian investigative journalists that accused the family of a former Poroshenko business partner and top national-security official of embezzling millions of dollars meant for the military in a time of conflict.

This week, in a separate case, a regional governor appointed by Poroshenko was accused by Ukraine's National Anticorruption Bureau (NABU) of taking some $1 million in bribes, a charge that he has denied.

Now the president is also under fire from his interior minister and top cop, Arsen Avakov, with whom he's had a long and difficult alliance, for allegedly using state resources in a vote-buying scheme targeting mostly pensioners. The allegation comes after similar charges from his election opponents and civil-society watchdogs.

Poroshenko's office declined to comment on the allegations when reached by phone and did not respond to an e-mailed request.

With the motto "army, language, faith," Poroshenko has sought to position himself as a strong commander in chief, Ukraine's nationalist savior, and the candidate who built the rapport with the West that is needed to keep the country on a westward path.

But that has not been enough to win support from much of the Ukrainian public, which sees him as having failed to tackle entrenched corruption.

That includes many unruly far-right nationalists from the controversial Azov movement, who on March 9 clashed with police outside of Poroshenko's administration in Kyiv and later in Cherkasy, where at least 15 police officers were wounded.

Azov's leaders said they came to protest corruption in the defense sector in connection with the scandal, which is thought to have involved profiteering from smuggled military parts during the current conflict with Russia-backed separatists. The next day, the protesters followed Poroshenko to Zhytomyr. And they have announced another antipresidential protest for March 16.

A paramilitary wing of Azov called the National Militia, which was involved in the violence and has attacked minority groups in the past, has been granted permission to be official election monitors.

Volunteers with the right-wing paramilitary Azov National Corps brandish flares atop a big banner reading "The Svinarchuks of Poroshenko in jail!" at a protest rally in central Kyiv on March 2.
Volunteers with the right-wing paramilitary Azov National Corps brandish flares atop a big banner reading "The Svinarchuks of Poroshenko in jail!" at a protest rally in central Kyiv on March 2.

Damage Control

The tumult threatens to undo Poroshenko's progress in February, when he rose in the polls to second place behind comedian and political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the wake of two big achievements: the creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine and an amendment to the constitution to include aspirations to join the European Union and NATO.

A fresh Rating Group poll indicates Poroshenko has already taken a hit from the recent scandals. This week it placed him third with 16.8 percent support, behind Zelenskiy and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who jumped to 18.3 percent. Zelenskiy held onto his lead but fell about two points to 24.7 percent in the poll.

In damage-control mode, Poroshenko fired the national-security official implicated in the military corruption scandal, Oleh Hladkovskyy, and ordered authorities to investigate the allegations made against Hladkovskyy's son and two other entrepreneurs. And the president asked the government to fire Governor Valeriy Holovko, who oversaw the central Poltava region since 2014, while he was under investigation by NABU.

But the president has not commented on the public accusations of vote-buying by Avakov, who called the scheme "incredibly sleazy," nor reports from civil society groups documenting numerous election violations, including alleged vote-buying schemes, tied to his campaign.

Speaking to the RBK news outlet in Kyiv, Olga Aivazovska, head of the civil-watchdog group Opora, said that her organization had documented how Poroshenko's campaign had carefully created "a structure that can be used to motivate voters by material means." Previously, Opora reported dozens of cases between June 2018 and January 2019 in which Poroshenko party members allegedly conducted "indirect campaigning activities with the alleged use of budgetary resources."

Opora and similar groups have also catalogued alleged violations from the camps of other presidential candidates, but a majority of them are linked to Poroshenko's.

Betting On Incumbency

Instead of tackling the accusations head-on, the president and his campaign have lobbed their own at opponents -- predominately Tymoshenko, who has called for Poroshenko to abandon his reelection bid and whom the incumbent's team appears to regard as his chief opponent.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the State Bureau of Investigation -- all subordinate to Poroshenko -- even searched the Tymoshenko campaign's offices after accusing her of buying votes.

Separately, investigative journalists reported that Tymoshenko's camp had registered numerous suspicious donations to her campaign.

Ukrainian police have recorded more than 2,000 campaign violations in total and officially opened more than 100 criminal cases related to the election.

Yet, despite all of this, "the president seems to have enough campaign cards up his sleeve to win the vote," wrote Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace with a particular focus on Ukraine.

He argued that the high number of undecided voters is likely to work in favor of the president -- a tested politician and leader -- rather than the untested Zelenskiy and divisive populist Tymoshenko. And he said that, while polarizing, the "either Poroshenko or Putin" message allegedly being pushed by Poroshenko seems to be working on an electorate frustrated by the Russian president's continued approach to Ukraine and pleased with Kyiv's westward turn.

Moreover, his base "are the most committed of the country's voters," Jarabik added.

Oleksiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy and head of research at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, argues that the incumbent still stands a great chance of winning because Ukrainians will vote "rationally."

"People who support Poroshenko, they are aware of corruption scandals," he tells RFE/RL. "But they consider him to be the lesser evil."

Still, with the fresh corruption allegations still making headlines and widespread disillusionment among voters who feel reforms have been slow or largely failed them, Poroshenko has his work cut out for him.

And there is one more thing that stands against him -- history.

In Ukraine's 28-year independence, only one incumbent president -- Leonid Kuchma in 1999 -- has won reelection.