Putin stands to be the biggest loser of Ukraine's elections

On Sunday, Ukrainian voters will cast their ballots for president. Despite non-stop Russian propaganda and fake news, a disaffected electorate, dirty tricks and slander among the candidates and a dueling oligarch-controlled media, Ukraine is poised to pull off a miracle that few will appreciate.

That wonder is a democratic election whose outcome is not known in a country buffeted by a foreign-led war in its east, blockades of its seaports and the annexation of territory by a hostile power.

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A democratic election carried out under such dire circumstances is the outcome that Russian President Vladimir Putin fears the most: a democratically elected Ukrainian government that he can no longer claim is illegitimate.

On the eve of Sunday’s election, 39 candidates were registered to appear on the ballot. Only five had been rejected due to non-payment of filing fees. According to polling, the election appears to be a three-way race between current President Petro Poroshenko, former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and comedian Volodomyr Zelenskiy.

It seems certain that the election will go into a second round as the two top vote-getters face off. The latest polling suggests that the second round will feature Zelenskiy versus Poroshenko or Tymoshenko.

The list of candidates is a who’s-who of dysfunctional Ukrainian post-Soviet politics. Some candidates are rumored to be backed by Ukraine’s billionaire oligarchs, living in Ukraine or abroad, one a notorious fugitive from the law.

The campaign makes U.S. presidential elections look like child’s play by comparison, with accusations of vote buying, clandestine Russian support, rampant corruption and even hidden Russian citizenship.

Ukraine even has its version of a political outsider in TV actor Zelenskiy, whose comedy series features an ordinary guy who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine.

Unenthusiastic Ukrainian voters have far from perfect choices. Zelenskiy is running as an anti-establishment candidate. He has no political experience, but he promises to make Ukraine part of Europe, tackle the corruption of Ukrainian politics and deal with Putin on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko, himself a billionaire chocolate king, is beset by charges of corruption within his campaign, but he offers the experiences to deal with Putin and knows how to navigate the waters of European politics. 

Tymoshenko, a multi-millionaire herself, has a legacy of corruption in Ukraine’s notorious gas industry. There are fears that she could sell out to Putin. She is presenting herself as a populist and nationalist.

Ukraine remains dependent on Western financial assistance and is under intense external and internal pressure to reform its political and legal institutions. The perceived fairness of Sunday’s election will be a test of its reforms.

Progress has been made, but there are numerous hurdles ahead. Various European organizations will closely monitor the election; so there is limited scope for cheating.

In evaluating the prospects for Ukraine’s election, it is tempting to focus on its glaring flaws and weaknesses, but that is not the point. The point is that we do not know who will win. It appears that no candidates wishing to run were denied their place on the ballot by a phony “electoral commission” as in Putin’s “managed democracy.”  

On election day, Ukraine will be flooded by local and foreign election observers. Candidates who smack of Russian ties will have little chance. Putin’s aggression has indeed created a Ukrainian nation, whose voters will reject any Yanukovych-like candidate.

The various candidates seem to have marshalled an even balance of electoral resources so as to make this a battle of countervailing power.

Ukrainian voters, unaccustomed to the rough-and-tumble world of democratic politics, may be turned off by the unseemly electoral gutter fight, but they should worry more if the campaign resembled the routine of their Russian neighbor, with its slates of token candidates selected by the Kremlin.

Despite its flaws, Ukraine will conduct a democratic election that will reflect the will of its people. To do this in such tumultuous times is a monumental achievement. Few will come to this conclusion, however.

Instead, U.S., European and Ukrainian press will wrongly focus on the negative aspects of the election. But such an election under such difficult circumstances shows Ukraine’s determination to be a democracy.

Putin stands to be the biggest loser if Ukraine and the West conclude that Ukraine’s election, despite its numerous flaws, was indeed an exercise in democracy.

Putin’s legal basis for his annexation of Crimea and his attack on eastern Ukraine has been that Ukraine’s government is illegitimate. The Maidan revolution, according to Putin, was a CIA-directed coup carried out by neo-fascists and rabid nationalists who overthrew Ukraine’s democratically-elected president, Yanukovych.

The Russian narrative is that frightened Crimeans flew into the welcoming arms of mother Russia to escape murder and mayhem by crazed monsters from Kiev.

Putin claims, of course, that Poroshenko’s 2014 election in the midst of hostilities, was rigged. How can one make peace if there is no legitimate Ukrainian state with which to deal?, Putin's thinking likely goes.

If the world recognizes the Ukrainian presidential election as a flawed but real demonstration of Ukrainian democracy, the foundation of Putin’s policy toward Ukraine collapses. I hope that the Ukrainian people and press will look at this big picture as they go to the polls on Sunday. Putin is hoping they won’t.

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author or coauthor of 12 books on economic history, the Soviet economy, transition economies, comparative economics and economic demography. Follow Hoover on Twitter: @DefiningIdeas.