Law enforcement agencies take sides as election tensions rise in Ukraine

Law enforcement agencies take sides as election tensions rise in Ukraine
Behind the lens: Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has emerged as one of the key players in Ukraine's upcoming presidential elections, despite not being among the candidates. / Ігор Кіянчук
By Graham Stack in Berlin March 20, 2019

As election tensions mount in Ukraine, different law enforcement agencies are showing competing allegiances. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who supervises the national police, and sympathises with the opposition, alleges that President Petro Poroshenko’s reelection campaign is involved in massive vote buying, and has called one of Poroshenko’s campaign heads in for questioning. He also claims that Poroshenko-loyal agencies such the prosecutor general’s office and security service (SBU) are harassing the opposition.

Ukraine’s current presidential election is the most unpredictable ever – and that is in a country that has only once reelected a president, Leonid Kuchma in 1998. There are currently three candidates for the top post with roughly equal chances. Incumbent Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are neck and neck for second place in the polls, but, sensationally, TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy has come from nowhere to top ratings with a large lead over the two political dinosaurs. In the first round of voting on March 31, Zelenskiy seems likely to go through to the second round on April 21, where he will face the second-placing candidate – almost certainly either Tymoshenko or Poroshenko. Given neophyte Zelenskiy’s inexperience, anything could then happen.

But one of the key players in the election is a businessman and politician who is not himself running for office – but currently holds the post of interior minister. 55-year-old Arvakov started his post-Soviet career as a banker and businessman in the East Ukraine city of Kharkiv, becoming a multimillionaire in the process. In 2005 he entered politics as governor of Kharkiv. After losing the post in 2010, he was forced into exile in Italy under the administration of Viktor Yanukovych when criminal charges were opened against him. But following Yanukovych’s ouster in the February 2014 Euromaidan revolution, he returned to take the post of interior minister – and went on to oversee the establishment of a new national police force that broke with Soviet traditions. 

Now his ministry and the police force could play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the elections, though he claims he is only interested in the elections being fair. But as Ukraine moves towards the first round of voting from a list of candidates numbering over 40, tension is mounting and spilling over into competition between rival law enforcement agencies. 

This is where Avakov comes in as a powerbroker. Back by his People’s Front party in parliament, one of the largest parliamentary groups, he is a political force independent of Poroshenko, with oversight of the national police, the largest national law enforcement agency. While claiming neutrality, Avakov has also at times expressed broad sympathy for both Tymoshenko and Zelenskiy. In a TV interview on March 12, he drew gasps from the audience when he said the words: “There will be a new president.”

At the same time, Avakov has said his only concern regarding the elections is to prevent their falsification. “I told the president to his face: I am not against you, but will oppose any falsification of the elections,” he said in an interview.

Allegations of vote buying

But as the date of the elections nears, the topic of possible falsification has become one of the main campaign issues – pitting the Avakov-loyal national police against the Poroshenko-loyal Prosecutor General’s office, the SBU and the recently formed State Bureau of Investigations.

Avakov has alleged attempted vote-buying by a Poroshenko ally, Serhii Berezenko, deputy head of the parliamentary group of Bloc Petro Poroshenko and one of the heads of Poroshenko’s re-election campaign. “Yes, I can confirm that Serhii Berezenko is named as organiser of [electoral fraud] schemes … in a whole series of complaints by at least two presidential candidates. We cannot ignore these complaints and fail to conduct an investigation,” Avakov told the press on February 25. “If you are honest, you have nothing to fear. Or alternatively you can desist from what you have been doing,” Avakov added, apparently addressing Berezenko.

Avakov then detailed in a TV interview what he claimed to be extensive vote buying networks organised by Berezenko on behalf of Poroshenko, comprising tens of thousands of paid canvassers operating across the country, who offer potential voters social benefits and handouts for their vote. According to Avakov, Poroshenko has paid as much as €50mn for the operation. 

As independent proof of his allegation, Avakov referred to a detailed investigation published by the respected website of the work of such pro-presidential ‘networks’ in the Kyiv region alone. “The police will fight against any such attempts,” Avakov tweeted.

Berezenko in response denied the allegations. “Again I say, the presidential elections have to be honest and transparent. I am convinced that the voters will soon give their appraisal of the politicians and of those who are should be monitoring the legality of the electoral process,” he posted on Facebook. 

On March 19, the interior ministry announced that Berezenko had failed to appear for questioning about vote buying

Poroshenko strikes back

Pro-Poroshenko law enforcement agencies are also getting political. On February 22, under the supervision of prosecutor general Yury Lutsenko, a close ally of Poroshenko, Ukraine’s security service raided the offices of Tymoshenko’s elections campaign across the country to investigate alleged vote buying. 

According to court documents detailing the search warrant, investigators are on the trail of a “criminal organisation … created for the purpose of … mass buying of votes and falsification of results of the presidential elections in 2019.”  Documents seized in the raid relate to Tymoshenko’s Batkyvschina party, according to the court records. In a press release, the SBU said they were investigating the organisers of an ‘electoral pyramid’ totalling as many as 680,000 voters, without naming the candidate. 

On March 6, the SBU then arrested individuals attempting to pass money to a marginal presidential candidate Yury Tymoshenko, in an effort to have him withdraw his candidacy. The otherwise unknown Yury Tymoshenko has the same name, albeit in masculine form, as Yulia Tymoshenko. His candidacy appears to be a ruse by Tymoshenko’s opponents to trick her voters into crossing the wrong box on the ballot sheet – and those paying him to withdraw are thus likely to have come from the Yulia Tymoshenko camp. The SBU said that Yury had tipped them off to the payment.

Avakov’s national police then clashed directly with Poroshenko’s SBU on March 7, when police discovered SBU listening devices at the campaign headquarters of leading candidate Zelenskiy. "Kyiv police have discovered some listening devices beneath the office of presidential candidate Zelenskiy. We are investigating. Where should we the draw the line between rivalry for office [of president] and committing a crime?" Avakov tweeted.

The SBU acknowledged they had planted the devices, but claimed this was part of an anti-Russia operation. “The leadership of the interior ministry deliberately leaked video and images of special equipment, revealed … SBU agents' operations which … harmed the national interests of the state,” the SBU spokesperson wrote on Facebook – and opened an investigation into Avakov. 

The tension between security organs has even reached the cyberspace of the ‘Elections 2019’ computer system. The Poroshenko-allied SBU are tasked with monitoring the cybersecurity of the electoral computer system, while the Avakov-allied police are tasked with securing the hardware. 

“The police will guard the cables through which data flows that is entered under supervision of the SBU. … In practice there are already scandals arising from lack of trust. Because the leading law-enforcers are divided into two camps: Avakov protecting the interests of the opposition, and the prosecutor general and SBU behind the incumbent,” says Yury Nikolov, co-founder of the Nashi Groshi centre for investigative journalism.

Personal enmity

Avakov’s protective attitude towards both the two main competitors to Poroshenko – Tymoshenko and Zelenskiy – helps him shrug off allegations that he is allied with one or the other. 

But observers have no doubt about the antagonism between Avakov and Poroshenko. Avakov and then prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk were co-founders of the Popular Front party in 2014, only weeks before parliamentary elections in October of that year. Popular Front then won the largest share of the vote in the elections, although Poroshenko’s Bloc Petro Poroshenko just pipped them for seats in parliament. The results ensured that Yatseniuk and Avakov retained their respective posts of prime minister and interior minister, gained after the ousting of Yanukovych in February 2014. 

But Poroshenko launched a campaign to discredit Yatseniuk in 2015, making Yatseniuk the scapegoat for painful economic reforms such as hiking the price of gas, as required by the International Monetary Fund. As a result the ratings of Popular Front collapsed from over 20% to close to 2%. Under pressure, Yatseniuk resigned in March 2016. Poroshenko then replaced him with his close ally, Volodymyr Groysman.

Avakov was able to stay in office thanks to the votes in parliament Popular Front still commands. But he now refers to Poroshenko bitterly as “the person who organised a campaign to discredit Popular Front and Arseny Yatseniuk.” 

Poroshenko’s allies accuse Avakov of taking this enmity further than just preventing electoral falsification.  Although Avakov is a Russian speaker with Armenian roots, they allege that he is behind an organisation of ultranationalist protestors – the National Militia – who have disrupted Poroshenko’s election trail to protest at alleged corruption among the president’s inner circle. Both Avakov and National Militia deny that they are mutually linked.

Some commentators believe the allegations: “Avakov not only controls the National Police, but he is also widely believed to control the activities of the National Corps and the National [Militia] Squads,” writes Zenon Zawada, political analyst at brokerage Concorde Capital. 

A parliamentary republic?

While Avakov denies supporting either Tymoshenko or Zelenskiy, he does voice support for what he sees as the likely political outcome of either of their election ahead of Poroshenko: the shift to a fully parliamentary republic. 

Tymoshenko’s manifesto openly envisages the shift to a parliamentary system, with herself to morph into a ‘chancellor’ in the image of Germany’s Angela Merkel.

According to Avakov, the same will happen should the comedian Zelenskiy become president. “I believe that if Zelenskiy is elected, the shift to a parliamentary republic will accelerate. This is also what Tymoshenko declares. … I have always been in favour of eliminating the dualism in state functions [between president and government]. The president should not run everything from energy to diplomacy. A parliamentary system is more suitable for everyone.”

Some political scientists and European politicians agree that the shift to a fully parliamentary system with a mostly ‘ceremonial’ president would be the logical outcome of Ukraine’s journey to Europe. “[M]ajor recent studies of democracy in Eastern Central Europe and the former Soviet Union have arrived at broadly similar conclusions,” says political scientist Andreas Umland: “[C]ountries that had established relatively strong legislatures were significantly more democratic than those with relatively weak legislatures.” 

Such a fundamental position leaves little room for compromise between Avakov and Poroshenko, as the campaign nears its culmination. Poroshenko, with his slogan of “army, language, faith”, has based his campaign on the image of a strong national president who is commander-in-chief of the army and also backer of the newly created Ukrainian national church. 

In an attempt to paper over the widening rift between law enforcement agencies, Ukraine’s law enforcement heads – including Avakov, Lutsenko and head of the SBU Vasyl Hrytsak – together with election committee heads gave a joint briefing on March 12 to declare their shared commitment to ensure fair and transparent elections.  

But the truce was short lived: only two days later, on March 14, the SBU and prosecutor general announced they had arrested a certain Viktor Korzh for allegedly accepting a $30,000 bribe from Kyiv pawnbrokers – claiming that Korzh was an unpaid advisor to Avakov. The interior ministry press service said that “Korzh’s position [as advisor] expired in September 2018.”