An Interview with Mr. Orest Deychakiwsky
FF: You have served as an election observer in Ukraine in the 2004 presidential election that failed to meet various international standards of free and democratic elections. You were also an election observer during the first round of the recent presidential race in Ukraine in March 2019, which was assessed as competitive and free by the OSCE mission. In your opinion, what factors contributed to the increase in transparency of the Ukrainian elections over the years?
OD: Believe it or not, I have actually observed virtually every election in Ukraine since the 1990s. What I've seen is elections have generally improved, but frankly, none of them have been blatantly unfree and unfair, except for the first and second rounds of the presidential election in 2004, which actually led to the Orange Revolution. Besides those, all of them have to one extent or another been competitive and met at least partially international democratic standards. Now, some have been better and some have been worse. For example, the first round of these elections was among the best, if not the best that I have seen. It was free and competitive, which is something you certainly do not see in Russia, or Belarus, or many other post-Soviet countries. And whether one likes the results or not, these elections basically reflect the will of the people.
I think the post-Euromaidan civil society played a role in increasing the transparency of Ukrainian elections. That’s not to say that civil society didn't exist before the Euromaidan Revolution—it did, but only really flourished after the events of 2013-2014. Today you have civil society groups and domestic observers, like OPORA and others, who monitor the electoral process and even work with the government to help improve elections, so it has been a part of a broader trend, although there is still definitely room for improvement.
FF: Voter turnout in the first round of the 2019 Ukrainian presidential race was nearly 64%. Have you noticed any major differences in the demographics of the voters in 2019 when compared to other elections you have observed, specifically with regard to age?
OD: I do not know what the actual turnout in terms of age was. Overall older people tend to vote more, and I believe that was the case in this election too. However, from what I understand, younger people did come out to vote this time around and apparently, if I am not mistaken, more of them tended to vote for [presidential candidate Volodymyr] Zelenskiy. In the Mykolaiv region where I observed, there was a pretty good demographic balance if you will. There were just as many older people voting as there were younger people. But these are just my observations, and I certainly do not want to generalize.
FF: How would you describe the Ukrainian public’s moods and attitudes on the election day?
OD: The voting process was very calm, peaceful, and relatively stress free but obviously there is a lot of frustration in the country because otherwise Zelenskiy would not have done as well as he did. Frustration with the current administration and with President Petro Poroshenko more specifically is, in my view, not completely justified. Poroshenko is not without his shortcomings, especially in terms of the ability to battle corruption in the country. However, I would argue that he has been the best independent president for Ukraine. Frankly, I think if he would have done more on the anti-corruption front, he would have done much better and been in a much stronger position. So clearly, people are frustrated but I really did not see that manifested in my observations or from what I heard from talking with my colleagues.
FF: Let’s focus a little bit on the candidates this year: incumbent President Poroshenko and TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In the first round of the 2019 election, Zelenskiy received about 30% of the vote, followed by Poroshenko with about 16%. What, in your opinion, should the international community expect from the run-off on April 21? Can Poroshenko get ahead of Zelenskiy?
OD: I would frankly be very surprised if Poroshenko were able to get ahead of Zelenskiy, but you cannot rule anything out. However, even looking at current poll numbers, it does not look good for the President. If you look further at the data of regional breakdown of the votes and related trends, those people who voted for candidates other than Poroshenko and Zelenskiy are more likely to support Zelenskiy rather than Poroshenko in the run-off election on April 21. Perhaps, if there is a much-contested debate and Poroshenko really delivers a stellar performance, then that may make a difference.
As for the international community, most people in Washington, D.C., would prefer Poroshenko for he has done a very good job on foreign policy. Despite its problems militarily over the last five years, he has strengthened Ukraine, prevented Russia from making further incursions, and implemented some reforms. Poroshenko is respected by foreign leaders, but having said that, there is still a long way to go and a lot of room for improvement.
However, the way it works is the United States will respect the will of the people and if Zelenskiy is elected president, the U.S. will work with him as much as possible. These elections showed Ukraine's commitment to democracy and that is very important. No matter the results. It means Ukraine is moving in the Western democratic direction and not in in the direction of Russian autocracy.
FF: How do you assess the Ukrainian people’s understanding of Zelenskiy’s platform? Was this purely a protest vote?
OD: I think that is exactly right. Zelenskiy is a big unknown, a big gamble, and that is another reason why there is a bit of a caution about him in the West because he is to some extent a tabula rasa. He has certainly said some things here and there, but there is no concrete policy platform, yet it doesn’t really matter. The Ukrainian people signified that they are fed up and see Poroshenko as a part of the problem. They perceive Poroshenko as being a part of the old corrupt Ukraine, rather than the new Ukraine, where the rule of law is respected. People also especially have more expectations after the Euromaidan protests, and not all of those hopes have come to fruition. I am convinced that if Poroshenko would have moved more on the anti-corruption front in terms of strengthening the newly formed anti-corruption institutions, and if he would have been more resolute on an independent judiciary, he would not have been in his current situation.
FF: Has there been any fear in Ukraine or any indication of potential election meddling?
OD: There was a lot of fear beforehand and in the first round. Russian propaganda against Ukraine was certainly relentless, but that has been going on for a while, not only during the election cycle. The Russians were mocking the elections coming up with all sorts of fake news about all sorts of violations, and either exaggerating or telling outright falsehoods about our electoral process. However, it appears that they did not actually hack into anything, unlike in the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election. Also, with the West’s help, the Central Election Commission of Ukraine had established all sorts of systems to prevent election interference.
FF: Turning to your experience as a Former Policy Advisor for Belarus, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, how do you think that potential change in Ukraine’s leadership will change U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine?
OD: That is a good question. I think the United States is about policies and principles. So, they will keep supporting Ukraine and encouraging it to move in the right direction of being a democratic, strong, secure, and independent country. The United States is not going to abandon Ukraine, especially given Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine, with the annexation of Crimea and the proxy war in parts of the Donbas. They are probably going to try to help Ukraine maintain its sovereignty as much as possible, and help try to come up with a reasonable resolution to this war by continuing to provide assistance to Ukraine whether socially, economically, or militarily. However, the enthusiasm of this support may change if Ukraine finds itself under a new leadership—one that might see the country stop moving in the right direction in terms of democracy, anti-corruption, and rule of law.
Courtesy of spoilt.exile / Flickr
Orest Deychakiwsky worked at the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), an independent U.S. government agency, from November 1981 to May 2017. His country responsibilities throughout most of his tenure included Ukraine, Belarus and Bulgaria. Other country responsibilities, for shorter durations, included Romania, Moldova, Hungary. Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he served as casework supervisor, overseeing Soviet and Romanian emigration and family reunification cases and worked on Soviet political prisoner and other human rights issues. For many years, at varying times, he also held the positions of Intern Coordinator, NGO liaison, and Security Officer.
Orest has observed nearly three dozen elections in nine countries, mostly as a member of U.S. delegations to OSCE Parliamentary Assembly international election observation missions. He took the lead or assisted in the drafting of Congressional bills, resolutions, speeches and authored many Helsinki Commission and other publications.
Currently, Orest is Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and a Senior Advisor at the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council. He is Co-Chair of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) Democracy and Civil Society Task Force. He writes a periodic column called “Focus on Washington” for The Ukrainian Weekly.
Orest is the recipient of Ukraine’s State Order of Merit III Degree and several awards from the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine and Embassy of Ukraine to the United States, and an award from the Government of Bulgaria. He is also the recipient of various awards for his work from several organizations dealing with Ukraine and U.S-Ukraine relations, as well as from the Belarusian-American diaspora.
Orest’s education earned him a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame and an M.A. from Georgetown University in Government and International Relations. He speaks fluent Ukrainian and has a good working knowledge of Belarusian and Russian.