Ukraine’s Elections Could Turn Violent—This is How to Prevent It
Tensions with Russia, criminal networks and far-right extremists raise the risk of violence
From September to December 2018, USIP conducted an election violence risk assessment to determine conflict dynamics ahead of Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. The full assessment report (forthcoming in February 2019) will identify conflict drivers and scenarios for violence. The assessment includes recommendations for diplomatic engagement, technical assistance, and targeted efforts to prevent election violence.
Primary Risk Dynamics
The five most important risks are either specific to the upcoming elections or highlight the vulnerable context in which they are organized.
- Spillover from the Donbas war. Ukraine has become the scene of great power conflict between Russia and the transatlantic alliance. Russia maintains a growing military presence near its border with Ukraine, and inside eastern Ukraine through proxy forces. The declaration of Martial Law by President Poroshenko in response to Russian attacks in the Azov Sea led to concerns that voter rights and civil liberties would be constrained, but so far these fears appear unrealized. Organizing elections amid an ongoing violent conflict creates unique security challenges, as it provides new targets for armed groups aiming to undermine political stability. The ongoing war also prevents five million Ukrainian voters in the annexed Crimea region and separatist-controlled areas of Luhansk and Donetsk from voting.
- Political criminal networks and far-right extremist groups. Election violence can serve a political purpose to ensure access to local politicians and law enforcement. Throughout Ukraine several non-state armed groups threaten political challengers to guarantee this access. Political criminal networks ran by oligarchs frequently act as spoilers and conflict entrepreneurs. Political candidates across the spectrum have their own covert armed groups or hire thugs (titushki) to intimidate voters and candidates.
Far-right extremist groups and volunteer military formations have an interest in presenting a physical threat to voters and candidates, ethnic or religious minorities, and left-wing, LGBTQ or human rights activists. Groups like the OUN Volunteer Movement (Волонтерський Рух ОУН), the Brotherhood (Братство), or C14 operate independently but can also be recruited for political purposes. Some maintain close ties with law enforcement and government officials, leading to a severe lack of accountability.
- Limited space for civil society and local opposition.Despite incremental progress, Ukraine remains an unconsolidated (partly free) democracy with limited space for civil society or local opposition. In recent months, there has been a record number of physical attacks on activists that have not been properly investigated. The death of Katerina Handziuk following an acid attack is the most publicized of over 50 cases in which activists and human rights defenders have been attacked in 2018. Negative campaigning against presumptive candidates is common, and political activists often delay the announcement of their candidacy, in fear of smear campaigns.
- Polarizing campaign amid a close and competitive race.The divisive nature of the pre-campaign period is concerning as it may escalate hate speech while radicalizing the electorate. Although, the overall acceptance of violence remains low, Ukrainians’ willingness to participate in violent street protests is growing. The outcome of the presidential election remains unpredictable, with few clear frontrunners and many undecided voters. This uncertainty may create fear of defeat or exclusion, raising the appeal of violence to tip the balance. The parliamentary elections are generally at higher risk, driven by local power struggles, reduced international attention, and eagerness to compensate for losses in the presidential vote.
The creation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent from Moscow, raised tensions that may escalate into violence mobilized along religious lines. Concerns about internally displaced persons, Hungarian and Roma communities in Ukraine, and the sizeable Russian minority, acting as either instigators or victims of election-related violence, seem overstated.
- Strong but vulnerable institutions. The performance of law enforcement agencies, the Central Election Commission (CEC) and local election authorities is critical in ensuring peaceful elections. These institutions possess the necessary capacity and professionalism to organize credible elections. However, a promising police reform, the introduction of modern election computer systems and pending improvements in the electoral law have done little to resolve a severe crisis of confidence in Ukrainian authorities.
Concerns about corruption and the politicization of police are important drivers of election violence. On September 20, the Ukraine parliament replaced 13 CEC members serving on expired terms. This left the commission with little time to adequately prepare and gain the trust of voters. The quality of the CEC’s interaction with the electorate and civil society, and the transparency of its decision-making will be particularly important if procedural irregularities or delays occur, fueling the perception that the contest was fraudulent.
Recent police reform has been a positive development that helps reduce the risk of election violence. Within the new structure, the National Police Force ensures general election security, while the National Guard serves as a back-up and covers announced demonstrations. General training has been provided on crowd control, de-escalation, and the use of force, but the police still lack election-specific procedures and strategy. Registered presidential candidates receive state protection, but local or parliamentary candidates do not receive adequate levels of protection, which deters would-be candidates from running. The perceived corruption and impunity creates a growing sense of injustice and voter apathy within the Ukrainian electorate. Voter frustration is compounded by perceptions of long-term economic decline.
Despite these challenges, the overall risk of high-level election violence remains low. Ukraine’s limited history of election violence and war fatigue reduce the risk of mass violence. Despite their limitations, civil society organizations, election authorities, and the police are further mitigating the risk of violence.
Scenarios for Violence
Systematic voter and candidate suppression presents the most likely form of violence with a significant impact on the election process and outcome. Thugs are commonly hired to reduce voter turnout and suppress candidates during the nomination and campaign process. Recent attacks against civic activists and journalists will likely broaden to include candidates that threaten political-criminal networks. Assassination attempts, arson attacks, and negative public relations campaigns against anti-establishment candidates and local party activists will increase as the campaign season officially starts on December 31 and may extend to local election officials as Election Day nears.
“Hybrid” Russian interference in Ukraine’s election process is inevitable. The Kremlin will stoke opposition against the Poroshenko government and candidates considered to be “pro-EU” through cyberattacks, disinformation, and other forms of hybrid warfare. The Kremlin has used local opposition parties, covert agents, biased media outlets, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and social media bots to spread rumors or conspiracy theories and undermine trust in Ukrainian institutions.
'Hybrid' Russian interference in Ukraine’s election process is inevitable.
Attempts to shape the election result and voter turnout or undermine the election integrity could escalate to the use of political assassinations, the sabotaging of key industrial or military targets, and major cyberattacks that cripple the CEC or district election commissions. Russia is already exploiting the split within the eastern Orthodox church to instill fear among followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and to antagonize parishioners. Hungary can also use its media channels to deepen tensions between the Hungarian and Ukrainian communities in western Ukraine—but, it is unlikely that these tensions will escalate to violent conflict.
Open military aggression by the Kremlin targeting the election process is unlikely, but needs to be considered. Moscow could justify expanded military operations in Donbas or the Sea of Azov by the alleged protection of ethnic or religious minorities or take the form of other violent actions, which spread fear, panic and distrust. Even in the government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, polling may be canceled, or voter turnout could be extremely low due to security concerns. However, overt Russian aggression would further strengthen anti-Russian sentiments and lower the electoral chances of those open to engagement with Russia, reducing the likelihood of this scenario.
Past elections in Ukraine have experienced several Election Day disruptions, aimed at intimidating voters and obstructing polling day procedures. On March 31, there will likely be isolated attempts to block access to polling stations, attempts to steal or destroy voting materials and infrastructure, and attacks against election officials, poll workers and observers.
There is a significant risk that post-election protests turn violent as supporters of the losing candidate express their anger at real or perceived election fraud, premature victory declarations, or the refusal to concede defeat.
Recommendations for Mitigating Election Violence
- Given the nature of the risk, the CEC and National Police are best positioned to prevent election violence in Ukraine. Adequate protection measures for all candidates need to be put in place to ensure equal access and safe participation in the political process for all political actors, poll workers, and observers.
- Police should coordinate with the CEC to design an elaborate election security plan, identifying hotspots and windows of risks throughout the election cycle. Additionally, election-specific training is needed for the police on the possible types of violence, including voter suppression, candidate intimidation and post-election protests. Tailored training for police, Ukrainian observers, and poll workers would strengthen the preventive capacity of law enforcement and reduce the risk of police violence.
- Ensuring a broad and long-term presence of international observers reduces the risk of violence. Expanded independent civic and voter education further empowers the electorate and increases knowledge about the voting process. Educational efforts will help strengthen voters’ ability to flag integrity challenges and counter disinformation.
Jonas Claes is a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he conducts research and analysis on the prevention of electoral violence. Artem Miroshnichenko is an independent research consultant in Kyiv, where he coordinates the USIP risk assessment. Previously, Artem led the Qualitative Methods Department at the Kiev International Institute of Sociology.