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Transatlantic Task Force assesses Ukraine electorate’s mood, cyberthreats

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Orest Deychakiwsky, Jonathan Katz and Stephen Nix during the conference at the German Marshall Fund.

WASHINGTON – The Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine held its third international videoconference during which experts in Washington, Kyiv and Brussels characterized the upcoming March 31 presidential election in Ukraine as “unpredictable” and “wide open.”

The Transatlantic Task Force was established by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network (FOUN) and the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR) Ukrainian NGO coalition to support democratic, free and fair elections in Ukraine. At the conference on December 19, 2018, the Washington moderator and FOUN Democracy and Civil Society Task Force co-chair Jonathan Katz (senior fellow, German Marshall Fund) reminded the audience that the broader goal of the trans-Atlantic initiative is “to better institutionalize the engagement of civil society in Ukraine with U.S. and European policy makers, opinion makers, think tanks and civil society organizations that are focused on Ukraine and focus on Ukraine’s transatlantic integration” and democracy. And he expressed hope that whatever the outcome of the election the next government “will be committed to the reform path that’s… necessary for Ukraine’s democracy” and “economic growth.” 

In his opening remarks, FOUN Democracy and Civil Society Task Force Co-chair Orest Deychakiwsky set the tone for the discussion with questions about the electoral prospects of pro-Russian candidates, the impact of the creation of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and the possibility of a serious challenge to incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from a “reformist bloc” presidential candidate.

Offering a snapshot of voter sympathies in Ukraine based on polling conducted in late September and early October 2018 was Stephen Nix of the International Republican Institute (IRI). In that poll, Ms. Tymoshenko had the support of 17 percent of likely voters with Mr. Poroshenko, Volodymyr Zelensky, Anatoliy Hrytsenko and Yuriy Boyko Mr. Nix characterized the presidential election as “a wide-open race.” He mentioned that IRI will conduct more polling early in 2019 that should provide additional insights as the election date draws closer.

Mr. Nix also explained that this large cohort of undecided voters is made up mostly of women voters residing in central and western Ukraine. He suggested that two recent news events may influence their choice: the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (promoted by President Poroshenko) and Russia’s attack on and seizure of Ukrainian naval ships and their crews in the Black Sea as they tried to pass through the Kerch Strait. Although economic issues have been a dominant concern among the electorate, the Orthodox Church and Black/Azov Sea issues may be “changing the dynamic” and could have a “tremendous effect” on the campaigns and likely “are going to move these undecided numbers,” he said.

Mr. Nix said he expects that these undecided women voters are not going to be voting for a pro-Russian presidential candidate. And he also noted that pro-Russian parties in Ukraine have failed to coalesce around a single candidate, which means any such presidential hopeful is highly unlikely to make it into the second round. (If no candidate wins “50 percent plus 1” in the first round, the top two candidates will compete in a second round on April 21.)

Still, the biggest challenge for Ukraine’s incumbent according to the IRI poll is that 71 percent of those surveyed feel that the country is moving in “the wrong direction.” On a positive note, Mr. Nix noted that as decentralization takes hold, there are indications that voters are feeling some optimism about reforms at the local level.

In her introductory remarks, Kyiv moderator Olena Prokopenko of the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR) characterized the audience that had gathered at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center as mostly “diplomatic,” including representatives of the European Union delegation, U.S. Agency for International Development, NATO, the embassies of Germany, Great Britain, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and others, as well as journalists. She noted that more than 10 Ukrainian NGOs have joined the Transatlantic Task Force election initiative.

The keynote speaker in Kyiv was Iryna Bekeshkina, director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation. Her organization’s polling results were similar to those of IRI, with several candidates virtually tied for second place, but with Ms. Tymoshenko enjoying a somewhat smaller lead. Having been engaged in analyzing all of Ukraine’s past elections, Ms. Bekeshkina said: “There has never been an election as unpredictable as this one.”

She also noted that Ukraine’s election environment is being impacted by lackluster economic growth and insufficient anti-corruption efforts, unrealistic populist slogans, Russia’s hybrid war in the Donbas, and Moscow’s interference in the election campaign through discrediting certain candidates and financially supporting others. Mr. Poroshenko is Russia’s least favorite candidate, she said.

Ms. Bekeshkina called on Ukrainian NGOs, analysts and journalists to unite and to pose “tough questions” to the candidates regarding how they will fulfill their promises and to critically analyze the candidates’ proposals and inform citizens when they are being “duped.”

Speaking from Brussels, Svitlana Kobzar of the European Endowment for Democracy drew comparisons between the current campaign and the May 2014 presidential election, which took place soon after the Euro-Maidan. Back then, Mr. Poroshenko had wide national support and won in the first round. Today, “we don’t have that unity,” she said. After the Maidan there was a “certain credit of trust from society,” even a willingness to sacrifice for longer term benefit – but that has been replaced by “huge distrust” and “pessimism.” 

Ms. Kobzar noted that, although some agents of change were elected to Parliament and did push through some reforms, their small numbers made it hard to meet society’s expectations and hopefulness about their influence has also now dissipated. She views the unpredictability of Ukraine’s elections as a cornerstone of the country’s democratic process but also recognizes that it is very difficult for any new candidate to enter the playing field of the campaign without the approval of oligarch-owned television channels that can block a politician’s access to their mass TV audiences.

The moderator at the Brussels venue was Bruno Lete of the German Marshall Fund.

Also in attendance in Washington were Ambassadors Alexander Vershbow (Atlantic Council) and William Taylor (U.S. Institute of Peace), both of whom are members of the Friends of Ukraine Network. They took a moment to address the Western response to Russia’s November 25, 2018, attack on and seizure of Ukrainian ships and their crews in the Black Sea. 

Ambassador Vershbow expressed concerns about a lack of sufficient deterrent action, noting that neither the U.S., the European Union nor NATO “are really doing anything concrete to impose costs on the Russians” and that an “inadvertent green light may be being flashed at Putin” regarding escalation of the aggression against Ukraine. 

Ambassador Taylor also called for stronger measures and “actions, not just words,” arguing that “we have the authority to take some actions that would stop Nord Stream 2,” the new gas pipeline that will link Russia and Germany. (Ambassador Taylor participated in a recent National Democratic Institute assessment of Ukraine’s pre-election environment).

The previous Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine roundtable was held on November 3, 2018 – just days after Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea – and focused on the U.S. and international response to this provocation as well as efforts to address cybersecurity threats to Ukraine’s upcoming elections. 

During that session, Mr. Deychakiwsky, former senior policy advisor with the Helsinki Commission, emphasized that it is Russia “that poses the existential threat to Ukraine” and that a successful election will be one that not only reduces vulnerabilities to cyberattacks and disinformation but one that is also free, fair, open and transparent. “Given Russia’s latest act of aggression an election that meets international democratic standards is arguably now more important than ever,” he said.

Thomas Chanussot, Global Technology and Cybersecurity Advisor to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) described improvements in election systems technologies and training for the Central Election Commission (CEC) and other election stakeholders in Ukraine with the participation of international experts. Commenting on IFES collaboration with the CEC, he said: “I think the CEC now is in a much better situation than it was only a few months ago. There are a lot of actions and activities that are starting that are going to greatly reinforce their capacity to absorb the [cyber]threats.”

Referring to cyberattacks in the 2014 elections Mr. Chanussot said that the response can’t be limited to just new equipment but must include new approaches: “How do you communicate with the public if your website is down? Do you use other channels, do you use Facebook, Twitter, other news outlets? You need to plan for the worst. Even if you try to improve your defenses it might not be enough.”

He went on to describe the joint exercise that IFES conducted with commissioners and representatives of the communications, IT and operations departments of the CEC: “The idea of the simulation is to basically simulate an election day and inject cybersecurity events. They could be really simple tweets from a political party or… cyberattack on critical infrastructure.”

Mr. Chanussot explained that the goal this time was not to simulate an attack on the technology: “Here we really wanted to work on the group dynamics, on the communication plan, and to make sure that everybody understands the role and the impact that an attack has basically on everybody’s job… It’s not enough to have the IT department respond to an incident… The commission needs to communicate on it to the public. That is the message that we wanted everybody to understand.”

The other keynote speaker was Olha Aivazovska, chair of the Board of the Civil Network Opora, a leading NGO for public oversight and advocacy in the field of elections and democratic governance. Besides expected attacks on the CEC’s website and databases, Ms. Aivazovska warned that the online accounts of journalists, civil society and candidates will be under attack. Therefore, there needs to be an effort to strengthen the personal online security culture in Ukraine. “Private security or security of political stakeholders” on the one hand and institutions like the CEC on the other, “which will be managing the campaign, are on the same level” of importance, she stressed. This can include such straightforward measures as individuals in Ukraine not using the Russian e-mail service provider. And it’s important not just to focus on Kyiv, because many of the vulnerabilities to hacking are in the regions.

Ms. Aivazovska emphasized that one of the biggest risks in the upcoming Ukrainian elections is that information from the e-mail accounts of candidates, their campaigns or other stakeholders will be hacked, manipulated and disseminated in the media – not unlike what occurred in the 2016 U.S. election. “I think that we do not have enough skills or… experience [regarding]how to protect people’s minds… against propaganda or disinformation or how to develop critical thinking,” she said, alluding to the issue of consumer media literacy.

Another challenge for election monitoring organizations like Opora involves advertising algorithms in online platforms. Ms. Aivazovska said that the upcoming campaign in Ukraine will feature the highest level ever of political advertising in social media. It’s very difficult to monitor the content and distribution of this advertising because the messages are visible only to those who are targeted and not readily available in the public domain. Ukraine would benefit greatly from Western help in monitoring and analyzing election-related messages and their distribution in social media to better understand and respond to this new form of “electoral engineering” she said, adding that having a Facebook office in Kyiv would also be helpful.

As for the work of the Central Election Commission, Ms. Aivazovska said that the hacking incidents of 2014 were never transparently prosecuted and this undermines the credibility of the election process. Ms. Aivazovska was critical of what she described as the initial lack of openness of the new slate of CEC commissioners (appointed in September 2018) but that the situation has now improved, thanks to better engagement with NGOs and livestreaming of CEC meetings. Transparency of the CEC is crucial, she said, in order to legitimately withstand criticisms that often arise from the losing side in an election.

The Ukrainian Weekly