Behind every presidential campaign is a political adviser. In the case of Ukraine, they are many and some of them come from Russia and the United States.
Behind every presidential candidate lurk paid political consultants – sometimes many of them, sometimes competing ones even within the same campaign. They tell the candidate how to dress, what to say during interviews and what messages to put on the billboard. Sometimes the candidates listen and sometimes they don’t.
Many of the 18 candidates running in the Jan. 17 election have opted for multiple teams of advisers who share responsibilities and manage aspects of the campaign. Some come from Moscow, others from Washington.
“This is not because Ukrainian politicians regard Ukrainian image-makers as incompetent,” said political analyst Ihor Zhdanov. “They just think foreigners are [more experienced], even if their understanding of the nature of Ukrainian voters is deficient.”
A lot of money gets raised, made and spent during elections. In Ukraine, with an election law that does not cap spending by candidates, major campaigns are expected to cost from $60-$70 million in the case of former Verkhovna Rada speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk and up to $100-$150 million or more for the two front-runners, ex-prime minister Victor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s current premier.
American Myron Wasylyk, managing director for The PBN Company, which has advised President Victor Yushchenko and his party, said fees vary ranging from $500,000 to $1 million for developing successful ideas or slogans.
Larry Grisolano, a U.S. political consultant from the AKPD Message and Media consultancy firm, which was hired to advise Tymoshenko, has been in the business for 25 years. The firm worked on U.S President Barack Obama’s campaign.
In a recent report by the Global Post newsletter, Grisolano confirmed that his company was hired to work for Tymoshenko. “We are just a small part of a large camp – we are not leading the campaign in any way,” Grisolano told the newsletter. He denied the company has been tasked with establishing closer ties between Tymoshenko and the Obama administration. He said they only act as campaign advisers.
Taras Berezovets, a Ukrainian adviser to Tymoshenko, said the Americans are responsible for polling, strategy and message development.
Tymoshenko chief consultant Oleh Medvedev and several parliament deputies are in charge of implementation of policies, Internet content, meetings with voters and other tactical issues. Some of these people – like deputy Vitaly Chepinoha – have worked with Tymoshenko in a similar capacity for more than a decade. A Russian consultant, Aleksey Sitnikov, president of the Russian company Image-Contact, is also on the team.
Whatever the labor division is, it seems to be working for Tymoshenko. Her campaign is considered smooth and talented, partly due to her personal gift of self-promotion and partly due to the work of her advisers.
“Tymoshenko gathered the most talented team of consultants with the most creative ideas, but she is not a product of political advisers. She listens to advice and then chooses her own strategy,” said Kost Bondarenko, head of the Gorshenin Institute for Management Studies and a former Yatseniuk adviser. “And she is a bright person. It contributes more to her popularity than a PR campaign.”
Russians rule the roost in Yatseniuk’s campaign now, evidently to his detriment, according to political analysts. Initially perceived as the new hope of Ukrainian politics, he had been gaining in the polls at least through spring, when he abruptly changed his consulting team and his image.
When his billboards first appeared around the country at the end of June, those looking for a young liberal were surprised. Instead, Yatseniuk was depicted as a military-style leader. Some think he's never recovered from his confused identity.
“It’s not that there were two different messages, but more like two diametrically opposed ones,” said the ousted Bondarenko.
Balazs Jarabik, an associate fellow at FRIDE think tank and country representative for Pact, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, said the whole campaign ideology has been completely wrong. “This military style: Nobody gets it!” Jarabik said. “Yatseniuk’s message should be: ‘I have ideas. I have energy. I’m different from the old guys, and I know it won’t be easy to make it happen, but I have the will.’”
Political consultant Volodymyr Fesenko blamed Russian political advisers and Ukrainian kingmaker Vladimir Granovski for Yatseniuk’s strange message.
“Yatseniuk used to be a person who could raise Maidans,” said Serhiy Taran, director of the International Democracy Institute, referring to the crowds during the 2004 Orange Revolution. “But now his campaign is inefficient. The reason for it is that incompetent people are working for his campaign.”
None of the major figures for Yatseniuk has a record of winning campaigns. Granovski worked for Yanukovych’s unsuccessful presidential election campaign in 2004, and a losing party in the 2002 parliamentary election.
Russians Timofei Sergeitsev, Dmitry Kulikov and Iskander Valitov also worked for ex-Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych in 2004. It is this trio which is credited for the creation of an extremely controversial cartoon that came out in the campaign depicting now-President Victor Yushchenko as a cowboy riding a horse over a map of Ukraine divided into the three grades, with the east rated as the lowest quality.
According to Ukrainian media reports, another Russian consultant, Alexander Blank, advised the For Kuchma bloc in the 2007 snap parliamentary elections, which failed to get into the Rada. The reports also allege he had previously consulted with Igor Bakai, a Ukrainian businessman and close ally of ex-President Leonid Kuchma who fled to Moscow when investigations started against him after the 2004 Orange revolution. Blank did not respond to Kyiv Post inquiries.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian side is represented by Yatseniuk’s personal friends from his hometown, Chernivtsi: Andriy Pyshniy, ex-deputy head of presidential administration and Andriy Ivanchuk, a businessman. Neither of them have extensive experience in political consulting.
The team’s inexperience and incompetence contributed to the sharp decline in Yatseniuk's support, which has halved from its highest point of about 13 percent in late spring.
“I don’t understand why somebody is hiring people who don’t have successful campaign records. Yatseniuk’s campaign is a complete misunderstanding,” Jarabik said.
Yatseniuk has not responded to Kyiv Post inquiries. But a member of his team said on condition of anonymity that his campaign’s official line is that the presidential candidate does not work with “political technologists.”
An American consultant who lost his previous U.S. campaign has since 2005 also advised Party of Regions leader and front-runner Yanukovych. Paul Manafort advised the ill-fated U.S. presidential campaign of John McCain. Ukrainian and Russian consultants are also involved, but the details of the campaign are not divulged. According to a 2008 U.S. Justice Department annual report, Manafort’s company has already received $63,750 from the Party of Regions over a six-month period ending on March 31, 2008, for consulting services.
Hanna Herman, an influential Regions parliamentarian, said: “We try not to involve a lot of consultants in election campaign at this juncture. If there are too many, they will create an image of the candidate that contradicts his character. And we want that voters see the unvarnished Yanukovych, with his advantages and disadvantages.”
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