TV commercials are a traditional way to kick off an election campaign. But the ones recently released by two of Ukraine’s top leaders were far from conventional.

President Petro Poroshenko is accused of tricking celebrities into starring in his new promotional video, while his ally, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, promoted himself using public service ads ran by his office on major TV networks.

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With both presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019, Ukraine’s leaders are in limbo. Poroshenko has yet to announce his bid for the second term, while his party, currently holding 136 seats in parliament, has reportedly been negotiating a union with their coalition partner People’s Front to join forces against the populist – and popular – Yulia Tymoshenko.

In these circumstances, it wasn’t surprising that political heavyweights like Poroshenko and Lutsenko sought to boost their image.

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Lutsenko’s self-promotion

The prosecutor general’s office in February ran television and radio ads showcasing its achievements. The videos aired as public service ads, free of charge. It came as a surprise to many people that the 15,000-member service, known for not solving any major crimes or corruption, had any achievements.

It appears that Lutsenko, who’s been serving as prosecutor general since May 2016, is using the job as a PR platform for his political future.

In early February, ICTV and 1+1 TV channels as well as FM radio stations started broadcasting daily the ads that end with the motto: “Implement the law, establish justice. Yuriy Lutsenko.”

The Kyiv Post found the ads, which aren’t available online, in the closed archive of TV advertisement adlogtv.com.

The compilation of the videos aired by a number of TV channels in February highlighted the prosecutor general’s office work. 

There are three versions of the ad which differ slightly. They say that the prosecutor general’s office “helped to recover more than Hr 44 billion” in confiscated assets and this money has been used to build new roads, strengthen state border and improve rural health services.

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“Lutsenko is the first prosecutor general to use the office so boldly for his own PR,” said Volodymyr Petrakovskyi, an expert with the Reanimation Package of Reforms, a Kyiv-based non-profit, and an ex-prosecutor himself.

It isn’t clear who and how much paid for the production of the ad. Petrakovskyi filed a request to the Prosecutor General’s Office about the cost of the ad but got no response yet.

ProZorro public procurement system lists no tenders by the prosecutor’s office related to video production. The prosecutor’s office did not reply to the Kyiv Post’s request for comment.

Lutsenko’s PR advisor, Oleksandr Cherevko, neither confirmed nor denied prosecutor’s office involvement in producing the ad, while Prosecutor General’s Office told Ukrainska Pravda website on Feb. 23 that the General Prosecutor’s Office “did not produce, or order the videos that are currently being broadcast on TV and the radio.”

“At the same time, the Prosecutor General’s Office is grateful to those who uploaded these videos because they showcase our positive work,” Lutsenko’s spokesperson Larysa Sargan was quoted as saying.

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Despite the prosecutor general’s office denying having anything to do with the videos, there are indications of its connections to this advertising campaign.

A program director at the public broadcaster Suspilne Daria Yurovska told Detector Media website that a local department of the prosecutor general’s office in Chernihiv Oblast tried to place the ads on Suspilne.

Journalist Khrystyna Berdynskykh later shared a letter from a Kyiv-based non-profit Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Association to Channel 24 asking to air the videos as public service ads.

The same organization has recently held a press conference accusing Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk of corruption. Danyliuk has been in conflict with Lutsenko, having in December demanded that Lutsenko retired.

Why the ads

Lutsenko is the first prosecutor general in Ukraine’s history to get this post with no law degree or any relevant experience. Instead, he had something else: an allegiance to Poroshenko, whose party he chaired.

After two years of Lutsenko’s leadership, critics say that he hasn’t offered any plan to reform the institution, but rather lobbied for the extension of the powers of prosecutors by limiting maneuvers for the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s office. High-profile political cases have been stalled or collapsed in the courts under Lutsenko.

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Iryna Bekeshkina, a leading Ukrainian sociologist and head of Democratic Initiatives Foundation, believes the ads won’t help the prosecutor’s office to change public’s perception of their work.

“Unless they start doing their primary job, prosecuting corrupt officials, it’s useless,” Bekeshkina says.

Petrakovsky’s colleague at the Reanimation Package of Reforms, Oleksandr Lemenov, believes the ads aim mainly to highlight the role of Lutsenko as Poroshenko’s loyalist.

“With the help of the ads, they try to change the perspective of Lutsenko because he would most likely return to politics, there’s no place for him in the prosecutor’s office,” Lemenov told the Kyiv Post. “It’s also a message that the prosecutor’s office works great under Poroshenko’s rule.”

Poroshenko’s ad backfires

Lutsenko was not the only one to seek some publicity this February.

What appeared to be an unofficial start of Poroshenko’s election campaign kicked off with a scandal.

Poroshenko’s ratings dropped significantly through the years due to lack of reforms.

According to the poll published by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in January, Poroshenko is supported by some 7.6 percent of Ukrainians, while his main competitor Tymoshenko is slightly ahead with 8.7 percent.

In late January, the Volyn regional administration uploaded to YouTube a promo video of Poroshenko.

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The initial version of a promo video of Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko featuring Ukrainian singer Anastasia Prykhodko.

The video featured various people, including high-profile Ukrainian military and celebrities, praising Ukraine. In its end, a slogan popped up: “Move forward. Petro Poroshenko 2018.”

The video went unnoticed until mid-February when one of the featured celebrities, singer Anastasia Prykhodko, stumbled upon it. She was shocked.

Prykhodko said that when she starred in the video she had no idea it was a Poroshenko promo.

The singer said that Culture Minister Yevhen Nishchuk asked her to do it, saying it was a public service ad. In the video, Prykhodko says: “Develop Ukrainian culture, listen to Ukrainian music – it’s trendy.”

Prykhodko publicly demanded that the video was removed or her part to be edited out of it. The Volyn regional administration deleted the video. There were witnesses’ reports that it started airing on TV which the Kyiv Post couldn’t confirm.

The culture minister’s press office said that the video has been edited so Prykhodko’s not featured in it.

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Ukrainian director Akhtem Seitablaev, who was featured in the video as well, said he also wasn’t told that he was participating in a political promo. He added though that he “wouldn’t have refused to be filmed” if he knew it was for Poroshenko.

The presidential administration said on Feb. 20 it all was a “communication problem.”

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