Lessons from Ukraine for Trump | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 18.08.2016
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US elections 2016

Lessons from Ukraine for Trump

US presidential candidate Donald Trump's Russian and Ukrainian ties have come under increasing scrutiny, as have those of campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort worked for the Ukrainian government deposed in 2014.

In early 2005, Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov reached out to Paul Manafort, a highly-regarded American consultant and lobbyist, who had occupied top spots in a number of US presidential campaigns.

Akhmetov - estimated by Forbes to be worth around $3 billion - made his name as one of the most ruthless players in Ukraine's cut-throat metals and mining industries, but now he uncharacteristically found himself in a position of weakness. The political party that he supported and helped financed, the Party of Regions (POR), was in many voters' eyes a thoroughly discredited organization and was taking a nose-dive in the polls.

During presidential elections a few months earlier in 2004, Ukrainians occupied Kyiv's main Independence Square, over accusations of widespread voting fraud and Russian manipulation in the contest. The demonstrations, known as the Orange Revolution, ultimately overturned the initial vote, which the POR's candidate Viktor Yanukovych had won, and delivered the presidency to his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko.

Manafort, through his Washington lobbying firm, took the job and accomplished what many considered impossible. Just one year later, after their resounding presidential defeat, a rebooted POR won parliamentary elections, and shortly after Yanukovych became prime minister.

Ukraine represents the longest sustained political project Manafort worked on outside America. Besides the 2006 parliamentary vote, he crafted Yanukovych's eventual successful bid for the presidency in 2010, and helped the POR in other electoral contests.

An Orthodox priest prays between police and protestors at the scene of anti-government protests during the Orange Revolution in Kyiv in winter 2013/1014

Manafort says continued to work as a political consultant to Kyiv after the revolution

Demonstrations broke out again in Kyiv at the end of 2013 - this time against Yanukovych's growing authoritarian and kleptocratic government. More than one hundred people died in total during the protests, and Yanukovych fled for Russia. Manafort however stayed on as a political consultant, ending his work, he said, after the country's 2014 parliamentary elections.

How much of his Ukrainian experience can be applied to the Trump campaign? Superficially, there are similarities. Yanukovych, like Trump, is a candidate with a great deal of baggage, high negatives and in need of an image make-over. He is running against a woman with her own high negatives - as was the case with Yanukovych's presidential campaign against Yulia Tymoshenko in 2010.

For those who followed Manafort in Ukraine, the main lesson is that anything is possible.

"He's going to use everything in book - and out of the book," said one political consultant, who preferred to speak off the record. "Everything's on the table - nothing is sacred."

Lessons from Ukraine

In 2006, Manafort took Yanukovych - a wooden, thuggish, inarticulate candidate who was twice convicted of serious crimes in his youth - and turned him into something unexpected: someone resembling a statesman. He convinced the Ukrainian pol to discard his shiny, boxy suits and bouffant-style haircut and speak in concise, punchy soundbites.

Yanukovych's public appearances also became highly stage-managed events, overseen by an advance team of 20 to 30 Americans, with every element placing the candidate in a maximally flattering and easy to manage environment.

Viktor Yanukovych

Manafort's work for Yanukovych was like 'bringing electricity to a pre-modern society'

This covered every moment from Yanukovych's arrival to his departure (which sometimes could be accompanied by a storm of blue and white confetti - POR colors): the location, staging, and crucially, a receptive, positive crowd with whom he would interact.

Most of all, Manafort brought to the campaign extensive research and polling operations - and ironclad message control.

For Ukraine, Manafort's innovations were like "bringing electricity to a pre-modern society," according a Mustafa Nayyem, a prominent parliament deputy who earlier covered Manafort as an investigative journalist.

East vs. West

Aside from highly orchestrated, on-message campaigns, Manafort utilized another Western electoral technique that, while highly successful, may have rendered serious harm to Ukraine in the long run: introducing highly divisive wedge issues into an already split society.

The Yanukovych campaign played on opposition in the East toward joining NATO. This sometimes morphed into outright anti-Americanism. And the Yanukovych camp may have been behind anti-NATO demonstrations in the summer of 2006.

This tactic not only helped increase differences in Ukrainian society, but it also set of alarm bells in western capitals.

Ukrainian officials who worked with Manafort say the American had little to do with formulating this campaign issue. Nevertheless, he was a substantial member of the team. According to reports, US officials expressed unease over the tenor of the election campaign, but Manafort brushed these back.

Whether or not Manafort was responsible for Yanukovych's anti-western tone, he and his team treaded a very fine line in US-Russian relations. Though there were debates at the time in the western press over how pro-Moscow Yanukovych actually was, ties were strong between the Ukrainians and a number of Russian political players.

To be sure, some US officials appreciated having an American as a go-between with the Yanukovych apparatus. Manafort also helped craft policies that were designed to create a favorable reaction in Washington - such as engineering the removal of Ukraine's highly-enriched uranium.

"Do something so that the Americans would need you," one former Ukrainian official remembers him saying.

Police officers lead Yulia Tymoshenko of a courtroom in Kyiv in 2011

Manafort was apparently outspoken in opposition to Tymoshenko's imprisonment

And according to former government insiders, Manafort was an outspoken opponent of some of the Ukrainian leader's most controversial decisions, like Yanukovych's decision to pull out of an Association Agreement with the European Union, and jailing his main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko.

"He was categorically against putting her in prison," Anna German, one of Yanukovych's closest advisors, told DW. "And he was one of the few who supported me when I also argued against doing this."

Aggravating the divide

Manafort also played on fears that the Yushchenko government would marginalize or even outlaw use of the Russian language - a concern that had always been simmering in the background of Ukrainian politics, but which Manafort elevated to a major issue.

On one hand, this was just smart politics. Yanukovych was responding to the needs of the 20 percent or so of the ethnic Russians in the country, and perhaps mobilize Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians - most of whom live in eastern Ukraine. Also, not to use the language issue would have risked leaving it to some other political party to exploit.

"Paul is brilliant in connecting practical life issues with the fears and beliefs of the electorate," said one Ukrainian official who worked on the campaign.

"People in the East are afraid of the Ukrainian language," he said. "Talking about the language issue was a way for Yanukovych to show he cared."

Some warned at the time that this was playing with fire - that Ukraine didn't need even more contentious issues to grapple with, after the deep rifts left by the Orange Revolution.

The result of this strategy, they say, can be seen today in the deep mistrust many in the East feel towards the Kyiv government, and the support among a number of them for the pro-Moscow separatist fighters in the ongoing war in the Donbass region.

"This was an absolute evil for the country," said Mustafa Nayyem. "They speculated on the most dangerous questions."

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