Ukraine’s elections: Escaping politics as usual?

The Ukrainian parliamentary elections on 26 October seem to have resulted in at least a partial reboot of the political system.

Andrew Wilson
Senior Policy Fellow

The Ukrainian parliamentary elections on 26 October seem to have resulted in at least a partial reboot of the political system. The new governing coalition is expected to be made up of three pro-European parties, and it should have a comfortable majority. But the voting also revealed the growing tension between the old and the new Ukraine.

To pessimists like Katya Gorchinskaya, deputy chief editor of the Kyiv Post, the elections “confirm that it’s still business as usual in the political scene. We could already see that in the economy. Now we can see it in politics too.” President Petro Poroshenko’s party, the Poroshenko Bloc, had few qualms about who flocked to its banner, with “too many manoeuvrers and conformist businessmen”, according to the political scientist, Olexiy Haran. Many of these new members allegedly paid for their places on the party list. The TV channels owned by the leading oligarchs showcased the latest fashion for “proxies”, or fake experts, and “ordinary Ukrainians”, which nearly all the parties used to attack each other.

The voting also revealed the growing tension between the old and the new Ukraine.

An appetite for change

The original revolutionaries and civic activists from the Maidan protests underestimated their chances for electoral success and scrambled for places on the mainstream parties’ lists. But the first big surprise of the elections was that their natural supporters saw little reason to vote for a few good guys surrounded by the same old faces. So instead, Ukrainians gave a big vote to the newest party, Self-Help, which came third, and to Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Popular Front, after it shifted its campaign tactics and made a clever last-minute appeal for the prime minister to keep his job in the face of the president’s schemes to replace him. The Popular Front’s spectacular rise in the polls pushed the Poroshenko Bloc into second place.

Now that the elections are over, the civic activists say that the gloves are off. They held off on criticising the government while the war in the east was still hot. But they will only keep silent now if the fighting flares up again – even if they form part of the new government. Their priority is real “lustration” – the local word used for purging the old guard from the system. First in their sights is Poroshenko’s do-nothing General Prosecutor Vitaliy Yarema, who has been a victim of the activists’ current favourite tactic of using drones to film the houses of mysteriously opulent politicians.

Now that the elections are over, the civic activists say that the gloves are off.

The civic activists are joined in parliament by more than 20 veterans of the war in the east. Too much is made of the threat of their leading a “new Maidan”. According to Haran, “this is Russia’s preferred scenario” and “most veterans are realists”. But even so, they represent a martial mood that is little understood in the West. Only a handful of them are prepared to fight Russia directly and without Western support. However, most believe that they would have beaten the separatist forces on their own, if Russia had not intervened to back up the rebels with regular forces or if the West had done more to stop Russia. The veterans argue strongly for the right to a continued muscular defence, especially since the borders of the rebel republics in East Ukraine are neither secure nor stable.

The campaign also saw the idea of “self-help” replace Ukraine’s earlier search for a Messiah to solve its problems. The generation of protestors from the Orange Revolution in 2004 now regret putting all their faith in the man they installed as president before they went home. This time, the protestors kept their distance from traditional politicians, trying instead to organise a “leaderless revolution”. Only former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko stayed stuck in Messiah mode, and her party barely managed to exceed the minimum 5 percent of the vote needed for representation in parliament.

The campaign also saw the idea of “self-help” replace Ukraine’s earlier search for a Messiah to solve its problems.

The elections pitted real patriotism against fake. The populist Oleh Lyashko ran a noisy campaign full of simplistic slogans and solutions, promoted on oligarchic TV by his party’s alleged secret business sponsors. But he saw his bubble deflate, if not fully burst – his party’s 6 percent share of the vote was only half of what earlier polls had predicted.

So, the new coalition has a majority to enable it to take decisive action, and it has no excuses for not acting. But the new culture of transparency, the Internet, and new technology activism will still conflict with the old culture of hidden deal-making. The latter may be good for striking compromises with Russia, but the former will be needed to revive Ukraine’s moribund economy.

But the new culture of transparency, the Internet, and new technology activism will still conflict with the old culture of hidden deal-making.

The Russian stake

Another paradox of the elections is that many odious supporters of the old regime were elected in the “liberated areas” in the east. The Opposition Block won almost 10 percent, despite being more openly pro-Russian than the old ruling Party of Regions of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. According to Haran, “Putin is still interested in seeing how big a Fifth Column he can get in the parliament”. But paradoxically, this may in fact be a good thing, if it means that Russia backs off other forms of pressure, such as direct military action or cutting off Ukraine’s gas supply. It may also be useful for the new government to have a clear enemy against which to mobilise. However, Russia may not stick with this strategy for long, if it realises it only has a minority share in Ukrainian politics, rather than a blocking veto.

Russia also appears more sensitive to costs as Western sanctions begin to bite. Moscow is aware that attacks on the rest of Ukraine from the rebel republics could not be easily disguised. But such attacks remain an option, and the picture could change again in a week. The rebel republics boycotted the vote and will hold their own “elections” on 2 November, after which it is far from clear whether it will still be worthwhile or possible to hold the local Ukrainian elections in the Donbas agreed for 7 December in the cease-fire agreements. If the elections cannot be held, the agreements might unravel.

Ukrainians are war-weary, but they still want the right to fight.

The West, meanwhile, is struggling to play catch-up, or is simply too distant to understand what is going on. Ukrainians are war-weary, but they still want the right to fight, or at least to deter the rebel republics from further attacks on or destabilisation of the rest of Ukraine. Western talk of Russia’s “legitimate interests” in Ukraine looks absurd confronted with the sheer brazenness of Russia’s interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs on the ground. And the West seems unable to understand Russia’s zero-sum thinking. The European Union clearly erred in delaying the implementation of its trade agreement with Ukraine to pacify Russia before the elections. Russia simply pocketed the concession and moved on: now it wants to renegotiate the agreement itself. But most important of all, admirable though the slogan of “self-help” may be, the West should support the new government. Even if the government has the best of intentions, and even if these intentions are matched by good deeds, Russia has the power to trump any progress if it is not deterred.  

Andrew Wilson’s latest book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West was published on 14 October, as both paperback and e-book. You can read an extract here, or listen to a podcast here.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Andrew Wilson
Senior Policy Fellow