A Global Village
Issue 2

Elections in Ukraine

Eastern Europe or to Europe’s East?

Rupert Cabbell Manners, University College London

A question mark hangs over the future of Eastern Europe’s second largest state. Ukraine, once a satellite state of the Moscow-led USSR, has in recent years sought closer relations with the European Union; the membership to which it eagerly aspires would not only transform the balance of power within Eastern Europe, but also within the Union itself. Such a transformation, however, now seems likely to be deferred for some years. Besides the isolating force of the global recession, which has struck Ukraine with particular severity, the result of the 2010 Presidential election appears to promise a renewed fidelity to neighbouring Russia. 

Ukraine has always been wedged, both physically and politically, between competing powers. Ukraine’s cultural identity is founded upon its beginning as the Kyivan Rus, a Slavic empire that became the largest in Europe during the 10th and 11th centuries. This disintegrated in the 12th century and by the 19th century Ukraine was largely absorbed into the Russian Empire. The present state is its third attempt at independence from Russian rule in modern times, succeeding the Cossack Hetmanate of the 17th century and a brief period of rebellion during the period 1917-1920. Russian forces subsumed both states yet in 1922 Ukraine became a founding member state of the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s political autonomy is assured today yet the present state has, to an extent, internalised the historical conflicts of possession between East and West.

Ukraine has always 
been wedged between 
competing powers

The candidates for the 2010 Presidential elections have been defined, both within and outside Ukraine, by their ‘pro-Western’ or ‘pro-Russian’ identities. Such definitions may be seen as representative of Ukrainian attitudes to social change and democracy. Ukraine has been a functioning democracy since their Constitution of 1996, establishing institutions of free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Regardless, the influence of the industrial oligarchy has never been entirely removed, and the disproportionately great power of the office of President exacerbates the problem. The President, with his ratified choice of Prime Minister, controls the executive branch of government and holds a five-year term. Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, does have powers to initiate legislation and ratify appointments and treaties; however, strangled by the diverse coalitions necessary under Ukraine’s system of proportional representation, its voice is divided. Polls consistently register public mistrust of political parties at around 70%.

Ukraine held the second-round of its Presidential elections on February 7th 2010; the result seems to promise renewed ties with Russia over the coming years. Pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich emerged victorious, with 48.95% of the ballot to rival candidate West-backed Yulia Tymoshenko’s 45.47%. Despite the opposition’s various legal appeals, later withdrawn, Viktor Yanukovich was inaugurated on February 25th as the fourth democratically-elected President of Ukraine, albeit the first to win with less than 50 % of the vote.

A Tongue-Twisting Threesome
Three people have dominated Ukrainian politics in recent years: Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko. Mr. Yanukovich represents the ‘Party of Regions’, but is more widely known to the West as the Russian-backed candidate in the controversial Presidential elections of October 2004. Following the second round election a re-vote was ordered by the Ukrainian Supreme Court, prompted in part by widespread evidence of electoral fraud by second-round winner Mr. Yanukovich’s party and in part by peaceful mass demonstrations in Kiev, the nation’s capital. The so-called ‘Orange Revolution’, named for the colours of rival candidate Viktor Yushchenko, seemed to promise a more democratic, not to mention pro-European, future. Mr. Yushchenko’s scarred but victorious smile – he was allegedly poisoned with the dioxin TCDD in the months leading up the election – might well have summarised the mood in 2004.

By early 2010, however, the revolutionary enthusiasm of 2004 seemed to have waned. Mr. Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, former close colleague and Prime Minister under Mr Yushchenko, contested the second round election after Mr. Yushchenko failed to pass the first round of Presidential voting, scoring a meagre 5.45% of the vote. A bitter split having consumed the former allies, Mr. Yushchenko declared, somewhat gracelessly, that those 5% who had supported him in the first round vote should vote for neither candidate in the second.

There has been no suggestion of gerrymandering in this year’s elections, with all international observers declaring Mr. Yanukovich’s victory fair and legitimate. If those 5% had been added to Ms. Tymoshenko’s tally, the electoral figures would largely resemble those of 2004, reflecting a longer-term geographical divide in Ukraine’s vote. The northwest tends to vote for Western-leaning, reformist candidates, whereas the southeast inclines towards those candidates supported by the Kremlin. The outcome however favoured Mr. Yanukovich by a very slight margin, less than 4%.

Internal Manoeuvres
The new President’s first problem, ironically, has been the ousting of Ms. Tymoshenko from the office of Prime Minister. Unable to form a conventional coalition, he was forced to alter Ukrainian law thus allowing individual MPs to join his ‘Party of Regions’ coalition and effectively restoring Presidential powers ceded in 2004. The extra votes enabled him to install a loyal appointee, the Russian-born Nikolai Azarov. Mr. Yanukovich will, however, need to placate those MPs that defected to him and much internal horse-trading is expected to distract the new government from key tasks at home and abroad in the immediate future.

The new President’s first
problem, ironically, has
been the ousting of
Ms. Tymoshenko from
the office of Prime Minister

Both in the run-up to the election and now, during the establishment of a new government, the remarkable collapse of the Ukrainian economy has been centre-stage. The state had exposed itself to volatility in global markets by its aggressive borrowing; moreover, prices for its main export, steel, fell precipitously. The nation’s GDP plunged by 15% in 2009, prompting an International Monetary Fund bailout; the IMF then suspended lending in alarm at the extravagant election pledges of both candidates. Yet both candidates pledged, pragmatically, to defend the nation’s utility giants, the gas and oil oligarchies that supply Western Europe. A swift appointment was the greatest necessity for the ailing state. Yulia Mostoveya, Editor of the Ukrainian weekly Zerkalo Nedeli, notes that the new cabinet “resembles a board of directors for Ukraine, Inc.”

Russian Roulette
Rather than repeat the premature congratulations of 2004, Vladmir Putin dispatched the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, to bless Mr. Yanukovich before his inauguration. The Kremlin has just reason to celebrate, even if any kind of political or economic re-unification is firmly out of the question. Russian ambitions to maintain influence in the Caucasus have become increasingly evident over the past few years as the EU expands east. In 2008 Russia seized the initiative in the Black Sea region with the invasion of Georgia and, although it recognises the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as fully independent, it maintains forces along its borders. NATO, by contrast, has failed to renew membership negotiations with Georgia, despite that country’s aspirations for membership of both NATO and the EU. With the recent instalment of a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine, has the European Union lost an opportunity for influence in the region?

The EU has reacted with similar circumspection to Ukrainian enthusiasm for membership. In December 2008, it proposed an ‘Eastern Partnership’ with Ukraine, Moldova, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus, but both the Ukraine and Moldova were disappointed to be offered no provisional membership. Furthermore, they were not differentiated from other Eastern European nations, including the recalcitrant Belarus, often reviled as the continent’s ‘last dictatorship’. This modest step on the EU’s part was accompanied by conciliatory rhetoric.

‘The Cold War is over,’ declared José Manuel Barroso, then European Commission President, ‘and where there is no Cold War, there should be no spheres of interest.’ This is distinctively untrue of Ukraine, the pipeline nation for Russian gas exports and strategic hub for trade between Russia and the EU.

In the longer term, membership of the European Union remains attractive to Ukraine. However, a current reluctance amongst EU member states to expand eastwards will ensure that tentative diplomacy, rather than the more aggressive stance adopted by the Russians, will dictate European moves for influence in Ukraine. There is little doubt that the election of a Pro-Western Prime Minister in the upcoming Parliamentary elections is needed to rejuvenate discussions between Kiev and Brussels.

Rupert Cabbell Manners is a first year undergraduate at University College London, reading English Literature. He has also contributed to Pi Newspaper and Tengen Magazine.

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