Ukraine’s Old Bag of Tricks

Parliamentary Elections Highlight Inequalities of Power and Influence

On October 28, 2012, millions of Ukrainians went to the polls to elect their new representatives to the country’s parliament — and to deliver their verdict on the performance of the ruling Party of Regions and its leader, President Victor Yanukovich. Definitive results would not be available until some two weeks after the elections – Ukraine uses a complicated hybrid system of apportionment, involving both single-mandate districts and proportional representation from party lists – but, as polls closed and counting began, officials reported a likely win for Yanukovich and the PR. The close second-place finisher was the Fatherland Party, led by the imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Two anti-establishment parties – the former boxer Vitaly Klitschko’s Punch coalition and the nationalist right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) Party – also made substantial gains.

Words come to blows in a session of Parliament in Kiev. The opposition parties protest a bill proposed by the ruling party that would make Russian an official state language along with Ukranian.

Going into the elections, Yanukovich and the PR benefited from a number of structural advantages. As the party in power, they played on regional and linguistic divisions, drafting and promulgating controversial legislation that permits the use of Russian – the language spoken by many of their most ardent supporters — in certain official contexts. In November 2011, they passed an electoral law that may make it even easier for incumbent and incumbent-affiliated candidates to win and keep seats in Parliament. A delegation of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed concern about the overall fairness of the campaign process. Writing in their Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, the observers reported that the elections “were characterized by the lack of a level playing field, caused primarily by the abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing, and lack of balanced media coverage.”

This flawed process unfolded in an exceptionally polarized political context. In the autumn of 2011, Ukrainians witnessed an extraordinary legal spectacle: Yulia Tymoshenko, who served as prime minister until her loss to Yanukovich in the 2010 presidential elections, was arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to seven years in prison for failing to secure advantageous prices for Ukraine during negotiations over the sale of Russian gas to the country’s utilities. (Her trial was widely condemned as a politically motivated power play; she is now receiving treatment at a hospital in Khar

kiv for injuries sustained in prison earlier this year.) Tymoshenko’s supporters, incensed at Yanukovich’s harsh treatment of his rival, staged passionate protests in the heart of Kiev and turned out in force to support her party on Election Day. Tymoshenko herself, having been banned from politics for seven years as a condition of her sentence, was entirely excluded from the electoral process. Her trial is significant, according to Alexander J. Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, because it “persuaded the opposition that compromise with the PR and Yanukovich is impossible. They believe the regime is playing for keeps and will do everything it can to destroy, perhaps even physically, the opposition.”

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The battle between Tymoshenko and Yanukovich is an old one. In November 2004, Yanukovich was accused of attempting to steal a presidential election that pitted him against Victor Yushchenko, a moderate, pro-European, Ukrainian-speaking ally of Tymoshenko’s. As early vote counts came in, indicating that Yanukovich had eked out a narrow victory, Yushchenko’s supporters flooded Kiev’s Independence Square in the tens of thousands to protest an electoral process widely criticized as unfair and unreliable. A tent city sprang up in the square, as protesters, dressed in orange to show their support for the opposition, demanded the recognition of Yushchenko’s victory.

The peaceful “Orange Revolution” succeeded: Yushchenko was declared the winner, and he asked Tymoshenko, who had addressed protesters on the square on his behalf, to serve as his prime minister. By 2008, their coalition had collapsed amid recriminations and accusations of corruption. The government was condemned as ineffective and divisive. Many of the younger Ukrainians I spoke to at the time, who remembered the Orange Revolution with great pride, told me that they had given up on politics, that the government they had willed into being had failed them.In 2012, this disaffection fed the anti-establishment vote that boosted Svoboda over the 5 percent threshold for representation in parliament. The party is blatantly xenophobic and vocally anti-Semitic; the 10 percent of the vote it received after early counting alarmed observers in Ukraine and abroad. Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that many Ukrainians worry not only about Svoboda’s rhetoric, but about the possibility that its empowerment could strengthen the ruling party’s claim to power.“Many local observers believe that the authorities allowed Svoboda to come through first in local elections, and now in the national elections, to create a more comfortable opposition for the ruling party,” she explained in an email. “With the approaching presidential elections in 2015, the authorities see a possibility of an old Ukrainian scenario – when the current president would run against a radical, and would most likely win.”

Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center of Political Studies and Conflictology, linked Svoboda’s rise to its recent alignment with some of the country’s vested political and media interests. The party’s vote share, he wrote, has increased due to “the power’s information support, which over the last year secured the presence of Svoboda’s speakers on major political programs and talk shows on TV channels controlled by oligarchs close to power.” In the current context, he added, “simple decisions and aggressive rhetorics appeal to the electorate, who were negatively disposed against power.”

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After his election in 2010, Yanukovich took steps to bring Ukrainian policy into closer alignment with Russian economic and security interests. His government’s relationship with the EU – to which Ukrainians once had hopes of acceding — has soured dramatically since Tymoshenko’s trial. The recent election has left him with a slightly reduced majority in Parliament and a set of important choices to make: does his country’s future lie with Europe or with Russia? Is the purpose of government the service of the people or the defense of individual interests? Finally, and crucially, are elections to be manipulated, their results treated as foregone conclusions, or are they to be honest contests between parties with competing visions of Ukraine’s future?

Charlotte Storch is a sophomore in Pierson College

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