international analysis and commentary

Ukraine’s future: international pressures and the imperative of domestic consolidation

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The snap parliamentary elections held in Ukraine on October 26 have shifted the political spectrum of the country: the major political forces are now differentiated along the lines of their radicalism toward Russia instead of the usual pro-Russia vs pro-West divide that characterized political life in Kiev since 1991.

The results reflect Ukraine’s consolidation against what is seen as the aggressive external enemy, Russia, and toward what is seen as the cure for the country’s grave ills – integration with the European Union.[1]

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, de facto independence of substantial areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees from these territories have also contributed to the change.[2] Around 4.5 million voters from some of the most pro-Russian areas of the country were unable to vote, according to the Ukrainian Opora movement.[3] In addition, the turnout was the highest in the pro-Western areas, such as the Lviv region, and the lowest in the Eastern areas (with a stronger Russophone presence) that still remain under Kiev’s control.

The preliminary results show that the pro-EU political forces will get more than 300 of the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada. At the same time, not a single pro-Western force was able to earn an absolute majority and thus act as the center of gravity for the political system at large. This situation makes it increasingly likely that the scenario of the 2004 Orange Revolution, when its winners Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko put their personal ambitions above the country’s national interests, will repeat itself in one form or another. This time President Petro Poroshenko and Arseny Yatsenyuk (who will most likely remain Prime Minister) will be the likely contenders for the ultimate leadership in the country.

At the same time, most marginal and populist parties, such as Oleh Lyasko’s Radical Party and Oleh Tyahnybok’s Svoboda, achieved lower results than predicted by opinion polls, which demonstrates the increasing level of maturity among the country’s voters.

Despite widespread predictions, the pro-Russian Oppositional Bloc was able to take around 40 seats, winning elections in four eastern regions, coming in second in the Odessa and Nikolaev regions and third in the Kherson region. However, pro-Russian forces performed very poorly in the rest of the country, meaning that regional divisions are still sharp, even though the overall center has tilted toward the pro-Western majority.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will surely exploit these and other Ukrainian political vulnerabilities. Echoing the tactic that was used in the aftermath of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Moscow will use Ukraine’s internal cleavages in order to weaken the overall political system. In addition, Russia will use the influence it enjoys over the insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk regions as the ultimate bargaining chip. In case Ukraine moves too closely toward the EU, Russia can send more help to the insurgents or urge them to use violence, as it happened during their offensive in late August, which forced Poroshenko to strike a deal with the people who are universally labeled as “terrorists” in Ukraine’s mainstream political rhetoric.

This puts Poroshenko in a precarious situation – while he is pressured at home to adopt a more anti-Russian stance, he is also forced to compromise with Putin in order to fuel the Ukrainian economy with Russian gas and much needed relief from war.

Ukraine’s economy is in such bad shape that any improvement can only follow a period of severe austerity and painful adjustment. However, in a situation where the country is already one of the poorest in Europe, the absence of immediate results, delivered by the new pro-Western political majority, can turn many voters in the country away from it.

Discussions about how badly Ukraine needs economic reforms have already become trivial. The truth is that these reforms will inevitably produce pain and social grievances before producing positive results that ordinary people can feel. So far, major economic institutions expect the economy to shrink by 9% in 2014 and by a further 3% in 2015.[4]

This situation presents parallels with the fallout of the 2008 Five-Day war between Russia and Georgia. Despite the pro-Western political consolidation in Georgia, Russia was still able to use its influence on the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and thus remain a decisive factor in the domestic politics of Tbilisi. In 2012, moderately the pro-Western Georgian Dream political party of Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili replaced the United National Movement of Putin’s staunch critic Mikheil Saakashvili.

In light of this interesting precedent, it is no surprise that Moscow swiftly recognized Ukraine’s October 26 elections results.

In his recent speech at the Valdai discussion forum in Sochi Putin has demonstrated that he is willing to sacrifice significant economic opportunities – those that Russia has been deprived of due to Western sanctions – in order to maintain a firm stance over Ukraine. In other words, keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit will remain Putin’s first priority.

It was Viktor Yanukovych who won the 2012 presidential elections, eight years after a revolution in central Kiev had forced him to the opposition. It was also Yanukovych who promoted Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU, but was then ousted last February by three months of street protests in central Kiev for his decision to postpone it. It is now President Poroshenko who has decided to postpone the key trade provisions of the EU agreement until 2016 (having served in Yanukovych’s government in 2012 as Minister of Trade and Economic Development). In sum, Ukraine’s domestic politics and relationship with Russia remain as complex as ever, with no definitive and straightforward turn away from its past.

Ukrainian politics can take similar unexpected turns also in the future and the country’s biggest challenge – the creation of a robust and independent political system – was not overcome by the recent parliamentary elections. Against this backdrop, the stronger Ukraine’s political institutions will be, the less vulnerable the country will be to the Kremlin’s pressure. In any case, Ukraine is too vital to Russia (for a mixture of cultural, economic and geopolitical reasons) for any government in Moscow to give up efforts of exerting some influence over Kiev. This would be true even without President Putin in power, regardless of the amount of Western pressure.

 


[1] 67% of Ukrainians outside the Donbass area believe Russia is the biggest threat facing the country: http://www.ifes.org/~/media/Files/Publications/White%20PaperReport/2014/2014%20Ukraine%20Survey%20Key%20Findings

[2] http://www.unhcr.org/540590ae9.html

[3] http://oporaua.org/

[4] http://www.ebrd.com/pages/news/press/2014/140918e.shtml