Ukrainian Elections Turn the Wheel Again

Andrew E. Busch

October 1, 2007

Ukraine’s September 30 elections—called early by President Viktor Yushchenko when he dissolved the Supreme Rada in April—have shaken up the Ukrainian landscape yet again. The pro-western and pro-reform forces forged a narrow victory, quickly prompting a retaliatory move by Moscow. The latter highlights both the vulnerability of Ukrainian democracy and the importance of bolstering it. Facing a giant (and now very flush) neighbor with a renewed determination to convert longstanding cultural ties into political control, Ukraine cannot be certain that its democratic experiment will be given the space it needs to fully take root. On the other hand, if Ukraine succeeds in maintaining democratic norms and sovereignty, it can preserve its own dignity and serve as a beacon in the otherwise mostly gloomy world of former Soviet “republics.” Along with the Baltic states and Georgia, Ukraine offers a quirky but vibrant alternative to the authoritarianism taking ever deeper root in places like Belarus, Azerbaijan, and, of course, Putin’s Russia itself.
Some matters have been clarified by the election, while others remain obscured.

Overall, the “orange” forces made a big comeback from the defeat in the Spring 2006 parliamentary elections.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s strategy of campaigning hard throughout the country—even in the relatively pro-Russian East and South—paid off. If Yushchenko was a winner because prime minister Viktor Yanukovich was beaten back in his attempt to strip the president of his remaining power, Tymoshenko was an even bigger winner and is clearly in the ascendant. In the Spring, some polls showed Tymoshenko’s party (the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc) and Yushchenko’s party (Our Ukraine) both running close to 20 percent. On September 30, Tymoshenko won over 30 percent, Our Ukraine a bit below 15 percent.

Yanukovich’s party, the Party of Regions, remains the strongest single force in Ukraine, having won a plurality of about 34 percent. The red and pink coalition partners of Regions suffered. The Communist Party won only about 5 percent of the vote and seems destined to continue shrinking as a proportion of the electorate (though it won a slightly larger number of representatives than in 2006). The Socialist Party, which switched sides in 2006 to give Yanukovich his majority, was punished by voters, who almost certainly gave it less than the 3 percent required to obtain representatives (official results will be announced October 15). It is unclear whether the Socialists will be able to rebound.

While the elections clarified an important fact—an appeal to the people can successfully blunt untoward power grabs—one would be mistaken in seeing too much clarity in the elections.

For one thing, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko are both reputedly interested in running for president in 2009, meaning that their alliance—which fell apart once before, in 2005—will consistently operate under serious strain.

For another, despite the combined orange victory, the country remains closely divided, a fact not likely to change soon.

Whether from a genuine hope of serving as a national unifier, from ambition born of a desire to develop a counterweight to Tymoshenko within the government, or from fear of Russian pressure, Yushchenko is now pushing hard for a deal that might appoint Regions officials into lower level ministries as part of a “grand bargain.” If such a compromise is effected, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Regions simply obstructs anything the orange majority wants to do. Indeed, the most recent crisis was the result of such a grand bargain gone bad, the bargain struck when Yushchenko agreed to appoint Yanukovich prime minister in summer 2006.

To confuse matters more (or perhaps to unconfuse them?), Yanukovich himself and the Party of Regions in general recently adopted a tone that was much more European-looking than before. No one really knows whether this attitude adjustment was a temporary campaign tactic or an enduring shift in perspective.

Of course, no honest look at Ukrainian politics can neglect the importance of the frequently-shifting subterranean alliances of business elites, each aiming to advance their economic interests in shockingly straightforward ways. Sometimes politics has to do with principles or good policy, but sometimes it just has to do with who gets to control what ministry that is offering what new privatization sale of major assets. Consequently, election results, no matter how dramatic, can never tell more than part of the story.

Finally, the post-election announcement by Gazprom, the Russian gas-supplying giant, that it would cut off gas supplies to Ukraine unless Kyiv paid an alleged debt of $1.3 billion raises troubling questions about just how far Moscow will go to rein in what it sees as a wayward province. The announcement was, at the very least, a blunt warning signal, if it was not the beginning of long-term economic and political warfare.

Gazprom, however, may have handed free Europe a gift, if the latter is bold enough to take it. Imagine how dynamics in Ukraine might change if the United States and twelve European countries each ponied up $100 million—for many of the prosperous countries, a sum that represents mere pocket change—and loaned it to Ukraine on easy terms so Ukraine can pay Gazprom. Gazprom would have its $1.3 billion but no leverage, which is what it really wants; Ukraine would owe the West rather than Moscow; and Europe would have shown Gazprom that the democracies will stick together, that it is not indifferent to the fate of Ukraine, and that it can forge a united strategy to help the victims of Russian energy bullying. Such a lesson could pay more than $1.3 billion in dividends somewhere down the road.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He spent Spring 2007 teaching on a Fulbright grant in Kyiv.