“The Pendulum Swing” of Ukrainian democracy

The aftermath of the parliamentary elections showcased the “relapse” of authoritarianism in Kiev. If the EU wants to support democracy in its troublesome Eastern neighbour, it will have to make amends to its policies.

Disclosure: Ievgen Vorobiov is a Ukrainian national, who studied International Politics in Maastricht (The Netherlands) and works in Brussels (Belgium).

For the past 20 years, the politics in Ukraine have resembled the movements of a pendulum. The device would swing from authoritarianism to democracy, and back. It appeared to shift slowly between Russia and the West in its foreign policy cycle, yet never to get stuck in any of those poles. The parliamentary elections on 28 October have marked the counter-democratic phase of the pendulum lifecycle, thus posing an uneasy dilemma for the EU and the US. 

No country for ordinary men

The context of these elections predetermined many of its rather perplexing outcomes. In the poor country, eight billionaires own over 20% of the whole economy, after having comfortably divided control of all the major sectors. With an average monthly salary of about 230 euro and historic burden of totalitarianism, human rights (both economic and political) are often just a figure of speech. All the mainstream media are owned (and of course, actively used) by several of these oligarchs to keep the ruling party members in power. They do so, despite the emerging signs that a small but ambitious faction within this ruling elite (termed “The Family”) is about to cannibalize the “elders”, a precedent already set in a big neighbour to the north. Courts are corrupt and widely manipulated, which stymies justice. “How to break this vicious circle?” is no longer a “million-dollar question” for a concerned citizen in this country, it is increasingly an issue of political survival for those not affiliated with the system, or ejected from it.

With this picture of structural conditions in mind, it is hardly surprising that the elections went awry. As the OSCE/ODIHR preliminary statement highlighted on the 29th October, these elections were tarnished by violations of democratic process: the lack of level-playing field, financing transparency and media access in the wake of the elections, further exacerbated by the “lack of transparency” in the tabulation process. This tentative estimate was followed by cruder violations. Most notably, several district electoral committees were accused of rigging the vote in favour of the pro-government candidates. In a town of Pervomaysk, the police forces interfered with tabulation process against the law. After the opposition summoned a rally in Kiev, the police threatened to disband it. The ruling party’s attempt to present a positive picture of the election failed, thus undermining their legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Behind a whitewashed façade of the reportedly “calm” election day, there are shaky walls of simulated democracy and a looming conflict.

Moving to the middle or grinding to a halt?

The elections unveiled a number of trends, both positive and negative. First of all, the low turn-out rate underscored the pervasive scepticism and despair that many Ukrainians expressed in the wake of the poll: only 58% of eligible voters participated in the election, the lowest indicator for the past 10 years.

Secondly, the ruling Party of Regions is not going to have a comfortable one-party majority in the parliament. Its 30% of the popular vote, 4% less than in the previous election, illustrated its dwindling support among the voters, including its core Eastern and Southern territories. It will therefore have to lure the “independent” deputies into the coalition. The comeback of the Communist Party, a likely ally of the ruling party, confirms that many voters in the Eastern and Southern Ukraine have grown increasingly disillusioned with the ruling Party of Regions, but are reluctant to vote for any of any opposition party on the other side of the “geographical divide”.

The opposition, on the other hand, has spawned a rather conflicted bunch. The declining support for the United Opposition, which gained about 25% compared to 45% five years ago, highlighted its failure to mobilize anti-government voters, partially because of the imprisonment of its leaders, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko; but also due to the party’s inability to communicate a new positive message to the voters. The success of UDAR (translated as “Punch”), an opposition-leaning newcomer, has highlighted the perpetual demand for new political forces in Ukraine and  Ukrainians’ reliance on personalities rather than ideologies and political programmes. The relatively high share of votes (about 10%) gained by Svoboda, a right-wing party, can be attributed to the voters’ growing fatigue and mistrust of the mainstream parties controlled by the oligarchs. In spite of the controversy spurred by its leaders’ blatantly xenophobic views, Svoboda has managed to mobilize the support of the most defiant voters, many of whom saw it as the “lesser evil” in the polling list.

Wither this time?

Even though the status quo in the power distribution is likely to be preserved in Ukraine and unleash more challenges to democracy, this election had brighter trends. For instance, signs of nascent grass-root political movements have emerged in the campaign: several independent candidates with little financial and administrative resource competed in the majoritarian districts by engaging volunteers and receiving donations. NGOs, such as Chesno and Opora, have fought for the transparency in the electoral process. Journalists managed to prevent the controversial bill on criminalizing libel from being adopted by the parliament. Last but not least, despite a likely loss of the majority to the ruling Party of Regions, the opposition minority still stands a chance of preventing the latter’s from monopolizing power and attempting to change the Constitution.

The foreign policy direction of Ukraine is even more ambivalent. Many commentators have claimed that the Ukrainian “Viktor” is bound to turn eastwards. These forecasts, however, overlook at least three important factors. First, the ruling elites in Ukraine would be reluctant to share the spoils with bigger Russian businesses, or dare compete with them in the common market, for that matter. Secondly, the regime’s cash-cows are dependent on export-bound industries, such as steel products, coal and chemicals, with profits pocketed in off-shore centres, some in the EU. Thirdly, Ukrainian government keeps attempting to prolong the frozen $15 billion IMF loan, amid a likely economic slowdown in the months to come. Due to these limitations, the government cannot afford the luxury of ignoring the EU and the US altogether, and is likely to perform a fine balancing act of solidifying its grip on internal politics and pursuing flexible foreign policy.

The post-election Ukraine presents both a problem and an opportunity to the EU. On the one hand, this Eastern neighbour undergoes a clear backsliding on democratic change, which could soon result in an authoritarian regime grappling with impoverished and increasingly radicalized population. On the other hand, the EU still has some (mostly economic) leverage in slowing this reversal and supporting the nascent change agents. Any policy response, however, should account for the structural conditions existing in Ukraine rather than trying to bypass them. As the experience of other post-Soviet countries in the region has shown, the moving pendulum is more likely to get fixed than a stalled one.

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About Evgen Vorobiov

I am an analyst of international relations, currently working on civilian security issues. In the past 3 years, I've done research on Ukraine's regional politics, on EU-Ukraine Association process and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. I hold a Master's Degree (cum laude) in European Studies and International Politics from Maastricht University (The Netherlands). I tweet regularly at @vorobyov as a private person. In addition to native-level Ukrainian and Russian, I speak fluent English, passable German and Polish, basic Dutch and French.

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