Zita Gurmai, László Kemény
With its 46 million inhabitants and a territory bigger than any western-European country, Ukraine remains one of Europe’s tension-laden unknown variables. No matter how you look at Europe’s borders – whether Europe means only the “west” or everything up to the Urals or even all the way to Vladivostok – there is no way around Ukraine and it cannot be ignored either that the road between Russia and Europe goes through Ukraine. A united, strong, confident Ukraine could therefore benefit from its territorial position. However, the country, independent after the dismantling of the USSR, has not been able to overcome its division yet, partly due to historical reminiscences and has become a clashing point of geopolitical interests, an environment to test strength.
The 2010 presidential election brought about a change, from a presidential system to a parliamentary-presidential system. This in itself could have been a turning point in Ukraine’s recent political history. It seemed that Viktor Yanukovych’s victory could have brought an end to the internal power struggle between the nationalists, the more Western-oriented “orange revolutionaries” and those seeking to strengthen ties with Russia. As no parliamentary elections were held, the legitimate president had to work with an assembly which was based on ad-hoc majorities and which reflected the former distribution of powers in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian National Assembly). The imprisonment of the unsuccessful presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko only deepened the country’s divisions while having lasting consequences on Ukraine’s international relations, especially with the EU.
The different political forces prepared for the October 2012 elections in a quite a climate. The elections were closely monitored, following the numerous shortcomings observed in 2010, and many regarded the election process as an important indicator for Ukraine’s political development. Especially the implementation of the new electoral law, returning back to a mixed electoral system combining a national list and single member districts, fell under scrutiny.
The ruling Party of the Regions led by Mykola Azarov (PoR, the party of president Yanukovych) and victorious in the 2010 local and regional elections was challenged by the United opposition (Batkivshchyna, party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko ) led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Communist party and two other non-parliamentary parties, Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) led by former boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko and the nationalist and extremist party Svoboda (“Freedom”) led by Oleh Tyahnybok.
The pre-election process was characterised by several irregularities. Among others, local and international observers (including the European parliament, the OSCE office for democratic institutions and human rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the OSCE parliamentary assembly and the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe) reported a lack of transparency in the meetings of the electoral commissions, a lack of balanced media coverage, the absence of transparency in campaign financing, numerous abuses of administrative resources and several cases of vote buying or indirect bribery.
Among the international observers present, the international expert centre for electoral systems (ICES) invited MPs and MEPs from eight countries, together with diplomats, journalists, legal experts to follow closely the whole process, starting from the legal framework of the elections, throughout the campaign and the voting, up until the counting of the votes.
The elections themselves however were conducted in a fairly democratic way despite a lack of transparency in the tabulation process. ICES’ report states that no anomalies of a scale or content that would question the legitimacy or validity of the elections were observed. Combined with the peaceful conduct during the election day this at least constitutes progress compared to 2010. Ukraine now has to build on those positive achievements while addressing the areas of concerns in view to the next Presidential elections of 2015.
The fact that the technical and legislative side of the elections was adequately executed is a first positive step but still lingering concerns demonstrate that further progress is needed regarding the respect of fundamental values and the fostering of a fully transparent and democratic electoral process and the respect of the rule of law. The formal and institutional framework of the election is one thing but a deeper consolidation of the democratic process is needed especially during the pre-electoral period.
As to the results, they once again clearly reflect the country’s division. The Party of the Regions gained a clear majority in the eastern and southern part of the country, while the nationalists prevailed in the west and around the capital. With 30 per cent of the votes, the Party of Regions was leading, but it did not have enough seats to govern alone and had to gather the support from MPs of single-member constituencies and the communists in order to form a new government.
The United Opposition party (Bat’kivshchyna) had expected a victory and had even contracted prior coalition agreements with UDAR and, much more preoccupying, with the extreme-right party Svoboda to secure a majority, but without success. One of the most probable reasons of their defeat is the fact that their campaign was based mainly on protesting against the imprisonment of Tymoshenko and lacked concrete policy proposals. The rise of the extremist party Svoboda, which gained about 10 per cent of the votes and entered the Rada for the first time, is another striking outcome of the elections. Svoboda managed to add a socioeconomic dimension (fuelled by the economic crisis, and the high level of unemployment and corruption) to its traditional ultra-nationalist agenda and anti-immigrant, xenophobic and anti-Semitic’s rhetoric.
The electoral agreement that Bat’kivshchyna and UDAR reached with them only further legitimised the presence of Svoboda in mainstream politics. It also put the main opposition in a dangerous situation of dependence towards extremist and anti-democratic forces and only aggravates the divisions within the Ukrainian society. The views and programme of the Svoboda party have been denounced by European parliament, as Europeans’ values transcend ethnic or geographic divisions and are absolutely irreconcilable with such a party. The S&D group in parliament has been calling upon European political parties to abstain from any kind of political alliances with such a formation.
Now that the elections are over, Ukraine has to tackle a number of crucial issues. The newly formed government led by Nikola Azarov has seen a new generation of young politicians taking over key ministries. The example of Sergei Arbuzov, appointed deputy prime minister is emblematic of this new generation as he is the first politician to be appointed for such a high government position among the generation of young expert politicians raised in an independent Ukraine, free from the “banderovscsina” (followers of the separatist and nationalist ideologies) and from the loyalty to the former Soviet-Ukraine. The question now is whether this new generation will be the one able to overcome the numerous hurdles that Ukraine is still facing, reconcile the Ukrainian society and bring back Ukraine closer to the EU.
Addressing the alarming economic situation, finding its place between two main spheres of influence (Russia and the European Union), dealing with the question of energy supplies and pacifying a divided society are some of those most pressing issues.
The extent of those challenges calls for sustainable reforms. The country is going to be an odd spot unless it undergoes an in-depth modernisation, fit for the increasingly globalised and competitive environment. For this, a consolidated unity is needed and political stalemate must be ended. A peaceful Ukraine has the necessary geographic, natural, technological and human resources to restore a dynamic development and become one of the leading countries of the region. However, the political climate is currently blocking this process. The upcoming years until the next presidential elections of 2015 will therefore be crucial for the future of Ukraine, while a question mark remains when it comes to its democratic and economic development.
The perspective of signing the association agreement with the European Union, including the DFTA at the occasion of the next eastern partnership summit would be another step forward in Ukraine’s development. This requires a sign of strong political will from the Ukrainian authorities as to the reforms agenda and the shortcoming identified by the EU. The Ukrainian citizens have clearly indicated their willingness to come closer to the EU and should those requirements be met by Ukraine, it would also call for a stronger commitment from the European Union, especially when it comes to solving the issue of energy supply.
The question mark has not been resolved by the recent parliamentary elections. The current situation and the prognosis indicate that little positive change is to be expected until the 2015 Ukrainian presidential election when it comes to the internal political climate. The next presidential elections cannot be the only horizon for Ukrainian political forces while so many challenges lie ahead. Dialogue must be strengthened within the country as well as with international partners, starting with the European Union.
That way, an independent, modern, united, strong Ukraine could be the link in a Europe that spreads from Lisbon to Vladivostok.