Ukraine – In the West nothing new

In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, I wrote about separatism and national sovereignty in Ukraine, and the possibility of war with Russia. At the time, Europe was kept on its toes by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing violence between pro-Russian rebels, the Ukrainian military and militias in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, a full-blown intrastate-war never broke out and the conflict seemed to stagnate. A ceasefire was even negotiated, though it is constantly violated. In face of the ongoing turmoil, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk called for new parliamentary elections to bring new democratic structure to the country, which were finally held on Sunday, 26 October.

Despite wide concerns, radical forces didn’t receive as much support as anticipated. The pro-Western parties, namely the “People’s Front” led by Yatseniuk and President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc, won more than 21% each. Unable to form a joint party before the elections, they are now set to draft a coalition agreement. Poroshenko’s position as President was weakened by the election result, so he now requires Yatseniuk’s support. This could prepare a super-majority of two thirds of the deputies in the parliament while at the same time promoting a decentralization of power, or set the country up for its next crisis.

It is difficult to say how representative the election results are. As expected, turnout was low in the Southern and Eastern regions of the country. Donetsk and Luhansk didn’t even take part. Ukraine is still a divided nation facing economic decline, inflation and state bankruptcy. Citizens are frustrated with corruption, politics and the declining quality of life.

As recent history has shown, both parties and coalitions are a difficult matter in Ukraine. In many cases, oligarchs financially support parties and political movements, or become politicians themselves, to cement their influence on politics and society. Personalities, individual ambitions and interests, as well as different visions of the country’s place in the world have created and destroyed numerous political alliances since the Orange Revolution in 2004. These are some of the reasons Western observers are much less enthusiastic about the pro-Western election results than they were ten years ago, after the country had set out for a more democratic, “European” course or the first time.

There is definitely potential for conflict between the Prime Minister and the President. Yatseniuk is seen as a somewhat “radical” actor within the pro-Western camp, seeking alliance with the United States while turning his back on Russia. Poroshenko, on the other hand, is more likely to seek a balance between the West and Moscow.

On his website, President Poroshenko thanked voter for choosing a democratic, reformist, pro-Ukrainian and pro-European path. The “Self Reliance” or “Self Help”, a political party that identifies with “Christian morality” and “Pro-Europeanism” led by the incumbent mayor of Lviv Andriy Sadovyi, proved popular in Western Ukraine, and came in third. This would seem like more support for a pro-Western and pro-democratic country, but this impression may be misleading.

The three leading parties have rather different concepts of what “European values” are, and how reforms should look like. Opinions on one of the most pressing questions – how to achieve economic growth and stability – differ sharply as well. In face of the gas dispute with Russia and the lack of foreign investment due to ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Kiev needs to forge good relations with Moscow. Poroshenko’s pragmatic policy of granting concessions has been criticised by his potential coalition partners. It could be fatal if the reform policy failed once again due to internal differences, just as it did after the Orange Revolution.

In this spirit, it can only be hoped that Poroshenko’s and Yatseniuk’s camps will be able to join forces and agree on a way to stabilize the country. They do not have a lot of time to complete this task.