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Ukraine’s inspiring boredom

Patrice de Beer
3 April 2006

A lot has been written about the contrast in atmosphere, procedure and aftermath between two recent elections in former Soviet-bloc territories, namely the presidential vote in Belarus (19 March) and the parliamentary poll in Ukraine (26 March). But the comparison is so blatant and obvious that it quickly acquires irrelevance. Who, after all, could have dreamed that Vladimir Putin's protégé in Minsk, Alexander Lukashenko would miraculously convert to democracy – and at the very time when his Kremlin master is gradually returning to the style of czarist autocracy?

Also in openDemocracy on the elections in Belarus and Ukraine:

Amy de Wit, "Belarus on the eve" (March 2006)

Margot Letain, "Denim and democracy: what Belarusians need" (March 2006)

Amy de Wit, "Belarus's contested landslide" (March 2006)

Krzysztof Bobinski,"Belarus's message to Europe" (March 2006)

Alexander J Motyl, "Ukraine's new political complexion"
(March 2006)

Toby Saul, "Ukraine's post-orange evolution: Askold Krushelnycky interviewed"
(March 2006)

Taras Kuzio, "Ukraine: free elections, kamikaze president" (March 2006)

What happened a week later in Ukraine is of another magnitude, whose true point of comparison is not with Belarus but with the series of elections in October-December 2004 that incubated the"orange revolution". What the footsoldiers of democracy witnessed in Ukraine, including the hundreds of voluntary observers from all over Europe sent by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the elections, was one of the most ostensibly boring, uneventful elections ever held; a Swiss-type election without the Alps and the cuckoo-clocks! It was an election like those witnessed repeatedly in the more rooted democratic world of western Europe, and with the same components:

  • high expectations and bitter disappointments
  • coalitions formed and disbanded
  • political rivalries and personal hatreds which make alliances difficult even among parties sharing the same ideals
  • temptations of corruption or shady deals on all sides
  • a plethora of parties cropping up like mushrooms after the rain and disappearing as quickly, eaten up or crushed by passers-by.

But to note the routine normality of the 26 March elections, a condition ultra-familiar in the older democratic countries of the west, carries the danger of missing the extraordinary sea-change evident in Ukraine since the confirmation of Viktor Yushchenko's election victory in January 2005. On the contrary, the 2006 election demonstrates how deep this change has been and how unexpectedly fast democracy has taken root in the rich black earth of this former Soviet republic.

The elections in neighbouring Belarus were chilling rather than boring. In Ukraine, voters quietly queued to vote, and freely-chosen election officials performed their tedious chores as efficiently as possible, including the operation of complex electoral procedures designed to avoid any temptation of vote-rigging or pressuring voters (familiar traditions in the Russian-then Soviet-then Russian-again empire). Observers from Ukraine's political parties, local and international NGOs, and official bodies freely monitored the proceedings.

No major security incidents were reported except a (fortunately harmless) petrol bomb in the vicinity of Kyiv, and there were only a handful of technical ones. All the parties played by the rules and didn't contest the way the votes were counted, although two smaller parties – Pora – Reform and Civic Order led by parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, and the People's Opposition Party headed by Natalya Vitrenko – have called the results into question and demanded a recount. Russia too discovered – how, it is difficult to know as CIS observers had not been invited – that around 10% of citizens had not been allowed to cast their vote.

True, the results were very slow to come and were not as clear-cut as expected. This made them difficult for the international media – far less interested by the complex shades of a new democratic process than by what happened in black and white next door in Belarus – to decipher.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde. Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine" (October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression " (November 2005)

"France's enarchy " (November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA " (January 2006)

"France's immigration myths"
(February 2006)

"Law and disorder in France" (March 2006)

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A new Ukrainian identity

The three "orange" parties Our Ukraine, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Socialists (SPU) – gained a total of 243 seats out of 450 in the new parliament, and were among only five parties (out of forty-five) to pass the tough 3% threshold to be represented there. In light of Viktor Yushchenko's third place with a disappointing 14%, it is likely that the orange parties will be compelled to unite, and confirm that the"victory" of Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions is a Pyrrhic one. It is worth recalling that Yanukovych's first place with 32% of the votes (and 186 seats) still represents a decline of around a third from 46% in December 2004.

Such a coalition will be difficult to forge, so entrenched are the scars of personal and political rivalries in Ukraine, among the orange tendency's members and as well as between them and the blue, pro-Russian party of ex-prime minister Yanukovych. Yet this is also in its way a symptom of normal politics: think of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's rivalry in Britain, of President Bush's difficulties with his Republican friends, of Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin's war to the finish to succeed Jacques Chirac. Ukraine, and the tough post-election bargaining which may see Yanukovych playing the role of a bogeyman for the orange parties, is not so different.

In fact, these elections were mostly a referendum on what Ukrainians want their country to be. Yes, many of them are wise enough to realise that the orange revolution is not going to give them immediate access to prosperity or entry in the European Union or Nato; according to a survey published by Kyiv newspaper The Day, the same percentage of persons polled – 41% – believed that the economic situation would or would not improve in the next year.

But, besides rejecting Yanukovych's brutal Russian-style type of politics, a clear majority of Ukrainians also voted "no" to three fundamental goals of the pro-Russian camp: making Russian the second official language, giving Ukrainians a dual nationality (Ukrainian and Russian) and joining the (post-Soviet) Commonwealth of Independent States's Common Economic Space (or Single Economic Area with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Even the Party of Regions had to admit the possibility, albeit remote, of Ukraine's integration into the EU. In Ukraine, much more than in Russia, people have not forgotten – and sometimes not forgiven – Stalin's crimes, starting with the Holodomor, the artificial famine (or genocide) he masterminded and which killed millions in 1932-33.

In these circumstances, a new Ukrainian identity is gradually taking shape. And if there is no political consensus on the way the country will be ruled – a basis of democratic debate in the country, which fears unhealthy, artificial "unanimity" – what marked the 26 March elections was the establishment of a consensus about democracy.

The next step, if Ukrainians' fellow Europeans to the west want this extraordinary experience to succeed in the long term, is not to make Ukrainians empty promises but to help them, modestly but clearly, to make the changes in their country irreversible by supporting their efforts to strengthen their democracy and independence – political as well as economic, and including energy independence. After that, Europeans can cross their fingers and hope the ensuing ripple-effect will, one day, reach Ukraine's neighbours.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

How has dark money bought our politics? What can be done to change the system?

Join us for a journey through a shadowy world of dark money and disinformation stretching from Westminster to Washington, and far beyond.

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In conversation:

Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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