Ukraine's new political complexion

Alexander Motyl
24 March 2006

The most remarkable thing about Ukraine's electoral campaign is how eerily European it looks. Seventeen months ago, in the run-up to the fraudulent presidential elections that sparked the orange revolution, Kyiv (Kiev) felt like today's Minsk. Now, visitors to Ukraine's capital city might be forgiven for thinking they were in Rome, Berlin, or Madrid.

Billboards, television ads, and posters compete for voters' attention. A plethora of parties and personalities are slinging mud and making exaggerated promises. Citizens are disgusted at the spectacle of squabbling leaders, confused by the chaotic process unfolding before their eyes, and exhilarated by their own empowerment. But most people expect the parliamentary elections scheduled for 26 March to be fair and free.

Alexander Motyl is professor of political science and deputy director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Among his books are Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993) and Imperial Ends: the decline, collapse, and revival of empires (Colombia 2001).

Also by Alexander Motyl on openDemocracy:

"How Ukrainians became citizens"
(November 2004)

"Democracy is alive in Ukraine"
(September 2005)

"Ukraine vs Russia: the politics of an energy crisis" (January 2006)

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Ukraine has changed fundamentally since the days of former President Leonid Kuchma. A country that was headed for a milder version of the authoritarianism practiced in Russia and Belarus made a decisive turn toward democracy during the orange revolution of November 2004-January 2005.

Since then, all the major political parties have openly endorsed democracy and fair and free elections and have conducted their campaigns accordingly. Many politicians no doubt harbour quasi-authoritarian leanings, but Ukraine's evolving democratic institutions have created constraints that they cannot ignore.

The party campaign

Although over forty parties are competing in the parliamentary elections, only three are serious vote-getters: President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, and Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions. The former orange allies, Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko Bloc, are each expected to get about 20% of the vote, while the Party of Regions should garner about 30%. A coalition of parliamentary factions and groups representing a majority of people's deputies will then have one month to nominate a prime minister, who in turn will appoint most of the cabinet. If a coalition fails to be formed, the president has the right to dissolve parliament.

Since none of the major parties will win a majority, two out of three will have to join forces. Tymoshenko has expressly excluded aligning with Yanukovych, so the most likely outcomes are a reconstituted orange coalition or a Yushchenko-Yanukovych pact.

Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko have been barely on speaking terms since he sacked her as prime minister in September 2005, but everyone knows that for them to come together would be a masterstroke. They could claim that the ideals of the orange revolution are alive and well, and, with a well-timed peace offer to the Yanukovych camp, could argue that they want to serve all of Ukraine, east and west. There are two problems with this scenario. The first is that the Yushchenko camp is dead set against Tymoshenko as prime minister, while the charismatic Tymoshenko may be unwilling to settle for anything less, such as the post of speaker of parliament. The second problem is that, while Yushchenko has been carefully cultivating a technocratic image, Tymoshenko has become populist, even demagogic, in her campaign rhetoric.

A Yushchenko-Yanukovych coalition would strike many of the orange revolution's strongest supporters as a betrayal of its promise, but the logic of such an outcome is undeniable. The two sides could present the deal as an attempt to unite Ukraine. More important, both sides are fairly moderate and share a variety of programmatic goals. That said, Yushchenko will think twice about cutting a deal with the man who was implicated in electoral fraud in 2004. Yanukovych's supporters are unlikely to defect in droves to Our Ukraine, whereas Yushchenko's own base could turn against him.

While a coalition could be formed immediately after the elections, the chances are that the process will continue until the final hour before the thirty-day deadline. In the meantime, Yushchenko's people will flirt with Yanukovych's, both to test the waters and to force Tymoshenko to agree to their terms. Yanukovych will try to rally the smaller parties around him. Even Tymoshenko, who has abandoned strongly held principles in the past, will probably make overtures to Yanukovych. But since no one wants the president to dissolve the parliament and call new elections, a deal will emerge, and when it does, the two sides – Yushchenko and Tymoshenko more likely than Yushchenko and Yanukovych – will be all smiles.

openDemocracy writers track political changes in east-central Europe:

Ivan Krastev, "Ukraine and Russia: a fatal attraction"
(December 2004)

Marek Matraszek, "Ukraine, Poland, and a free world"
(December 2004)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia post-orange empire" (October 2005)

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

Ivan Krastev, "The new Europe: respectable populism, clockwork liberalism"
(March 2006)

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

The big difference

In the presidential elections of 2004, Ukrainians faced a decisive choice – democracy or authoritarianism. That is no longer the choice in 2006. The major parties agree on Ukraine's democratic present and future. They agree that the elections must be free and fair. They insist on the inviolability of the constitution. They want a vibrant parliament. They favour a free press and a market economy. They believe that Ukraine should join the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. And they want good relations with Russia and the United States. Ukrainians may be justified in doubting the depth of Yanukovych's democratic convictions, but the fact is that he and his party have been talking and acting like a genuinely democratic opposition.

Despite a vast amount of consensus, there is also disagreement. Yanukovych blames all of Ukraine's problems on the orange coalition, while Our Ukraine blames him and Tymoshenko, who blames Yanukovych and Yushchenko. Yanukovych is more pro-Russian and less pro-western than Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, but Russia's bullying behaviour during the "gas war" of January 2006 and the imperatives of global economic integration place limits on how actively pro-Russian he can be. Tymoshenko insists that the "bandits go to jail," but her own chequered past as Ukraine's "gas queen" will constrain her ability to crack down on oligarchs. Yanukovych says he wants to make Russian Ukraine's second state language, but so did Kuchma without ever making it happen. Everyone claims to be able to ensure cheap deliveries of Russian gas, but Gazprom's prices may not be negotiable.

Ukraine's politics have always been consensual. The big difference now is that Ukraine's major parties agree on democracy. No less important, that democratic consensus is underpinned by a vibrant civil society, a hypercritical press, and an increasingly democratic political culture. Consensual politics are slow, undramatic, and frustrating, but they build institutions.

The orange revolution showed that Ukraine's parties could resolve a crisis by democratic means and that Ukraine's people were willing to fight for their rights. The 26 March parliamentary elections will, if fair and free, be another step on the road of Ukraine's institutional transformation into a consolidated democracy. On 27 March, whatever the result, there may be no going back to authoritarianism.

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