Ukraine’s Elections Demand Engagement

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainians will go to the polls to elect a president this Sunday. The campaign is genuinely competitive, and the ultimate outcome is far from certain. A relatively free press is actively covering developments, and hundreds of international observers have been invited to oversee the election.

Thousands of supporters for Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko participate in a mass rally in Kyiv's central Independence Square.

These are all important indications of how far the country has progressed since the Orange Revolution, the wave of protests that followed the falsification of the previous presidential poll in November 2004. This progress is real, but it is not irreversible.

A win for either of the two top contenders will not mark a strategic political shift, but a tainted result could pose a threat to Ukraine’s democratic future. The Obama administration and our European allies should therefore make clear to Ukraine’s leaders that it is crucial the elections be conducted fairly—and that they are watching to make sure that is the case.

Ukraine’s last election in 2004 did indeed mark a turning point in the country’s post-Soviet development. After a blatant attempt at falsification of the elections, Ukrainians took to the streets in unprecedented numbers, demanding that their votes be counted.

These protests, which came to be known as the Orange Revolution after the color adopted by the protestors and their leaders, propelled opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko to victory over outgoing president Leonid Kuchma’s chosen successor, Viktor Yanukovych.

Many in the West saw the Orange Revolution exclusively in terms of high politics—a battle between the purportedly “democratic,” pro-Western reformers Yushchenko and his then-ally Yulia Tymoshenko over the allegedly corrupt, pro-Russian, authoritarian forces represented by Yanukovych.

These labels—if not completely false—turned out to have little meaning and ultimately distracted attention from the real revolution in Ukrainian society.

Ukrainian society before the Orange Revolution was typical of the post-Soviet region—resigned to rule from above, incapable of self-organization, and somewhat closed to the outside world. Its politics were defined by cronyism, widespread corruption, weak governance, minimal accountability, and a repressive response to dissent.

The foot soldiers of the Orange Revolution were average Ukrainians who were fed up with both. The politicians simply captured this desire for change.

The Revolution did transform Ukrainian society. People now debate politics in person, on TV, and in the press. Politicians are held to account by an increasingly active civil society, and Ukrainians began to think of themselves as European.

Yet Ukrainian politics changed little. The country descended into political crisis within months of the Revolution, and neverending battles among the prime minister, president, and Parliament have dominated public life and prevented substantive reform.

Criticism of the top leadership is for the most part no longer taboo, but corruption remains endemic, the authorities’ capacity to enforce policy is at its nadir, and economic interests still control much of the political sphere.

The cast of characters in Ukraine’s political drama remains largely the same. Tymoshenko, now Prime Minister, and Yanukovych, who heads up the opposition in the parliament, are leading the pack of over a dozen registered candidates.

President Yushchenko is also running, but many Ukrainians blame him for failing to follow through on the promise of the Orange Revolution and for general poor leadership, and he now polls in the low single digits. But his consistent—and often visceral—attacks on his one-time ally Tymoshenko keep him in the news.

Tymoshenko currently trails Yanukovych by around 12 percent. Her popularity has suffered in large part as a result of the economic crisis, which hit Ukraine hard. Its gross domestic product contracted by more than 15 percent last year, inflation was around 16 percent, and the budget deficit ballooned.

Yanukovych will almost certainty not garner the more than 50 percent of votes needed to prevent a run-off election, which would take place on February 7. But polls measuring a direct match-up with Tymoshenko in a hypothetical second round also favor him by around 13 percent.

Yet the result is by no means preordained. Up to a quarter of the population remains undecided, and Tymoshenko is a highly skilled campaigner and has shown herself capable of boosting her numbers significantly in the final weeks of previous campaigns.

She could still win the election if she can rally those who supported the other candidates after the first round and the sizable numbers who say they plan to vote “against all.”

But regardless of who wins, the implications for Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policies are actually not all that significant. Both will be constrained in their economic policies by the conditions attached to continued IMF support, which is crucial to getting the country through the crisis.

Both will try to improve the relationship with Russia, which is currently at its post-Soviet low point. And both will soft-pedal rhetoric on NATO membership, while continuing practical cooperation with the Alliance and pursuing closer integration with the European Union.

The West should not be too concerned about a Yanukovych victory, despite the “pro-Russian” label. In reality, the economic groups that back him would never allow Russian firms to penetrate Ukrainian markets, which is one of Moscow’s main policy aims, or to derail cooperation with the West, the main destination for their exports.

He might be more likely than Tymoshenko to pick up the phone when the Kremlin calls, but that does not mean that Russia will get its way.

The issue of strategic importance for Ukraine’s future is therefore not who wins the election. What is crucial is how the elections are conducted. And there is a significant chance that the result will not be determined at the ballot box, even during the second round vote.

Ukrainians themselves are certainly prepared for such an outcome: more than half believe that the results will be falsified, and only a third say that election results in their country accurately reflect the way people vote.

Two scenarios are possible. The first is outright falsification: ballot stuffing, manipulated absentee votes, or direct fraud. The second—and more likely outcome—is that the loser will challenge the legitimacy of the outcome if the results of the second round are close.

The consequence is likely to be a string of court cases—and Ukraine’s judicial system is notorious for corruption and politicization—or street protests. If protests do occur, they are unlikely to reach the levels seen during the Orange Revolution, but they could prove destabilizing nonetheless. If one or both of these scenarios are realized, the consequences for Ukraine’s future could be severe.

A casual walk around the streets of the capital city of Kyiv would seem to show that the revolutionary spirit of civic engagement is still alive and well. There are huge advertisements for the candidates on practically every corner, and young staff actively distribute campaign materials.

But Ukrainians are overwhelmingly disillusioned and fed up with their politicians and politics in general. Nearly three-quarters of the population believe that Ukraine is on a path toward instability and chaos. Only 26 percent say that voting gives them influence over decision-making, and even fewer have confidence in key democratic institutions.

Indeed, a Pew study showed that less than a third of Ukrainians now approve of the transition to democracy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

These attitudes have eerie echoes of Russian popular opinion seen about a decade ago. Despite a brief period of democratic engagement in the late Soviet period and the first years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, Russians came to associate democracy with the chaos and economic dislocation they experienced during the 1990s.

President Vladimir Putin’s hypercentralization of power to a certain extent reflected the public’s desire for order. Ukraine’s regional fragmentation makes it unlikely that such a semi-authoritarian political system will emerge, but there is no guarantee that political dynamics will not move in that direction. Ukrainians are losing faith in democracy and an illegitimate election would further damage that faith.

This possibility is little appreciated in Washington or in European capitals. A sense of complacency about Ukraine’s future set in after the Orange Revolution. And it became conventional wisdom that the gains marked an irreversible turning point in Ukraine’s history that put the country on an inevitable march toward becoming a full-fledged democracy and a member of the Euro-Atlantic community.

Any problems that Ukraine might have during these elections—so the logic goes—are merely growing pains; the strategic questions about the country’s trajectory have already been answered. This attitude was directly reflected in U.S. policy, with Congress drastically cutting democracy assistance for Ukraine from 2004 to 2008, and slashing funds for Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, as well.

This “Ukraine complacency” phenomenon has been complimented by “Ukraine fatigue”—the increasing frustration in the West with Kyiv’s incapacity to deliver on its promises. The Ukrainian government has continually failed to follow through on its commitments. It signed up for a $16.4 billion IMF stabilization package, and then proceeded to violate the conditions.

It pledged to make key reforms of its energy sector, and then implemented only cosmetic changes. It committed to participating in two NATO exercises, and then the parliament failed to pass the authorizing legislation. And the utter chaos of Ukrainian politics that began just months after the Orange Revolution has made it nearly impossible for the West to find an effective interlocutor in Kyiv.

This combination of Western complacency and fatigue with Ukraine has precipitated a nonchalant attitude toward the elections. But we ignore Ukraine at our peril. The country is simply too important—as a transit hub for Europe’s energy needs, as a bridge between Russia and the West, as an industrial and agricultural power, and as a Black Sea-littoral state—for us to sit back and watch as one of the scenarios described above unfold.

Washington and our European allies should therefore actively engage Ukraine in the weeks between the initial and runoff elections. The Obama administration has taken important steps, such as naming John Tefft, a highly respected diplomat with years of experience in the region, as ambassador to Kyiv, and by proposing increases to Ukraine’s democracy assistance budget.

Congress has also played a positive role by passing a resolution calling for Ukraine to conduct its elections transparently and declaring U.S. support for its political and economic development.

But more is needed to make sure that Ukraine’s political elite is aware that we are paying attention and that there is a cost associated with undermining the democratic process. The administration should make it clear—both publicly and privately—that the runoff election must be free and fair; that the results must not be manipulated; and that the voters, not the courts or the streets, should determine the outcome.

The administration should also urge our European allies to take a more active stance. Their proximity, greater economic ties, and the institutional levers the EU’s neighborhood policy gives them make their collective voice perhaps even more important than ours.

The question of who wins might not fundamentally alter Ukraine’s future, but the presidential election is critical for the country nonetheless. If the elections go poorly, they could prove the marker of the definitive end of the Orange Revolution.

Source: Center for American Progress

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