Ukraine's presidential elections are a step forward, but a modest one

Weeks before they were held, the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine were singled out by world leaders as a possible mechanism for ending the six months of unrest that has shattered domestic peace in Ukraine and provoked a tense stand-off between Russia and the West. Noting the crucial importance of the elections, Western leaders threatened deeper, systemic sanctions against Russia, if Russia or its surrogates prevented the Ukrainian people from choosing a new leader. In this essay, we argue that while the presidential elections do promote political stabilization in Ukraine, care must be taken not to exaggerate their ability to overcome the crisis of government legitimacy and challenges to national unity facing Ukraine.

There are a number of reasons to believe that the presidential elections do indeed help to stabilize Ukraine.

ADVERTISEMENT
First, the Ukrainian government was able to conduct a free and fair vote. This is a surprising and positive outcome. Elections are difficult to conduct under the best of circumstances and Ukraine is best known for its creative forms of electoral fraud. The interim government in Kyiv pulled off a democratic vote under less than auspicious conditions. Pro-Russian separatists called for a boycott of the vote across the entire Russian-speaking east and south of the country. These calls were not heeded, except in the two provinces — Donets'k and Luhans'k — where rebel militias control numerous cities and battles with government forces have taken place. Even in these two provinces, separatist leaders had to actively stop the vote in areas under their control by shutting down polling places and threatening — and in some instances kidnapping — members of the election committees. The work of election committees across Ukraine was hampered by the last-minute withdrawal of committee members, especially those from the Communist Party. If these issues were not enough, hackers infected the Central Election Committee's servers with a virus. Despite these impediments, the Ukrainian leadership was able to conduct a vote praised by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OSCE) election observers as free and fair. The government has appeared very weak, with its military campaign against separatists in the east making little progress. The ability of the government to conduct a fair vote provided a rare and much-needed signal of strength.

Ukraine now has a president widely viewed as legitimate both within Ukraine and without. The interim leadership in Kyiv has been viewed as illegitimate by Russia and large swaths of Ukrainians living in the east and south after the overthrow of President Yanukovych in February. With Russian President Vladimir Putin's vow to "respect" the outcome of the elections, President-elect Petro Poroshenko can now conduct negotiations with Russia over the insurgency in the east, the price of natural gas and Crimea. Internal legitimacy can be seen in the surprisingly high turnout of voters in the east and south — surprising given the fact that voters did not see credible candidates from parties that had previously won elections in these regions, such as Yanukovych's Party of Regions and the Ukrainian Communist Party. The Party of Regions has been greatly weakened, leaving four different candidates of the party running. Communist leader Petro Symonenko withdrew at the last minute, although his name remained on the ballot. Despite not having a strong candidate supporting the interests of Russian-speaking voters, some 50.9 percent of voters in the east and south — outside of Donets'k and Luhans'k — showed up at the polls (and despite threats and concerns over violence). These voters showed civic engagement under difficult conditions and a plurality of them chose the new president.

Poroshenko is a compromise figure. Long a fixture of Ukrainian politics, Poroshenko served both pro-Western and pro-Russian presidents, and was one of the founders of the Party of Regions. Despite the upheaval after the Euro-Maidan demonstrations, the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the uprising in the east, over 54 percent of Ukrainian voters cast their ballots for a centrist. Poroshenko received the most votes in all provinces and the city of Kyiv (and in 187 of 188 electoral districts), securing enough support to avoid a runoff in June. This was a huge and unprecedented feat. Ukraine's elections, whether presidential or parliamentary, have been polarizing events, pitting candidates with support primarily in the west and center against those with support primarily in the east and south. It is worth noting that the implosion of the Party of Regions and the Communist Party made this possible. Nonetheless, this was a landslide election in a very divided country. His closest challenger — former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — garnered less than 13 percent of the vote. Unlike Poroshenko, the twice-jailed Tymoshenko is a not a compromise figure, and she would have faced a more difficult challenge in uniting the country.

A final note of optimism comes with the abysmal showing for the Ukrainian extreme right in the elections. Russia has trumpeted the rise of extreme nationalism and fascism in Ukraine. Both extreme right candidates — Oleh Tiahnybok of the Svoboda (Freedom) Party and Dmytro Yarosh of the paramilitary Right Sector — performed terribly at the polls. Tiahnybok received 1.2 percent of the vote. This is a step backward for the Freedom Party, which garnered 10.4 percent of the party vote in October 2012 parliamentary elections while riding a wave of anti-Yanukovych sentiment. Yarosh captured a mere 0.7 percent of the vote. The dismal showing of the Ukrainian extreme right undermines the Russian narrative of the threat of extreme Ukrainian nationalism. According to the media monitoring organization public.ru, Right Sector was the second most mentioned political party in Russian media in April, barely trailing Putin's own United Russia.

Despite these positive features of the presidential elections, there are several reasons to discount their significance for the political stabilization of the country.

First, the power of the presidency has been reduced and is on its way to being reduced further. After the collapse of Yanukovych's presidency in February, the parliament changed the constitution back to its 2004 incarnation, which among other things gives back to parliament the power to appoint the prime minister and all other cabinet positions except the ministers of defense and foreign affairs. Moreover, the parliament's Temporary Special Commission on Constitutional Reform has completed its initial draft of a new constitution that takes away the presidential powers to appoint even these two ministers. The parliament has also recently pledged in a "Memorandum on Peace and Conciliation" to decentralize political and economic power in Ukraine, including taking away the president's ability to appoint regional governors. The result is that at least as important, if not more, than the recent presidential elections for the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government — and for political stability — will be new elections for parliament. The Rada, like all parliaments, is far superior at reflecting regional diversity than a president, rendering this institution's legitimacy critical in a country with such severe regional fault lines. It must be kept in mind that the "fascists," "Nazis" and "radical nationalists" that many in the eastern and southern regions believe came to power in a Western-backed coup reside in the parliament and its cabinet; acting president Oleksandr Turchynov was never their biggest fear. Elections for the Rada are currently scheduled for 2017, but Poroshenko has recently endorsed holding them before the end of 2014. It is worth noting that Maidan supporters have not given up their own demands for early parliamentary elections. They generally see the parliament as dominated by corrupt politicians and holdovers from the Yanukovych regime.

Another reason for caution in light of Poroshenko's resounding electoral victory is that it changes none of the important facts on the ground related to the threats to Ukrainian territorial integrity in the east and south of the country. Crimea has de facto been completely absorbed into the Russian Federation, best symbolized perhaps by the peninsula's complete transition from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble as of June 1, far ahead of Russia's original plan. Moreover, just two weeks prior to the elections, referenda in the eastern provinces of Donets'k and Luhans'k resulted in declarations of independence by self-appointed governments in these regions. The militias of these governments will continue to fight to hold and expand the territories they control. Further, despite the ongoing pullback of Russian troops from the Ukrainian border, it is hard to see how Poroshenko's election will cause Putin to alter his direct and indirect support for the armed rebellion in the east. Recent reportage that militants from Chechnya, Dagestan and South Ossetia — on their own volition or under orders from politicians in those regions beholden to Putin — are now fighting among the ranks of the rebel militias speaks to the increasing risk of the internationalization of the rebellion in Ukraine's east. It is true that opinion polls have revealed that most citizens, including in the east and south, favor Ukraine's territorial integrity. But Ukraine is a country where both during the anti-Yanukovych Maidan protests and after, well-organized and armed minorities spearheaded events. Too great a focus on the significance of majoritarian elections risks overlooking this crucial fact.

More broadly, Poroshenko's victory will likely have little effect in mitigating the increased mistrust and sense of alienation that many in the east and south, particularly ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, feel toward the center and especially western regions of the country after the Maidan protests. The wave of toppling of Lenin statues; the use by protesters of slogans, flags and symbols reminiscent of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army which collaborated with German forces in western Ukraine against Soviet rule during World War II; the sense that the government and its supporters employ double standards in justifying the forceful seizure of government buildings during Maidan yet criticizing this tactic in the east, and in excoriating Yanukovych's use of force to break up Maidan while supporting the current government's use of even greater force to reassert control over areas controlled by the rebels — all of these bells cannot be un-rung by the elections.

Finally, the underlying cause of the west-east divide — which has been one of the main features of Ukrainian politics since independence in 1991 — still remains in place. Here we refer to the debate over national identity. Is Ukraine to be conceptualized primarily as a country built around the ethnic Ukrainian majority and its culture and language and oriented toward Europe? Or is it fundamentally a Ukrainian-Russian bicultural, bilingual, bi-ethnic country giving priority to close ties with Russia? The latter vision finds its strongest expression in the east and south, while the former in the west and center. Poroshenko has promised to continue the interim government's push to integrate Ukraine into Europe. While this will likely bring a number of political and economic benefits, it also risks greater disaffection in the east and south, intensified support for high levels of political and economic decentralization, and increased popular support for secessionism in not only in Donets'k and Luhans'k, but other primarily Russian-speaking regions as well, such as Kharkiv and Odesa. The "multivector" foreign policy more or less balancing ties with Russia and the West that every preceding Ukrainian president has adopted appears very unlikely under Poroshenko, with the potential to alienate further Russians and Russian speakers in the east and south.

In sum, Poroshenko's decisive and robust electoral victory does indeed assist the country in the resolution of its political crisis, but the roots of the crisis are deep and many current leaders are still viewed as illegitimate by millions of Ukrainians. International Monetary Fund-mandated austerity measures and the decline in foreign investment mean that for nearly all Ukrainians, economic conditions will continue to worsen before the salutary effects of economic reforms can kick in. The Ukrainian economy remains highly dependent on a neighbor intent on sowing domestic discord, with Russia even threatening to cut off natural gas sales if Ukraine does not pay off its huge gas debt. And an underfunded, undertrained and inexperienced Ukrainian military faces the tremendous challenges of urban guerrilla warfare. The fight for Ukraine's political stabilization and territorial unity is thus likely to be long. President Poroshenko almost certainly will find that building candy factories is considerably easier than nation-building.

Bloom and Shulman are associate professors of political science at Southern Illinois University.