Ukraine's New Government Trapped by Old Problems

8 MINS READOct 24, 2014 | 06:30 GMT
Ukraine's New Government Won't Escape Old Problems
People pass an electoral tent Oct. 22 at Lenin Square in Slovyansk.

The parliamentary makeup and broader political system of Ukraine have changed significantly since the February uprising that unseated the government of former President Viktor Yanukovich. With parliamentary elections set for Oct. 26, another major transformation is imminent; several parties and blocs that did not exist before the protests will have significant representation in the next government. In particular, the elections will strengthen the pro-Western element of the government. But the primary challenge influencing Ukraine's foreign policy decisions — namely, Russian pressure — will remain unchanged for the next government.

The remaking of Ukraine's political system began with Yanukovich's decision in November 2013 to suspend the signing of the association and free trade agreement with the European Union. The decision, along with Yanukovich's attempts to get closer with Russia, prompted the Euromaidan protest movement, which culminated in the president's ouster less than three months later.

The Evolution of Ukraine's Government

Replacing Yanukovich was an interim government led by the three former opposition parties that were major players in the protests: the Fatherland party, Udar and Svoboda. Fatherland lawmaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk had already been appointed as prime minister in an EU-brokered agreement before Yanukovich's ouster, and another member of the party, Oleksandr Turchynov, became acting president. Most other Cabinet posts went to the other two parties.

What followed were major defections from the pro-Russian parties in parliament, most notably from the Party of Regions. Many of the party's lawmakers left in an attempt to distance themselves from Yanukovich, becoming either independent members of parliament or joining new blocs, such as the Sovereign European Ukraine party and the Economic Development party. A similar phenomenon occurred, though on a smaller scale, in the Communist Party.

Seats by Party in Ukraine's Parliament 2012

Russia's reaction to the change in Ukraine's government, which Moscow deemed illegitimate and a product of a Western-backed coup, included the swift annexation of Crimea and the initiation of a pro-Russian separatist rebellion in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia's overwhelming response pushed Ukrainian politics further toward the West. The new government signed the EU agreement that Yanukovich had abandoned as well as a financial assistance package with the International Monetary Fund. The election of pro-EU candidate Petro Poroshenko as president in May further solidified Ukraine's pro-Western status. Even more defections from the Party of Regions followed, as well as an attempt to ban the Communist Party for allegedly supporting the rebels. These developments produced a parliament that looked entirely different in party and bloc affiliation — though it consisted of the same members — from the one produced by the last elections just two years earlier in 2012.

The restructuring of the parliament, culminating in the departure from the ruling coalition of Svoboda and Udar on July 24, set in motion the process for new parliamentary elections. The collapse of the coalition was a positive development for Poroshenko, whose popularity has increased since the election even though he does not have his own group in parliament. Early elections are also in the interest of the pro-Western parties, which view new elections as a way to formalize the declining support of the pro-Russian parties and improve their own positions.

Breakdown of Ukraine's Factions

Between four and nine political parties could win seats in the new parliament. Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada is elected using a mixed system: Half of the 450 seats are elected via party lists using proportional representation above a 5 percent threshold, while the other half are filled by winning the plurality in single-member electoral districts. As a result, the seats won through the party lists reflect nationwide popularity and exclude small parties. Independent candidates from small parties can, however, still win seats through their districts.

The largest party in the new parliament will likely be the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, which is made up of a diverse group of members of Poroshenko's inner circle, activists, military officials and members of other political parties, including some who left the Party of Regions. Though Poroshenko's own political success will likely keep this diverse coalition united in parliament in the short term, divergent political goals and ideologies will be a challenge in the long run. The bloc's leading members include Kiev Mayor and Udar leader Vitali Klitschko, Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman and Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev. The bloc is projected to win 30-40 percent of the popular vote as well as a large number of single-member constituencies, but it will probably seek allies within parliament to govern effectively.

One potential ally is the People's Front, a party Yatsenyuk and Turchynov, now the parliamentary speaker, founded when they broke from Yulia Timoshenko's Fatherland party. While Yatsenyuk has sought to differentiate himself politically from Poroshenko by adopting a more confrontational tone when discussing Ukraine's strategy toward Russia, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk have worked closely together in the past and are now campaign allies, presenting joint candidates for parliament in 20 electoral districts. Their coalition will probably continue and will steer Ukraine's decision-making for now, but their divergent approaches to Ukraine's negotiation with Russia could make cooperation difficult.

The Petro Poroshenko Bloc and the People's Front factions face competition from several pro-Western parties. One of these is the populist Radical Party, a once-marginal group under the leadership of Oleh Lyashko. Lyashko's militant speeches and confrontational style have appealed to a part of the electorate frustrated with Ukraine's inability to regain control over parts of Donetsk and Luhansk and the perceived failures of the leadership to stem the tide of the separatist movement. Lyashko's party is projected to win 7-12 percent of the popular vote, and while that would put the party in second or third place, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc would probably still be able to rely on other parties to form a government and pass legislation.

Another competitor for Poroshenko's bloc and the People's Front is Fatherland, under the leadership of Timoshenko. Though Timoshenko has been a popular figure in Ukrainian politics in the past and during her imprisonment under the Yanukovich government, her popularity has fallen considerably because of her association with past governments and political scandals. Fatherland is a contender to finish second or third in the popular vote, but it has lost some of its top leaders and many supporters to the People's Front and does not have the benefit of a partnership with any other major parties in the single-member district elections. Timoshenko's past and her differences with Poroshenko will probably exclude her from a coalition agreement or consideration for a top post in the new government, but her party may informally support a pro-Western government in parliament.

Svoboda, the nationalist party led by Oleh Tyahnybok, was heavily involved in the Euromaidan protests, but in recent months the party's popularity has declined. The party is polling at around the 5 percent threshold. Svoboda faces the twofold challenge of competing with groups such as Right Sector for the support of far-right activists while also eschewing illegal or extremist activities in an effort to be allowed to partner with mainstream parties. Svoboda may lend its support to a potential coalition between Poroshenko's bloc and the People's Front. One other pro-Western party, Samopomich, led by Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi, could also make its way into parliament.

Finally, while the former ruling Party of Regions is not officially participating in the elections, some of its former members of parliament are expected to be re-elected as independents representing constituencies in central and eastern Ukraine. Moreover, two of the Party of Regions' successor parties — Strong Ukraine and Opposition Bloc — are polling in the vicinity of the minimum threshold for representation via party lists. Nevertheless, the remnants of the party will make up a very small proportion of the new parliament. The pro-Western parties are gaining strength, a fact that will be reflected in the elections.

Post-Election Challenges

Regardless of the exact makeup of the parliament, Ukraine has significant challenges ahead. Foremost is the separatist rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk. The parts of these provinces not under government control will not even take part in the elections and instead will hold their own local elections next month — elections Kiev has said it will not recognize. These heavily populated areas, which include the major urban centers of the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, are traditionally some of the most economically productive in the country. Supported by weapons and personnel from Russia, the separatist-held areas will thus continue to undermine Kiev's authority and pose a security and political threat to any pro-Western government in Ukraine.

Energy is another issue. Ukraine's supply of natural gas from Russia has been cut off since June. An agreement to get Ukraine through the winter and avoid a major crisis for the rest of Europe is likely in the near future, but it will be temporary. A prolonged dispute over Russian natural gas supplies to Ukraine gives Moscow yet another means of influencing Kiev's foreign policy, at least until Ukraine is able to diversify away from Russia — a process that will take several years.

The economy will also be a major challenge for the new government. Ukraine's economy will probably contract 7-8 percent this year, largely because of the crisis the country has experienced throughout the year. Most of Ukraine's coal, steel and other mineral resources are concentrated in the conflict zones of the eastern regions. Ukraine will thus need to rely on financial support from the IMF and the European Union, potentially to the tune of $15 billion to $20 billion in 2015 alone, to keep its economy afloat. In light of trade restrictions and additional energy manipulation, Ukraine may be forced to seek accommodation with Russia in at least some areas to lessen some of the economic pressures exerted by Moscow. Even with a more pro-Western parliament, Russia will be a significant counter to Ukraine's actual integration with the West.

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