Fear of democratic backslide under Yanukovych as Ukraine prepares for elections

In the same month as voters went to the polls in the country that spawned the ‘Rose’ Revolution in 2005, voters in the country that launched the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004 will elect a new parliament on October 28.

Unlike in Georgia, where the election has so far augured a peaceful transition of power following a mostly free and fair election, Ukraine’s parliamentary elections seems likely to showcase conditions that are only partly free and fair.  In, Ukraine, the once-robust push for democratic reforms and a stronger rule of law has stalled in the past eight years, with the country’s chief opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, languishing in prison on politically motivated charged.

The former president whose candidacy launched the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, is widely unpopular after his presidency was marked by infighting among various pro-Western allies (including Tymoshenko) and the failure to live up to the promise of his candidacy.  Despite being poisoned in advance of the election and a rigged vote that aimed to install the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych as president, Ukraine re-held the election under international pressure — Yushchenko won the second election and served as president until 2010.  In the first round of the 2010 presidential election, however, Yushchenko barely won over 5% of the vote.

In that same election, Yanukovych (Yushchenko’s rival in 2004), won a narrow election against the more pro-Western prime minister Tymoshenko (Yushchenko’s subsequent rival).

Since 2010, Yanukovych and his prime minister Mykola Azarov have governed Ukraine with a more pro-Russia foreign policy, but have backtracked somewhat on human rights and rule of law — the most notable instance being Tymoshenko’s trial on charged filed almost immediately after the 2010 president election and her imprisonment in 2011.  Her former minister of internal affairs, Yuri Lutsenko, has also been tried and convicted.

Tymoshenko was found guilty of abuse of office with respect to brokering the Russian gas pipeline deal in 2009 as prime minister.  The European Union and outside observers believe the charges and imprisonment are politically motivated, despite insistence from Yushchenko (after the fact) that the pipeline deal was criminal.  The deal came after Russia had shut off access to gas flows for 13 days to Ukraine and accordingly, much of southeastern Europe.  Yanukovych and Yushchenko both argue that the deal was unfair to Ukraine, although Tymoshenko is hardly a Russian shill and, in any event, the more pro-Russian Yanukovych administration has not so much as tried to renegotiate the deal following Tymoshenko’s conviction.

So it’s not incredibly clear how a former prime minister’s conduct in negotiating an agreement under duress is criminal conduct.

As such, there’s cause for concern that the upcoming elections will memorialize a significant backslide for Ukraine’s fragile democratic institutions.

Ukrainians will elect the 450 members of the unicameral parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, half of whom will be elected by proportional representation (only parties that win over 5% of the vote will be eligible to be awarded seats) and the other half will be elected directly in districts — a significant change from the last elections in 2007, which were fully determined by proportional representation.

Ukrainian politics is highly polarized between Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east of the country more oriented toward Moscow and Ukrainian speakers in the western half of the country more oriented toward the European Union.  

The pro-Russian movement in Ukrainian politics has long been unified under Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (Партія регіонів), but the more pro-Western elements have often been divided.  They are currently divided between two main political groups, Tymoshenko’s center-right ‘All Ukrainian Union — Fatherland’ party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання “Батьківщина, Batkivshchyna) and a new party founded by boxer Vitaliy Klychko, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (Український демократичний альянс за реформи).  Klychko, perhaps the most tantalizing wild card in the elections, has ruled out any coalition with Yanukovych’s party, and it may be possible for the various pro-Western groups to coalesce to form a majority in the Verkhovna Rada.

The latest polls show that although the Party of Regions would win the largest amount of support (27.8% of likely voters), Fatherland and UDAR together might be able to form a majority — Fatherland polls 19.4% of likely voters and UDAR, 16.6%.  Among the three, Klychko’s UDAR seems to have the most momentum, which is perhaps not surprising given that Azarov’s government and Yanukovych’s presidency are now unpopular and that the charismatic Tymoshenko remains in prison.

Ukraine’s economy rebounded somewhat last year to GDP growth of almost 5%, after contracting almost 15% three years ago during the financial crisis.  Nonetheless, growth has stalled in 2012, unemployment remains high, inflation has been an issue, and a loan from the International Monetary Fund has been frozen because Ukraine refuses to allow energy prices to rise in order to trim its deficit.

In addition to the top three parties, Ukraine’s Communist Party (Комуністична партія України), which dates back to the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet Communist Party, has joined governing coalitions with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in the past, would win 11.2% of likely voters, which would be its best result in over a decade.

Two smaller parties are polling at or below the 5% threshold: the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” (Всеукраїнське об’єднання «Свобода»), a far-right, nationalist, pro-Western party wins 4.7% of likely voters, and the center-left Ukraine-Forward! (Україна – Вперед!) party, formerly the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party, and a likely ally of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland, would win 2.8%.

Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine (Наша Україна) party, which won 14% in the 2007 parliamentary elections, polls 1% or lower in 2012, and is not expected to win any seats.