Ukraine: Game not over
Chatham House: Independent thinking on international affairs

An article by Institute Programme Director Arkady Moshes titled ‘Ukraine: Game not over’ appeared on the Chatham House webpage
Independent thinking on international affairs on 30 October.
The article deals with the Ukrainian parliamentary elections that were held on 28 October.

Ukraine’s parliamentary elections of 28 October were all set to be
yet another instrument for perpetuating president Viktor Yanukovych’s
stay in power.

The jailing of political opponents, selective justice and the
persecution of non-conformist media meant that winning this election for
Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions was pre-programmed. The opposition,
deprived of its charismatic leader Yulia Timoshenko and unable to fully
overcome internal conflicts and cleavages, had little chance to beat the
well-disciplined Party of Regions, which relied on state financial and
administrative resources in the run-up. Securing the majority of votes
cast for the party lists, where half of all parliamentary seats are
distributed, was not a life-or-death issue for the Party. It was
expected to benefit strongly from a comfortable lead in single-mandate

Results so far indicate that the Party of the Regions received 31% of
the ballot, suggesting that together with potential allies from the
Communist Party and a prospective number of independent deputies, it may
try to form a constitutional majority in Ukraine’s parliament, the
Verkhovna Rada. After that, the Party could usher in a new law on the
election of the president so that next time, the leader could be elected
by parliament instead of direct popular vote.

There is little doubt in the West that the regime’s political goal,
like some of its regional neighbours, is consolidation of power. The
EU’s most senior authorities have stated many times that developments in
Ukraine are not isolated incidents, but are systemic in character. The
criticism of these elections by OSCE observers supports this conclusion.
Relations between the West and Ukraine have noticeably worsened of
late. The signing of the EU-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement and Association
Agreement has been postponed. But Kyiv chose not to hear the signals
and proceeded towards its objective.

However, while well under way, this process is not foregone.

First, the leader’s legitimacy matters in Ukraine. In 2010, Viktor
Yanukovych became the country’s first president without an absolute
majority. He now has his lowest ratings and his party has just received
less than one-third of the vote, so he cannot assume that his
re-election in parliament will be silently accepted by the nation.

Second, Ukraine’s economic situation is alarming. Prospects for
growth are slim, external debt is high and gold and currency reserves
are decreasing. An authoritarian system is easier to build when a ruler
is in possession of abundant resources. Otherwise, it risks assuming not
only the powers and privileges, but takes full responsibility, thus
becoming the focal point of peoples’ discontent.

Third, external pressure is acute. The Kremlin has made it clear that
it would like to see Kyiv abandon its European project and join Russia
in its attempts to economically and geopolitically reintegrate the
post-Soviet space. Moscow is ready to pay for that with cheaper gas, but
accepting the offer without caveats would be against the business
interests of the president’s cronies. More importantly, Russia could
then regain the role of the king-maker in Ukraine’s domestic politics –
something it has lost in recent years.

The vicious circle can only be broken if Kyiv manages to maintain the
balancing act it has been doing since independence. This keeps the
window of opportunities for Western policy open. However, the approach
has to be revised. Instead of being a passive observer and repeating the
mantra of the ‘ball being in Ukraine’s court’, Washington and the EU
should again become active players. There is no need for new quid pro
quo negotiations. The carrots have been on the table long enough. If the
impression emerges that a normalization of relations today can be
traded for the correction of regime’s behaviour in future, the game is
lost – there is no guarantee that the deal will be respected.

Only a position of principle that further deterioration of democracy
in Ukraine will have direct implications for key regime figures – for
their personal plans and interests in the West – might reverse the
negative trends in Ukraine’s political development.

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