Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
On October 26, Ukrainians will go to the polls to elect a new national parliament, an institution that scored a trust rating of a mere 19 percent in a recent survey. Only the Russian media polled worse, at 4 percent. Still, the election is viewed as necessary to rebuild the government’s credibility, even though only 1.3 million out of 3.3 million citizens living in the eastern Donbas area of Ukraine will be able to vote.
According to the latest polls, the Strong Ukraine party of Serhiy Tihipko, a former central bank chair, as well as the anti-Euromaidan Opposition Bloc could sneak into the parliament. Both parties represent remnants of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions—with that party’s old faces, methods, and grievances.
Ballots in Donetsk and Luhansk could put political leaders in charge of military ones.Tweet This
Separate elections in Donbas will be a step toward forming a new (pro-Russian) political elite in eastern Ukraine. Like the national parliamentary vote, the ballots in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk aim to produce a certain credibility and put political leaders in charge of military ones.
If that happens, Kiev could gain a more acceptable partner for the implementation of the Minsk Protocol, which seeks to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, while Moscow might be more willing to bail out the area. Perhaps both capitals realize what the experience of other frozen conflicts suggest: that pursuing mutual economic interests is a better way to overcome the trauma of recent bloodshed than continuing military and political confrontation. But can Ukraine and Russia gain control of the actors on the ground?
Ukraine’s parliamentary election on October 26 will pose many questions. Can the election be free and fair when voters in eastern parts of the country controlled by separatist rebels will find it difficult or impossible to vote? Pre-electoral bribery, intimidation, and violence are already widespread. Around 200 candidates linked to the regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych, including a number of oligarchs, may be elected to the 450-seat parliament.
Can #Ukraine's election be free and fair when voters in the east can't vote?Tweet This
Six parties, none with a coherent vision for the country’s future, may reach the 5 percent electoral threshold, producing a fragmented legislature. The Petro Poroshenko Bloc may be the largest party, but with no more than 20 percent of the vote, it would struggle to lead a fractious coalition open to outside manipulation. A questionable election could confirm the deep divisions in Ukraine and lead to further drift.
Yet this election could reinforce the country’s precarious stability and strengthen Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s mandate to implement painful reforms. That would be a boon as he confronts the rebellion in the east, fuel shortages, power outages, reduced industrial capacity, and falling tax revenues. The EU and the United States, as well as the IMF and other international financial institutions, should provide additional support during the difficult winter ahead.
The upcoming parliamentary election in Ukraine is of great importance, as it will help reaffirm the country’s democratic, European course. Ukraine’s current parliament is the same institution that approved the criminal military actions of the regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych against the Euromaidan civil society movement. The composition of the legislature today does not reflect the aspirations of Ukraine’s citizens.
#UkraineVotes is important as it will help reaffirm Ukraine's democratic, European course.Tweet This
There is hope that the election will bring about significant change in the parliament’s political elite. The lists of candidates include leaders, activists, and journalists who were among the ranks of the Euromaidan. This rich diversity of reform-minded candidates is a significant and positive sign of change. The election of a new generation of politicians will be a crucial step in Ukraine’s democratization, reform, and Europeanization process. But one has to bear in mind that the same lists of candidates also include names of compromised politicians from the past.
The eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk will not participate in the parliamentary election. Instead, these occupied areas will hold illegal separatist polls, which will unfortunately strengthen the regions’ status as zones of frozen conflict. Yet the fact that the national election will not be held on all of Ukraine’s territory—as Crimea and Donbas will be excluded due to Russian invasion and occupation—will not lessen the vote’s democratic legitimacy. The same was true for Ukraine’s presidential election in May 2014.
However, the election will not help the implementation of the Minsk Protocol, a multiparty agreement to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, because the parties in Moscow, Donetsk, and Luhansk continue to break the protocol’s provisions.
The Ukrainian parliamentary election due on October 26 will not help the country as much as one would hope. The vote will accentuate rather than diminish the divisions that underpin the current conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Elections will accentuate the divisions that underpin the conflict in eastern #Ukraine.Tweet This
But as these divisions exist already and are not created by the ballot, the election will not exactly hinder Ukraine either. Aside from ongoing violations of the ceasefire between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces in the east of the country, the election may precipitate protests in Kiev. That would be a clear manifestation of the pressure President Petro Poroshenko faces from his own support base.
The bottom line is that the parliamentary election is necessary to move beyond the Euromaidan protest movement and the interim government that oversaw its aftermath. But the vote does not provide answers to the many pressing political and economic issues Ukraine currently faces. It “simply” establishes parts of the political foundations needed to address these issues. This is no small feat under the circumstances, but the predicted clear-cut win of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc should be seen in this light.
The election reaffirms Poroshenko’s mandate to seek a way out of the crisis. At the same time, it highlights the political uncertainty over the status of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area, where electoral participation will at best be patchy.
Elections at this stage will certainly help more than hinder Ukraine. The country’s current parliament has become largely dysfunctional, with shifting and unclear majorities. While it has passed some important laws, the legislature is not in a position to push through major reforms.
Although elections cannot be held in those parts of Donbas run by rebel forces or in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, the new parliament will nonetheless be more representative of popular attitudes than the current one.
The question is whether #Ukraine's new parliament will adopt a constructive culture.Tweet This
On this basis, a new Ukrainian government can be formed and can undertake reforms, despite ongoing uncertainty in Donbas. The main question is whether the new parliament will adopt a constructive political culture that allows for substantive debates and cooperation on key aspects of the reform agenda.
If rival elections are held as planned in November in the areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-supported separatists, these votes will neither conform to the Minsk Protocol nor be recognized by Kiev.
Yet the most problematic aspect of the protocol involves not the question of elections but Russia’s unwillingness to allow systematic, independent monitoring of its border with Ukraine. This is a much greater hindrance to achieving a stable solution for Donbas than any elections the separatists might hold.
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