Preview of the 2006 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections

By
Erin Trouth Hofmann

The March 2006 parliamentary election "is potentially going to be Ukraine's first free and fair election since 1994," according to Taras Kuzio of George Washington University. At a 31 January 2006 Kennan Institute seminar, Kuzio, along with Adrian Karatnycky of Orange Circle, Mykola Riabchuk of University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and Lucan Way of Temple University, discussed potential outcomes for Ukraine's upcoming parliamentary elections. The panelists agreed that splits among the leaders of the Orange Revolution and popular dissatisfaction with the actions of President Viktor Yushchenko and his government have created a great deal of uncertainty about the country's political future.

Taras Kuzio argued that the disappointment that Ukrainian voters feel in Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and other leaders of the Orange Revolution goes "far, far beyond" the disappointment that inevitably follows the euphoria after a successful revolution. As a result of this disappointment, he explained, the largest faction in the next parliament will probably be the Regions of Ukraine party, led by Viktor Yanukovych. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party and the Tymoshenko Bloc could be competing for second and third place in the parliament, which will likely also include three smaller parties—the Lytvyn Bloc and the Communist and Socialist parties.

Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko bloc are expected to win enough seats that they could become the majority in parliament if they formed a coalition, Kuzio said, adding that the Socialists and the Lytvyn Bloc could also join such a coalition. However, he argued that this is not the only possible outcome. If Our Ukraine forms a coalition with the Regions of Ukraine party and the Lytvyn Bloc, or if Regions of Ukraine, the Lytvyn Bloc, and the Communist party can create a large enough coalition to name the government, Ukraine could return to the political climate that existed under Leonid Kuchma, Kuzio warned. "Stakes are extremely high," he said. "Sadly...I don't seem to get the impression that President Yushchenko understands this."

Adrian Karatnycky argued that Ukrainians are divided between those who believe that, with all its problems, the Orange Revolution was a positive event, and those who opposed the Revolution and do not see its leaders as trustworthy. It is too soon after the emotionally charged events of the Orange Revolution to expect these groups to cross over, he said. The "pro-Orange" segment of Ukrainian society includes at least 55 percent of the electorate, and Karatnycky believes that the most likely outcome of the March elections is the re-formation of a coalition between Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko bloc in order to create a parliamentary majority.

Karatnycky asserted that the Regions of Ukraine party is not as great a threat to democracy and market reform as is it sometimes considered: "The driving forces in the Regions Party are not Mr. Yanukovych, they are not Russia, they are not a pro-Russian orientation—they are the new, empowered, rich business elite." The party's official platform contains liberal elements, including decreased taxes for businesses and increased power to regional and local governments. In Karatnycky's view, if the Yushchenko government had prosecuted those members of the Regions party who were accused of crimes, the party could have become a positive force in Ukrainian politics.

Mykola Riabchuk contended that there are three identifiable—and nearly equal—groups within the Ukrainian electorate: Sovietophiles, who are characterized by a hierarchical political culture; Ukrainophiles, who have a strong attachment to some idea of a Ukrainian nation and who tend to have a more democratic political culture; and people without strong opinions who may side with either of the other groups. These divisions are deeply rooted in Ukrainian history, according to Riabchuk.

Despite these divisions within Ukrainian society, Riabchuk believes that there is little difference between any of the country's major political parties. "All these differences between Ukrainian politicians are of little significance, because all of them belong to the same generation," he said, adding that members of this generation were heavily influenced by Soviet political culture. Yushchenko's government now has access to the coercive mechanisms of Leonid Kuchma's "blackmail state," Riabchuk argued. While they may not wish to use these institutions, they have not been able to build new, more democratic, institutions.

Lucan Way addressed the issue of potential Russian influence in Ukraine's elections. He argued that, while Russia has substantial political, economic, and historical resources that could allow it to influence Ukrainian politics, "nonetheless there has been a disbalance between the power resources in Russia's hands, on one side, and its inability to shape domestic politics in Ukraine in ways intended, on the other." Way believes that Russia has had little success in achieving its policy objectives because Russia's leaders do not understand Ukraine. President Putin uses his resources in a heavy-handed manner when dealing with Ukraine, and alienates even the more pro-Russian Ukrainian leaders, Way contended. However, he argued that Russia's failure to influence the outcome of Ukraine's elections has been a positive factor in Ukrainian politics. "If Putin were able to play his hand as well as he should, I think Ukraine would be in much worse shape," Way concluded.

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