President Petro Poroshenko called early parliamentary elections for Sunday in the hope of shoring up Ukrainian unity after a tumultuous winter revolt that swept a Kremlin ally from power only to have Russia strike back with a bloody separatist uprising in the east.
But the toll of war and a tanking economy have opened new divisions in Ukraine, threatening to produce a parliament as riven with discord as the last one and empower right-wing politicians, just as the Kremlin has warned.
Poroshenko’s victory in the May 25 presidential election reflected a rare moment of Ukrainians coming together in a time of crisis to install a leader in whom Western allies could invest their trust and assistance.
The candy magnate has seen that popular enthusiasm slip, though, as the Ukrainian military — left to deteriorate throughout Ukraine’s 23 years of independence — failed to recover the eastern territory lost in battles that have cost at least 3,700 lives and more than $1 billion.
In addition to draining the already-depleted treasury, the “anti-terrorism operation” in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has distracted Poroshenko and reform-minded politicians from their pledges during last year’s uprising to root out corruption and end a legacy of profligate government spending.
Ukraine’s excuse that it must first defend its territory from Russia’s aggression has worn thin with allies in the United States and Europe who want to see more progress on reform.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has lain low in recent weeks, saying little about the Ukrainian unrest he is widely blamed for inciting other than to point the finger at Washington for the deadly chaos. On Friday, Putin lashed out at U.S. foreign policy, accusing Washington of trying to dislodge Russia from its historical sphere of influence in the former Soviet region.
Putin cast his seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula after the ouster of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich in February as necessary to protect Russians from orchestrated repression by Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Russia’s state-controlled media presented the overthrow as the work of neo-fascists now turning their menace on Ukraine’s Russian minority.
Ukraine’s Radical Party entered Sunday’s voting in the second-strongest position after Poroshenko’s bloc. That sets up a likely scenario in which the president’s political faction will be forced to include the right-wing party in a governing coalition.
A survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Kiev International Institute of Sociology forecast a 30% share of the vote for Poroshenko’s bloc and 13% for the Radicals led by Oleh Lyashko, a former journalist who has done prison time for embezzlement and drawn condemnation from human rights groups as an anti-Russia vigilante.
The election is also complicated by the separatists’ rejection of an offer of more autonomy for the Russia-leaning eastern regions. The self-proclaimed leaders of the breakaway People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have refused to allow parliamentary voting in the territory they control, claiming they are no longer part of Ukraine.
Mykhaylo Okhendovsky, head of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, estimated that about 20% of Ukraine’s 46 million people live in Crimea and the disputed eastern regions.
Not all areas of Donetsk and Luhansk will be cut off from voting. The commission estimates that polling places can safely open in about one-third of the voting districts. But voter apathy fueled by the protracted unrest that has gripped Ukraine since November is especially strong in the east.
“I could vote if I wanted to, but why?” asked Oksana Balandina, a masseuse from Luhansk who fled in July after her apartment was damaged by shelling. “The election is not going to change the situation. I wouldn’t even know who to vote for; no one I know is running.”
The displaced, who number close to 1 million, will be allowed to vote anywhere in the proportional half of the election, in which 225 of the 450 Supreme Council seats will be distributed according to the share of the vote garnered by each party.
The other 225 seats are decided by single-mandate elections in which voters choose an individual candidate. But with the loss of Crimea’s 12 direct-voted seats and about 15 in the separatist-held regions, the election will do little to give residents of those areas a voice in national politics.
Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government and its Western allies say the vote can give impetus to reform.
“We’ve been very pleased to see a lot of new entrants into politics, particularly from the Maidan movement,” said Laura Jewett, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute’s Eurasia programs director. “It seems to be a very healthy sign of democracy that they are transitioning from the politics of protest to the politics of government.”
It was in Kiev’s Maidan, also known as Independence Square, that Ukrainians rose up against Yanukovich after he capitulated to Putin’s pressure to scuttle a trade agreement with the European Union. Three months of protests reached a violent crescendo in February that left at least 100 dead before Yanukovich fled to Russia. Putin calls the ouster of his ally a coup d’etat by right-wing nationalists.
Michael Druckman, Ukraine director for the Washington-based International Republican Institute, points to the increase in the number of female and young candidates in the election, holding forth promise of a rejuvenation of the power corridors long dominated by figures associated with corruption.
Others urge patience with a leadership beset with existential threats.
U.S. billionaire George Soros, in an article to be published in next month’s New York Review of Books, pleads for European leaders to cease demanding the impossible of embattled Kiev and provide Ukraine with an immediate $20-billion lifeline.
“It is high time for the members of the European Union to wake up and behave as countries indirectly at war,” Soros writes, warning of a threat of Russian imperialism spreading to EU member states. The Europeans, he said, “are better off helping Ukraine to defend itself than having to fight for themselves.”