The Impact of the Ukrainian Elections


2012-10-28 by Richard Weitz

Today’s parliamentary elections matter more than many people realize.

Ukraine is the largest contiguous country on the European continent not extending into Asia. It shares borders with the Russian Federation, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, but the most important geopolitical consideration at present is that Ukraine lies between east and west, the old Soviet bloc and NATO/EU Europe.

The population of Ukraine is approximately 45.8 million; 78% are ethnic Ukrainians, 17% are ethnic Russians, and roughly 0.6% are ethnic Belarusians. The population is primarily urban and industrial regions in the east and southeast are the most heavily populated.

The distribution of these people adds an extra layer of complexity, with urban easterners generally looking eastward to Russia and western Ukrainians eager to move toward Brussels and the Western institutions based there.


Most of what is now modern Ukraine was annexed by Poland and Lithuania in the 14th century. Ukrainians had begun to feel like a distinct people. In the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned, much of modern-day Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire. In the 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled the extreme west of Ukraine, while the Russian Empire controlled the rest. Enthusiasm for Ukrainian culture stirred among Ukrainian writers and intellectuals as the nationalist spirit expressed by other Europeans inspired them. They set out to revive Ukrainian linguistic and cultural traditions, but encountered opposition by their imperial overseers.

After World War I and the Russian revolution, Ukrainians declared independent statehood; in 1917 Ukrainian autonomy was proclaimed and in 1918 following the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd, Ukrainians declared independence. Then ensued three years of conflict and civil war after which the western part of Ukraine became part of Poland and the central and eastern regions became part of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was officially established in 1922.

Ukrainian culture and education flourished until Stalin came to power and imposed a campaign of terror against the intellectual class, forcing collectivization. The Soviet government under Stalin created an artificial famine between 1932 and 1933, known as Holodomor, resulting in 3 million to 7 million deaths in Ukraine. When Stalin and Hitler divided Poland in 1939, western Ukraine was integrated into the Soviet Union. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some Ukrainians sided with them to escape Soviet communism. Some one million Ukrainian Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation, most famously at Babyn Yar near Kiev.

Ukraine is at the crossroads of Russia and Europe. And has found it difficult to find its identity and to define its place in the world. Credit Image: Bigstock 

Ukrainians violently resisted the return of Soviet rule into the 1950s. Thereafter, Ukrainian communists cautiously pursued nationalist objectives during periods of relative liberalization, such as under Nikita Khrushchev (1955-1964) and under Mikhail Gorbachev during “perestroika.” The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 and the authorities’ efforts to conceal the extent of the disaster helped revive Ukrainian dislike of Soviet rule. Many of them therefore strove to exploit the opening created by Gorbachev to seek independence from Moscow, declared on August 24, 1991.

Upon acquiring independence, Ukraine began a transition to a market economy but suffered significant economic slowdown during the recession from 1991 to 1999.

Ukraine at East-West Crossroads

Although Ukraine’s east-west divisions have gained in importance since the country became independent in 1991, they are long-standing.

For centuries, western Ukraine had belonged to Austria-Hungary and Poland, before the Soviet government forcefully incorporated it in the 1940s. Its primarily Ukrainian-speaking population generally is more pro-European and less inclined to look for political guidance from Moscow than the large Russian-speaking communities of the industrial regions of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s constitution formally gives the country a presidential-parliamentary system if government. The main branches consists of an executive branch with a president, prime minister and cabinet; a legislative branch with a 450-member unicameral parliament; and a judicial branch with a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, local courts, and a Constitutional Court.

In October 2010, the constitution was reformed – essentially all amendments have been repealed and Ukraine is again operating on the 1996 constitution. Most notably, presidential powers are expanded with the right to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister, other members of the government, other heads of national executive bodies, and heads of provincial and local administrations.

Despite having enormous natural and human endowments, Ukraine has experienced severe difficulties during the last two decades transitioning from a Soviet republic subordinate to Moscow to an independent country with a democratic political system.

They have found it difficult to shape an effective liberal market economy, and a foreign and defense policy that addresses the country’s peculiar national security requirements as a country that could serve as a bridge or front-line state between the former Soviet empire and the states of Western and Central Europe

Under President Viktor Yanukovich, in office since February 2010, Ukraine has declared its commitment to pursuing a “multi-vector” foreign policy intended to maintain good diplomatic relations with Russia, advance economic and political relations with EU Europe, and enhance Ukraine’s international status in collaboration with other countries such as the United States.

This balance is not equidistant.

Most Western governments have clearly circumscribed their defense pledges to Ukraine, which remains outside NATO and the European Union. Although unlikely at present, Ukraine remains acutely vulnerable to the emergence of a nationalist government in Russia that might seek to take some or all of its territory.

In November 2010, Ukraine was elected to assume the annually rotating Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2013. Yanukovich cited the selection as affirming the high appreciation by the international community of the achievements of Ukraine toward promoting European peace and security through its policy of neutrality as well as its building a democratic society in line with OSCE norms.

Western governments hope the responsibilities of the chairmanship will help sustain Ukraine’s independence and bridging role in Europe. But both they and Russian leaders are seeking to limit their reliance on Ukraine as a transit country by building alternative energy pipelines. If they are constructed, the result could be a major reduction in Ukraine’s importance in European and hence global affairs.

One way Ukraine does serve as a bridge country is as a conduit for energy flows from other former Soviet bloc states to European countries to Ukraine’s west.

But Ukraine’s own voracious dependence on Russian-controlled energy deliveries makes it harder to play this role. Energy politics has been an important foreign policy driver, most obviously by requiring Ukraine to have good relations with Russia and Europe as a key transit country between them.

Energy politics also manifests itself in shady ties and conflicts between national and transnational groups that exploit the lack of transparency in Russia and Ukraine to try to get rich quick.

Europe’s dependence on gas provides some balance since the EU, along with the United States and many international financial institutions, push for more respectable business practices.

All these energy elements figure centrally in Ukraine’s national security calculations.

Russia depends on Ukraine to transport gas to Europe and Ukraine’s economy depends on gas sales.

The countries hold each other at stalemate because, if Ukraine fails to pay Russia’s state gas monopoly for its own imports or rejects proposed price imports, Russia can discontinue these supplies. However, Ukraine can stop the flow of gas from Russia to Europe or, even more usefully, siphon off supplies from the pipelines traversing its territory. Any confrontation can damage the reputation of the other, hurt them economically, and humiliate them politically.

Still, Europeans have found themselves helpless bystanders when these disputes occur.

Because Gazprom and Naftogaz are both state-controlled and state-owned, political considerations heavily influence the business negotiations in an environment in which both Ukraine and Russia are noteworthy for the extent of their business-politics integration.

The Ukrainian Economic Challenge

Ukraine’s economy continues to grow modestly.

Accelerating the rate of growth requires that the government must make greater progress toward fiscal stability, economic diversification, and attracting more foreign direct investment.

The biggest challenge posed to Ukraine is to reduce its vulnerability to external shocks, especially interruptions in Russian energy deliveries. The authorities also need to make a greater effort toward improving the business climate and raising foreign investor confidence.

Excessive government regulations, corruption, and the lack of law enforcement are burdens for Ukraine’s economy. Key sectors such as energy and telecommunication must be privatized, the free sale of farmland must be allowed, and the economy must be reformed. Eliminating corruption is fundamental for economic reform and pivotal for improving relations with the West as well as Ukraine’s investment climate.

The Political Dynamic

Ukraine moved toward a stable political system under former President Leonid Kuchma, with adoption of a new constitution, but Kuchma became tainted with corruption, electoral fraud, repression of civil liberties, and consolidating excessive power in the executive branch.

During the 2004 elections, the Russian government visibly worked with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to secure then Prime Minister Yanukovich as Kuchma’s successor. Although the authorities initially declared Yanukovich the winner against Viktor Yushchenko, widespread evidence of vote-rigging led to three weeks of mass demonstrations by orange-clad protesters, most prominently those residing in the impromptu tent city rapidly established in Kiev’s central Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). To break the deadlock, the Ukrainian supreme court annulled the vote and ordered another round of balloting. Yushchenko emerged as the clear winner in what the international media took to calling the “Orange Revolution.”

Yushchenko’s honeymoon period was short-lived.

His popularity across Ukraine soon declined because of the faltering economy, accusations of corruption against his administration, visible in-fighting among the members of the Orange Revolution, seemingly gratuitous confrontations with Moscow, and general poor performance and seeming lack of energy to institute his reform agenda. . After becoming Prime Minister in August 2006, Yanukovich and his legislative allies–the Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU) joined with the Communist party (KPU)—formed an “Anti-Crisis Coalition” that blocked efforts to realign Ukraine away from Russia.

After Yushchenko and Tymoshenko made a deal to divide power between them, Tymoshenko became the leader of the parliamentary opposition. But Yanukovich and Yushchenko soon engaged in a protracted struggle for control over Ukraine’s political institutions.

Amendments to the Ukrainian constitution which went into effect in 2006 (they were adopted in December 2004 as part of the compromise ending the disputed presidential election) left uncertain the respective powers of the president, the legislature, and the cabinet heads. All three fought for control over government policy and the all-important foreign, defense, and interior ministries, whose leading officials waged vicious bureaucratic politics against each other and in opportunistic alliances with members of other executive branch bodies and the parliament.

Foreign policy issues did not play a major role in the 2007 elections, which largely focused on questions of the popularity, integrity, and effectiveness of the country’s leading politicians. Tymoshenko, Yanukovich, and Yushchenko all stressed their desire to enjoy good relations with both Russia and the West. They all expressed a desire for Ukraine to enter the World Trade Organization and, less realistically for the time being, the European Union. Yanukovich’s last-minute calls for national referenda on whether Ukraine should abandon its military neutrality (e.g., by joining NATO) or make Russian the second official state language failed to affect the outcome appreciably.

For her part, Tymoshenko made corruption a core element of her platform.  At the first cabinet meeting of her new term as prime minister, she announced a series of anticorruption measures for her new government.

Russian leaders, recognizing that Moscow’s heavy-handed intervention in 2004 probably backfired by alienating Ukraingian nationalists and by embarrassing Russia when its preferred candidate lost, took care to limit their visible involvement in the 2007 ballot.

In 2009, Yanukovich announced his candidacy for President and he ran against former Prime Minister Tymoshenko. In the subsequent presidential election, the divided reform camp proved unable to keep disillusioned voters from giving Yanukovich a narrow victory. He has since imprisoned Tymoshenko and kept the opposition divided and off-balanced.

Under Yanukovich, the influence of parliament, prime minister and government has been reduced; the presidential administration executes decisions; and prosecutors, the constitutional court, and the central bank have lost independence. Critics, including Western governments, worry that the government is using the corruption charges as a means to target past and potentially future political rivals. Yanukovich’s supporters can cite evidence of at least some corruption for most anyone.

The frequent elections, while a testimony to the persistence of deep political and other divisions among Ukrainians, also underscores their commitment to democracy and civil rights, despite the growing authoritarianism in many other former Soviet republics.

This strong commitment, further manifested by the large voter turnouts, has in turn explain the unanticipated ability of Ukrainians to sustain the first independent Ukrainian state in centuries, following the disintegration of the multinational Soviet Union in 1991.


Ukraine has yet to fully transition from a subordinate republic of the Moscow-dominated Soviet Union to a fully independent state able to exert influence in Europe and beyond commensurate with its size.

The next transition, to a liberal democratic state in which multiple parties compete and win elections will not occur until current President Yanukovich, who has centralized political power in his hands and regularly ignores the political opposition, and his administration leave office.