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Table tennis rackets with pictures of Ukraine's President Yanukovych. (Gleb Garanich / Courtesy Reuters)
On October 28, Ukrainians will go to the polls for parliamentary elections. Just about everyone in the country believes that the result will be a victory for the ruling Party of Regions (PR), which, at first glance, would seem to reinforce the legitimacy of the increasingly authoritarian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
But few expect greater stability or effectiveness to follow. Up for grabs are 450 seats in Ukraine's parliament, the Rada. Of those, 225 will be filled from party lists. The other 225 will be filled by individuals campaigning in first-past-the-post districts. Polls suggest that the PR will win around 20 to 25 percent of the party-list seats. The Fatherland coalition, headed by the imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the former Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and the ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko's Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) will each likely get about 15 to 20 percent, and the Communists -- offering simple, clear, attractive, and unworkable solutions to Ukraine's many woes -- will double their electorate and win around 10 percent. The PR's share of the majoritarian deputies might be as much as 75 percent, thanks to its enormous financial resources and its domination of local electoral committees. All in all, the PR should win about half of the Rada's 450 seats.
A truly free and fair vote -- this will be neither -- would not produce a victory for the PR. Virtually every Ukrainian believes that the PR has done, and will do, everything it can to manufacture a win, including gerrymandering districts, buying votes, manipulating the vote count, stuffing electoral committees with loyalists, intimidating the opposition, restricting the freedom of the democratic press, and engaging in outright fraud. International observers will get to monitor only a tiny portion of the overall electoral process: the actual casting of ballots.
The PR has much to lose. The party elite's untrammeled accumulation (and continued retention) of wealth is dependent on its holding office. If it loses power, the elites lose their ill-gotten riches and the immunity from prosecution that deputy status gives them. Moreover, the enormously unpopular Yanukovych will never be able to win the 2015 general election, which will pick the next president. The only way he will be able to remain in office in the next decade is for the Rada to grant itself the power to select the president. That can happen only if the Party of Regions can muster a constitutional majority of 300 deputies.
In turn, a constitutional majority is possible only if the PR brings the Communists into a coalition or retains the loyalty of a substantial chunk of the first-past-the-post independents. The Communists could be unpredictable partners, as their devotion to Stalinism and populism stand in sharp contrast to the enrichez-vous culture of the PR. For their part, even the independents affiliated with the PR might discover, after they are elected, that they have a backbone and interests of their own. In other words, the very moves that are meant to ensure a stable Yanukovych-led government could create a parliament that is more polarized, more prone to fisticuffs, more an object of popular scorn, and less capable of passing good legislation.
IN OVER HIS HEAD
The PR will trumpet its victory as proof of its popular mandate, but nothing could be further from the truth. The PR is almost as widely detested as Yanukovych himself -- even within its electoral stronghold, Ukraine's southeastern rust-belt provinces centered on the Donbas. Two years ago, when Yanukovych was elected, hopes in the southeast were high for an economic boom and for reduced corruption. Instead, living standards have declined, the economy might very well start to freefall in 2013, and the Family -- as Yanukovych, his two sons, and their closest confidants are called -- has emerged as the wealthiest and most powerful clan in Ukrainian politics.
Regime effectiveness, already minimal to nonexistent, will decline after the elections. The Yanukovych administration's overcentralized nature has intensified the bureaucratic pathologies afflicting the Ukrainian state. These range from buck-passing to infighting to decision-making overload, and all of them amount to growing incompetence and inefficiency.
One of the latest such examples of incompetence was the adoption a few months ago of a law on languages. The bill was ostensibly meant to guarantee minority language rights. Instead, it discriminates against the majority -- Ukrainian speakers -- by increasing the Russian language's already dominant status in culture, media, and politics. And genuine minorities, such as Crimean Tatars, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Jews, and Romanians, will see no benefits.
There are already rumors that Ukraine's elites are growing dissatisfied with Yanukovych's misrule, as well they should be, given that their security and wealth are increasingly dependent on a president who seems more interested in building a palatial residence north of Kiev than in stemming a large European country's progressive descent to Third World status. Some Ukrainians even talk of a possible putsch by oligarchs and disgruntled PR elites. Whatever happens, it seems clear that the more firmly Yanukovych takes the reins, the worse things will be for Ukraine.
The foreign policy implications of the elections are no more encouraging. Yanukovych has diminished his already negligible credibility in the West by making a hash of the economy, rolling back Ukraine's advances toward democracy, and jailing Tymoshenko in what has been widely seen, in Ukraine and abroad, as a vindictive witch-hunt.
Just a few years ago, optimism flavored Ukraine's ties with the West, in particular with the European Union. Exhibit A was the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) that Kiev signed with the EU. The agreement was about more than trade; it was part of a broader Association Agreement, a foundation for Ukraine's integration into the EU. The DCFTA and the Association Agreement contained myriad provisions, ranging from civil liberties to economic transparency and deregulation, to make Ukraine adopt standards resembling those of the EU. Though no serious person thought that Ukraine would be a full-blown member of the EU anytime soon, the long march toward integration with Europe seemed to have begun.
But the faltering of democracy under Yanukovych has largely stalled Ukraine's movement toward the EU. The deepening crisis within the EU hasn't helped. With the union officially in an economic recession; with Greece, Spain, and Portugal floundering; and with the very future of the euro in doubt, the EU has other concerns. Engagement with the post-Soviet states to its east -- to say nothing of the enlargement of an organization whose budget is straining to meet the needs of existing members -- will not command much attention in Brussels.
There is also little chance that the United States will nudge the EU into reviving its ties with Ukraine. Washington has serious economic problems of its own, and these will continue to preoccupy whomever is elected president on November 6. A host of foreign policy priorities -- Iran's nuclear program, the civil war in Syria, the stability of an Afghanistan from which American and allied forces are exiting -- will push Ukraine further into the margins.
If there is a beneficiary of this state of affairs, it is Russia. Moscow has always been leery about the prospect of Ukraine's westward political and economic turn. The Kremlin made no secret of its unhappiness with the DCFTA and the Association Agreement; both threaten to reduce Ukraine's economic dependence on Russia and thus Moscow's leverage over Kiev. Now that Vladimir Putin has returned to the presidency, it is a safe bet that Russia will work even harder to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence. Ukraine's economic problems and political isolation from the West make Moscow's mission easier.
Indeed, Russia may now find it less difficult to sell to Ukraine the idea of joining the proposed Eurasian customs union, which would include Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Ukraine owes substantial sums to its domestic and international creditors, and those bills are coming due in the next year. The country needs help, and it probably won't get it from the International Monetary Fund, which, in 2011, refused to release any more money from the sum it had earlier pledged. The IMF concluded that Yanukovych had not implemented any of the reforms that he had agreed to as part of the deal. Russia could step in -- in exchange for Kiev's agreement to join the customs union. As a practical matter, Ukraine cannot simultaneously be part of a free trade agreement with the EU -- assuming that the DCFTA actually takes effect -- and be a member of the Customs Union. Closer economic ties with Russia would likely be at the expense of deeper ties with the EU.
Will Yanukovych surprise everyone and take steps to revive Ukraine's cooperation with Europe? Will he reform and professionalize his government? Don't count on it. He would first have to change his domestic politics -- and if he's demonstrated anything in the last few years, it's that strengthening his hold on power trumps all other considerations.