Ukraine's Democracy Problem

Letter From Kiev's 217th Electoral District

A woman casts a ballot at a polling station during a parliamentary election in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, October 26, 2014. Vasily Fedosenko / Courtesy Reuters

A militant nationalist and a crook walk into a bar. It might sound like the beginning of a clichéd joke, but in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, the characters are all too real, and the “bar” is Electoral District 217 in the country’s capital, Kiev. In last weekend’s early parliamentary election, Andriy Biletsky, a commander of the ultranationalist volunteer battalion, Azov, ran against Vadym Stolar, a former member of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s now defunct Party of Regions. 

Biletsky sees himself, first and foremost, as a soldier and militant. A long-time member of various far-right ultranationalists in Ukraine, including the now internationally known Right Sector, he gained public attention for his role as commander of Azov during the brigade’s military campaign against Russian forces in Ukraine’s war-torn southeast. Azov’s volunteer fighters reportedly trained locals in the strategic port city of Mariupol to fend off a major Russian offensive in August. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko hailed the volunteers for their involvement, which along with other operations helped to keep strategic locations under Ukrainian control.

Biletsky’s political campaign for parliament included three slogans—Strong nation! Honest government! Powerful state!—but no real plans to deliver on them. The battleground for Biletsky remains the war. Should he win the election, he has no plans to abandon his position in Azov, which will remain his first priority. “Ukraine,” he said, “must realize that it has entered a war—one that won’t end any time soon.” As a parliamentarian, Biletsky plans to lobby on behalf of the volunteer battalions fighting in Ukraine’s east. This message seems to be winning some support: Biletsky was the frontrunner going into Sunday’s election. 

Stolar, the other frontrunner in District 217, was elected to parliament in 2007 as a deputy of the Party of Regions. He lost his seat in the 2012 elections, though, in a wave of anti-Yanukovych sentiment. Now Stolar is running as a self-nominated independent. His platform is even simpler than Biletsky’

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