How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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’s—peace, security, and patriotism—and is even less supported by an ideological program.
Stolar is best known for his shady real-estate dealings. As a construction company owner, he was allegedly involved in a scheme to illegally build a high rise in the center of Kiev. The plan never went through, and, as often happens in Ukraine, the investors’ initial deposits simply vanished into thin air. Stolar denies these allegations, but his pre-election activities have not redeemed his reputation. Stolar’s campaign reportedly bought new mailboxes for voters in his district in the weeks leading up to the elections—an activity that amounted to indirect vote buying, according to the civil society watchdog, OPORA.
In all of this, Poroshenko’s bloc, which is expected to take the largest share of votes nationwide, is barely visible in District 217. And it has not fared as well as expected across the rest of the country, either. Support for Poroshenko’s party has declined as the situation in the war-torn Donbas region has taken a turn for the worse over the last month. In September, the president’s party enjoyed over 40 percent support. As polling stations closed on Sunday night, exit polls showed the party taking 23 percent of the vote. Official results are expected within ten days after the elections.
It isn’t as if there is an extremely popular new party stealing Poroshenko’s voter support. In the post-Maidan period, the country remains politically divided: No forward-looking narrative that could unite the entire country has emerged. Political candidates—Biletsky, Stolar, and scores like them across the country—have put forth meaningless slogans rather than concrete plans for reform. This lack of real options is one reason why one in four Ukrainians remained undecided about whom they would vote for on the eve of the elections.
In the end, Poroshenko’s bloc, which includes the president’s Solidarity Party and Kiev Mayor Viktor Klitschko’s UDAR, will likely win a plurality of votes, but not a majority, and so it will have to form a coalition government with one or more of the six other parties that are set to surpass the five percent threshold required for parliamentary representation (in total, 29 parties ran). Poroshenko’s bloc will enter a coalition with its ally, Prime Minister’s Arseny Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, which likely performed better than expected with about 21 percent of the vote, and the western Ukrainian Selfhelp party, which is expected to come in third with 13 percent, according to Sunday’s exit polls. Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, once the darling of the opposition under Yanukovych, performed poorly and will likely just barely cross the five percent threshold. A coalition between the top-three performers will give the president’s party a political mandate but, if history has any lessons to teach, the alliance may prove to be shaky.
Coalition governments in Ukraine have a long history of falling into squabbles and splintering almost as quickly as they are formed. Many in Ukraine blame political infighting for the disappointing lack of reforms following the 2005 Orange Revolution that set the stage for Yanukovych’s rise to power in 2010. With Yanukovych now in hiding in Russia, the memory of post-revolutionary disillusionment has weighed heavily on the election season. Although Yanukovych’s Party of Regions has virtually dissolved, familiar faces remain on the list of candidates for Poroshenko’s bloc. Ukrainian media has criticized Poroshenko for not taking a stronger stance against former Party of Regions representatives who have now reappeared on the scene. Ultimately, the choice made in the voting booth will come down to a candidate’s personal appeal rather than programmatic concerns.
The somber mood on this unseasonably cold October weekend is a far cry from the feelings of unity that brought Poroshenko to the presidency in May of this year. I was in Kiev during those elections as well. Then, the city was abuzz with newfound pragmatic optimism: The challenges that Ukraine was facing were already painfully clear, but in those warm late-spring weeks they stills seemed manageable. Today, Ukrainians are losing hope that the West is still on their side. In September, Poroshenko gave an impassioned speech to the U.S. Congress. He asked for direct military support. Instead, he got $53 million in aid—less than what the United States spends in a week on fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
The difficulty of Poroshenko’s position cannot be understated: Since taking office five months ago, Ukraine’s economy has plummeted and the country has plunged into an all-out war with Russia—one the Ukrainian government is on the verge of losing, militarily and ideologically. The ceasefire agreement dictated by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in September is said to be holding, but reports of shelling continue to trickle out of Ukraine’s east. Both sides seem to be at fault for the continued fighting. In the separatist-controlled districts, the Russian-backed rebels are busy setting up mini-Sovietesque states under the banners of Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. Approximately 55–70 percent of voters in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, respectively, will not be able to take part in the national parliamentary elections, according to estimates from the civil society election monitoring organization, the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (CVU). The separatists plan to hold their own elections on November 2.
Will the outcome of these elections matter? One upside is the appearance of new faces among the ranks of candidates: Maidan activists and journalists are running for the first time. Most notable among them are Mustafa Nayyem, the investigative journalist credited with starting the Maidan protests with a Facebook post, and Tetyana Chornovol, the anti-corruption crusader who left her position as head of the government’s anti-corruption bureau in August because of a “lack of political will.” Now, Chornoval aims to reform the government from within. However, even if they win, it is unlikely that a handful of activist reformers spread across various political parties will be able to bring profound reform in a stodgy 450-seat parliament. (Especially not since Biletsky, the Azov militant, seems to have won District 217). But their participation is symbolically important. In Ukraine’s polarized political environment, activist reformers are a breath of fresh air. And today, more than ever, Ukrainians need a taste of hope, no matter how small.