Putin Narrative of Abandoned Ukraine East Fueled by Vote

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Ukraine Election
A man reviews informational posters about parliamentary candidates at a polling station in Kiev, Ukraine, on Oct. 26, 2014. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin may have more ammunition to extend his influence over the Ukraine’s war-torn east after the country’s parliamentary election.

A surge in support for pro-European parties leaves the area, the bedrock of ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych’s popularity, with less of a say in the nation’s future. Parties backing President Petro Poroshenko’s bid to steer Ukraine away from its Soviet past are set to form a coalition, a move that may make reconciliation in the east more difficult and fuel complaints from Putin that Russian speakers are being trampled.

The outcome will muffle input from areas that hug Russia’s border as Poroshenko embarks on a political and economic transformation he says will prime Ukraine for European Union membership. It risks further inflaming tensions between Russia and its former Cold War adversaries, whose clashes over the annexation of Crimea and Ukraine’s insurgency have triggered a wave of sanctions.

“Besides the near-collapse of former President Yanukovych’s camp, several seats have been left unoccupied and the east saw a comparably low turnout,” Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, said by e-mail from London. “Russia will almost certainly challenge the legitimacy and representativeness of these elections.”

Wartime Vote

The ballot took place amid a shaky cease-fire in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where pro-Russian separatists blocked voting in the areas they control. Turnout was just over 30 percent, about half what it was two years ago.

The party of Sergei Tigipko, a cabinet member under Yanukovych, failed to breach parliament’s 5 percent entry barrier. The Opposition Bloc that contains former Yanukovych allies garnered 9.8 percent of nationwide party-list votes, according to early results, a third of what the deposed leader’s Party of Regions received at the 2012 election.

While the bloc can team up with like-minded independent lawmakers and win more seats in the single-seat districts that make up almost half of parliament, it will face a coalition that could secure a two-thirds constitutional majority.

That alliance won’t stick up for residents of eastern Ukraine, according to Opposition Bloc member Sergei Larin.

“They’ve entrusted us with their voices as the opposition to the power that today does virtually nothing for the people,” he said, according to an e-mailed statement.

‘Our Guys’

While Yanukovych and members of his regime face allegations of embezzlement, which they deny, the sense that the government back in Kiev isn’t fighting the east’s corner is widespread and his former allies maintain popularity.

“I voted for the Opposition Bloc because they’re our guys and I trust them,” Ivan Sergienko, 45, a worker at a machine-building plant in the Donetsk region town of Kramatorsk, said yesterday. He backed ex-Party of Regions lawmaker Yuriy Boyarskyi in his single-seat constituency.

While the government has passed a bill to keep former associates of Yanukovych from senior state roles, the new rules don’t apply to parliament and some of his allies are set for success as independents. Early results also suggest a surprise victory for the Opposition Bloc in the Dnipropetrovsk region that borders Donetsk.

The election result has been met by skepticism in Russia, which justified its annexation of Crimea by saying Russian-speaking Ukrainians were in danger after Yanukovych was toppled. Putin, who denies accusations he’s behind the conflict in Donbas, backs separate elections for the rebel-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Foreign Influence

While Russia recognizes the results of yesterday’s ballot, a senior lawmaker said today that the vote is part of efforts by Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk to make Ukraine dependent on the U.S. and Europe.

Poroshenko’s bloc and and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front “are striving to subjugate Ukraine to foreign centers of influence and they’re successful,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, said in an interview with the Itar-Tass news service. “This has nothing to do with the independence of Ukraine, which is held up as the main goal and foundation of the current ideology.”

Since his election in May, Poroshenko has signed a political association pact with the European Union that was opposed by much of eastern Ukraine, as well as Russia. He wants his nation ready to apply for EU membership in 2020.

Deeper Wedge

“The election of pro-Western politicians is unlikely to appease rebels in the east of the country or, indeed, Russia,” said Liza Ermolenko, an analyst at Capital Economics Ltd. in London. “The slow-burning conflict in the east looks set to continue.”

Yesterday’s vote will probably drive a deeper wedge between residents of eastern Ukraine and the government in Kiev, according to Serhiy Yahnych and Yevgeniy Orudzhev, analysts at BNP Paribas SA’s Ukrainian unit, Ukrsibbank. They note that almost 3 million people were unable to vote yesterday.

“Kiev will surely be accused of defying the voice of those people,” they said today in a note. “This could imply the gap between ‘mainland’ Ukraine and its two eastern regions will probably grow wider, making re-integration of those regions into Ukraine, in whatever form, more difficult.”

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