Ukraine Votes, With More Strife to Come
A revolution, a military defeat and an economic collapse: There is no better cure for a nation's political immaturity. The results of yesterday's parliamentary election indicate that Ukrainians have taken their bitter pills and are on their way to recovery -- except that things will probably get worse for them before they get better.
It was just two years ago that Ukrainians elected a parliament dominated by President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions (which included corrupt local bigwigs) and the Communist Party. By 2013, the Ukrainian economy, weighed down by Yanukovych's oversize social obligations and heedless graft, had failed to grow, and after the government tried to roll back political freedoms, an uprising brought it down.
This year, with Crimea annexed by Russia and pro-Moscow rebels blocking the vote in part of eastern Ukraine, it was as if an entirely different country was casting ballots. The Communists are gone from parliament, and so is the ultranationalist Svoboda party, which won 10 percent of the 2012 parliamentary vote.
With 50 percent of the party-list vote counted, the remnants of Yanukovych's political machine, now known as the Opposition Bloc, were scoring just less than 10 percent. Three parties dominated: the Popular Front, headed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk; President Petro Poroshenko's bloc; and a new political force called Samopomich (Self-Help), founded by Andriy Sadovoy, mayor of the western city of Lviv. These are all pro-European groups whose rosters include a striking number of new names: muckraking political journalists, commanders of volunteer battalions in the campaign against pro-Russian leaders in eastern Ukraine, and entrepreneurs from Ukraine's dynamic tech industry.
As Vladimir Fedorin, a senior Russian journalist now living in Kiev, pointed out in a recent column, the parties' electoral programs were not nearly as populist as they were two years ago: No one promised a tripling of the average salary in five years (one of the Party of Regions' 2012 slogans) or drastic increases in social pay-outs (something the anti-Yanukovich camp dangled before its voters). It would have been useless to ignore Ukraine's harsh economic reality; all the parties that did well promised deregulation and pro-business moves rather than more spending.
These promises are sober but, alas, no more likely to be kept. Since Poroshenko's election in May, the political leaders who will set up the ruling coalition have had plenty of time to implement radical reforms, but they've done nothing of the kind, using the Russian meddling in the east as a pretext not to deal with the economy.
"It's good that this generation of Ukrainians sees democracy and a parliament without Communists," economist Pavlo Sheremeta, who served briefly as economic minister in Yatsenyuk's cabinet but quit in frustration, wrote on Facebook. "Yet it looks as though only the next generation will see true reforms."
His pessimism may be justified because ambitious Yatsenyuk did better than expected and power-hungry Poroshenko did worse. That means the president suddenly has a political rival with more popular support than that of his own bloc -- setting the two of them up for the kind of infighting that ruined Ukraine's previous chance at economic and political revival 10 years ago.
Besides, Yatsenyuk, who will probably stay on as prime minister, has done nothing to demonstrate that he might have the stomach for the major spending cuts Ukraine needs, now that it faces a deficit of 10 percent to 15 percent of gross domestic product. A group of Western economists has recently called on the Kiev government to eliminate energy subsidies and shake up the pension system to reduce spending by 10 percent of GDP. After the obvious erosion of his support in the past six months, Poroshenko will be hesitant to allow this, and Yatsenyuk will be wary of jeopardizing his seemingly brilliant political prospects.
While ordinary Ukrainians may have been cured of their political and economic naivete in the past 12 months, the country's political elite is still short on vital governing skills. Poroshenko's son appears to have gotten into parliament after running on his father's party ticket, just as Yanukovych's younger son once did. Campaign spending from illegal slush funds was at least as rampant this year as it was in 2012. Ukraine is still a nation that deserves better government than it's going to get.
It is also still a nation divided. In five eastern regions, the Opposition Bloc drew the most votes. Poroshenko won in central Ukraine, while Yatsenyuk triumphed in the staunchly pro-European west. Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression brought Ukrainians closer together, their country remains a political, economic and cultural quilt. That, along with the political class's stubborn incompetence, is a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who still hopes to claw back control over Russia's biggest post-Soviet neighbor.
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