By James Kirchick
The Ukrainian people emerged from the polls on Sunday with an unambiguous message: They wish to continue their turn to Europe.
Five months after electing a pro-Western president in the form of confectionary magnate Petro Poroshenko, and nearly a year after the start of the Maidan revolution that ousted the corrupt regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainians expressed widespread support for parties promising sweeping reforms, a pro-European foreign policy, and an end to the corruption that has long plagued this country of 45 million people. Poroshenko had called for the snap elections in August, after finding it difficult to work with a parliament still riddled with deputies from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which had dissolved itself soon after the ex-president’s flight from the country in February. Poroshenko’s eponymous political faction is expected to form a workable coalition with that of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the country’s youthful and energetic prime minister.
The election was historic for several reasons, not the least of which is that it will be the first Ukrainian parliament since the Bolshevik Revolution that doesn’t include the Communist Party. And instead of the traditional East-West regional divide that has characterized Ukrainian politics over the past quarter century, this parliament is expected to focus primarily on substance rather than spoils. Allies of the ex-president, who had regrouped themselves into a new party called the Opposition Bloc, received less than 10 percent of the national vote. Also promising is the new crop of fresh young faces — activists from the Maidan and investigative journalists like Mustafa Nayem and Democracy Lab contributor Sergii Leshchenko — who will be taking seats in the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s national assembly.
The most basic question hanging over the election is that of legitimacy. Some 5 million Ukrainians — nearly 10 percent of the electorate — are estimated to have been unable to vote due either to the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula or continued fighting in the eastern provinces of Donbas and Lugansk. Despite these hurdles, Ukrainians should be applauded for organizing a free and fair election and conducting a campaign in which incidents of violence and intimidation were scarce. As part of an election monitoring delegation organized by the International Republican Institute, I visited over a dozen polling stations in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy. Speaking with well-trained and professional electoral officials and watching everyone from bundled-up babushkas and toddler-toting mothers exercise their democratic rights, I found myself unexpectedly inspired by the humdrum workings of democracy. Most Ukrainians understood the importance of this election’s role in removing the old order, and, at least in the central and western parts of the country, showed up in droves.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for large swathes in the East of the country, where ongoing violence between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces prevented many locals from voting. Although the Ukrainian government tried to ensure that citizens of Crimea and the internally displaced were be able to vote, millions of Ukrainians were ultimately prevented from doing so by the conflict, which has thus far resulted in some 3,500 casualties.
The world should not forget these facts as Moscow and its Western apologists prepare to launch a flurry of attacks to distort and discredit Ukraine’s democratic triumph. Kremlin spinmeisters will be tempted to argue, given that so few managed to vote in the areas under separatist or Russian control, that the new Ukrainian parliament is unrepresentative and therefore illegitimate. While it is indeed true that enthusiasm for the post-Yanukovych political order is substantially lower in the East, and that this dissatisfaction may partly explain lower turnout there, it cannot annul the results of a democratic election. Moreover, the only reason why so many people didn’t vote in the East is because of a war started by Russia; Moscow disenfranchised those voters, not Kiev. The vast majority of Ukrainians, including those in the East, have repeatedly expressed support for a united Ukraine.
Another Russian narrative that should finally be put to rest after this vote is the depiction of the Maidan Revolution as a far-right, if not “fascist,” uprising aimed at forcing Russian-speaking Ukrainians into some form of second-class citizenship, that is, when it is not out trying to murder them wholesale. The electoral victory of Poroshenko, a non-ideological Ukrainian patriot who had worked in Yanukovych’s administration, in May ought to have destroyed this lie. Yet Russian leaders, up to and including President Vladimir Putin in one of his recent rants, have nonetheless persisted in labeling the Ukrainian government a band of “neo-fascists.”
If Ukrainians had not made their distaste for radical nationalism evident before Sunday’s election, it has now been decisively expressed. The Right Sector, a nationalist militia-cum political party that has been the subject of endless Kremlin propaganda scare-tactics, will hardly register at all in the new parliament.
The more mainstream nationalist Freedom Party saw its support cut nearly in half from the time of the last parliamentary election; at the time of this writing, with most of the votes counted, it was struggling to get over the 5 percent threshold required for admission to the parliament. The pitchfork-wielding populists of Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko won only 7 percent of the national vote, less than expected.
For the first time in its young history as an independent state, the Ukrainian government is now one overwhelmingly composed of figures oriented towards a Western future. This is what most scares Vladimir Putin, who is unlikely to relent in his efforts to render the country a failed state for having the audacity to move out of Russia’s orbit. Now, more than ever, Ukraine needs the help of those who profess to stand for the ideals of freedom and democracy.