Ukraine’s Tale of Two Elections

October 10, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

On October 26, Ukraine – minus Crimea and the part of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts controlled by anti-Kiev forces – will hold elections for the Verkhovna Rada. On November 9 (probably: it’s still unclear whether they will be pushed back from their scheduled date of November 2), the Donetsk and Lugansk republics will hold elections for a new parliament of “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”). In both cases, those sponsoring the elections will hope to claim a stamp of democratic legitimacy.

The elections for the Rada in Kiev will take place under far from optimal conditions that transcend the effective loss of part of Ukraine’s territory. With a moribund economy in free fall and even a short term deal proving elusive for turning gas supplies back on as winter moves in, voters will be hungry, cold – and angry:

At a protest outside the Central Bank in Kyiv, with ordinary Ukrainians finding it punishingly difficult to pay for basic goods, they have been demonstrating against monetary policy.

They blame the bank for the exchange rate of the hryvnia currency, plummeting in relation to the dollar and euro in the past few years. It has more than halved.

One protester said: “It can’t go on! Salaries haven’t risen, pensions and wages are frozen and we have to pay for everything at the higher exchange rate. The hryvnia has fallen very low, and the price of everything — goods, food, petrol — is linked to that.”

Deserted by investors and paralysed by the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, the economy is in tatters. This year is the worst on record since 2009, when GDP fell by 15 percent.

Last year to this year GDP has shrunk by 9.5%. Industrial production is down by more than a fifth. This year alone, the hryvnia has lost 38% of its value.

And there may be worse in store; the government is considering scrapping price controls in place for more than ten years for many basics.

A grandmother in central Kyiv said: “I can’t even buy a cabbage – it’s five hryvnias a kilo. Not even talking about meat! It’s 70 or 80 hryvnias. I can’t afford it.”

An elderly pensioner said: “I eat tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes. I can buy everything I want but just a bit at a time. I can only afford a little.”

The latest forecast by the International Monetary Fund is discouraging, predicting no growth till 2016.

The public mood may redound to the benefit of those advocating extremist solutions. Particular attention should be paid to the fortunes of the Radical Party, led by Oleh Lyashko. As reported in Foreign Policy (“Thug Politics, Kiev”):

The Radical Party's rise suggests that the country's politics are skewing more and more populist. After the Maidan Revolution in February, Russia claimed that the country's far-right parties, Svoboda and Pravy Sektor, enjoyed significant support. In reality, their presidential candidates each won less than 2 percent of the popular vote in May. But months of war and hardship have radicalized many Ukrainians. And populists like Lyashko are now benefiting from that voter anger.

"A part of the population see Poroshenko and his government as too moderate, especially in relation to its anti-terrorist operation," Andreas Umland, a professor of European studies at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, wrote in an email. "Lyashko plays on this dissatisfaction. He is a practiced populist with no ideology. But he is very talented at self-promotion." [ . . . ]

[A]rrests of pro-Russians -- or kidnappings, as human rights activists describe them -- have become a prominent weapon in Lyashko's political arsenal. He even posts videos of them online. In one video that has garnered particular notoriety, he interrogates a flabby man tied up and wearing only his underwear. A cut is visible on his right arm and leg as he identifies himself as former Donetsk People's Republic Defense Minister Igor Kakidzyanov. Lyashko accuses Kakidzyanov and an associate of betraying their country, helping occupiers, and engaging in terrorism. "How much did you get for killing people?" Lyashko yells. After Kakidzyanov mumbles an inaudible response, Lyashko continues with his interrogation: "Did you do it for free then? Was that the idea? What is your idea anyway?"

Kakidzyanov responds that he was only trying to help people express their will. "So did you shoot at people for that idea?" Lyashko asks him. Opposite the separatist leader, Kakidzyanov's associate sits, his hands bound, as he cries softly.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have decried such promotional videos. Amnesty wants Lyashko investigated by Ukrainian prosecutors, but says there is little hope of this happening. Lyashko dismisses the charges by Amnesty International as a plot by opponents.

Lyashko-style physical thuggery has become a leitmotif of Ukraine’s politics. This is exemplified in the so-called “ Trash Bucket Challenge” spearheaded by another radical nationalist group, Praviy Sektor. Sporting its own Twitter hashtag, the #TrashBucketChallenge has become a form non-lethal (to date) lynch law, targeting lawmakers and candidates regarded as insufficiently patriotic for being roughed up and thrown bloodied into trash dumpsters:

While the stunts have garnered support from a small but growing group, critics warn that these lynch mob-style tactics could have serious consequences for a country trying to paint itself as European, especially as newly elected President Petro Poroshenko moves to put the country back on a European track and after signing important political and free trade deals with the European Union.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov made a plea through a post on Facebook for the protesters to drop the practice.

“Just a couple more broken faces . . . and Europe will turn away from our victorious revolution,” he said. “Don’t be marginal morons, follow stupid instincts and provoke crowds to mob justice.”

Opora, the Ukraine’s biggest election watchdog, has also condemned the attacks.

“Physical assault which resulted in bodily injuries cannot replace justice,” Opora said. “The use of force to obstruct the free exercise of electoral franchise is not only a gross violation of current legislation – it discredits the electoral process itself.”

But their appeals seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, as Right Sector last week pledged more attacks ahead of this month’s elections.

Despite such violent, undemocratic, and un-European tactics, it can be expected that western governments will hail theOctober 26 vote as another giant step along Ukraine’s road to democratic consolidation and “Euro-Atlantic integration.”

As for the rapidly cobbled together November 9 (or November 2) ballot in Donetsk and Lugansk (postponed from their original target date of November 2), they will admittedly be something of a slapdash affair,:

More than three million people are expected to take part in the elections of the head and the parliament of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), chairman of the DPR Central Election Commission Roman Lyagin said on Tuesday.

“We will print 3,198 million ballot papers, exactly the same number as were printed for the independence referendum,” he said, adding that he would ask the republic’s Supreme Council, or parliament, to postpone the elections for November 9. “This issue was not tackled during today’s session. I hope it will be considered at the next session and the lawmakers will meet us halfway,” he said.

Since DPR’s Central Election Commission had no access to voter databases of the Ukrainian interior ministry, lists of voters drawn for the referendum would be used, he noted. “I would like to stress that citizens of other states who are fighting in the DPR self-defense forces on a voluntary basis will be able to take part in the forthcoming elections. Special polling stations will be organized for them at their garrisons,” he said.

Almost completely ignored in western media, the Donetsk and Lugansk election will pave the way for creation of a new legislature that will support Novorossiya’s independence from Kiev’s claims of authority. While there have been no reports of direct violence against candidates in the areas where the November 9 vote will take place comparable to those getting “trash bucket” treatment further west, no one should be under an illusion that pro-Kiev opinions will be much in evidence.