10th March 2010
The recent Presidential polls in Ukraine were described by the OSCE as an “impressive display of democratic elections.”  While the country’s political class as a whole remains of questionable quality and integrity, these polls marked the continuation of a series of far more fair and professionally administered elections in Ukraine than had been the case prior to 2000, a shift that has been additionally accompanied by the development of other attributes of a democratic system, such as a free (if often openly biased and highly disputatious) media.
This entrenchment of a genuinely democratic system under Yushenko contrasts deeply with the situation in Russia, which has seen the somewhat nervous Putin/Medvedeev junta employing increasingly coarse tactics of repression, manipulation and electoral fraud in the face of economic crisis, culminating most recently in widespread falsification in the October 2009 municipal elections.
The contrast in the contemporary political situations of these two historically intertwined nations raises the question of the extent to which democratization in Ukraine has the potential to influence future political developments in Russia itself, or alternatively, whether under Yanukovich, Ukraine will revert to a Russian-style “power-vertical” that, in turn draws on the legacy both countries’ shared Soviet experience.
We cannot yet be too sure to what extent Yanukovich and his backers have learned the lessons of the Orange Revolution, (or indeed accepted that there were “lessons” for them to learn). If it proves impossible for the President to form a functioning coalition in the Rada over the coming months, he may well decide to call an early parliamentary election instead of waiting until 2012. Such a course of action (in a genuinely contested poll) runs the risk that he could lose more seats/influence than he gains. In this scenario, there must surely be those within his administration who would whisper that he might consider using executive influence to ensure the “right” result.
However, the results of the recent Presidential election were fairly close, and the opposition remains strong and well-funded: Tymoshenko would immediately appeal to the courts and call for demonstrations if she felt that she was being further marginalized in a fraudulent parliamentary poll. While the population of Ukraine has become disillusioned by the venality and irresponsibility of the political class, many (and not only in the western part of the country) are keenly aware of the value of the freedoms they have gained since 2004, and would be prepared to take to the streets once again to defend them – especially over the warmer summer months.
Additionally, the advent since 2004 of a noticably enhanced sense of (what will will describe for want of a better term) “civic responsibility” – due in part to the work of the OSCE Mission in Ukraine, and evident in the highly professional conduct of repeated polls at the local level - suggest that the more than one million people typically required to staff Ukraine’s 38,000 polling stations will be resistant to attempts to co-opt them into fraud.
Other factors militating against manipulation, and for the continued viability of Ukrainian democracy in general include; the presence of international, domestic and party election observers in polling stations; an independent-minded legal system (as demonstrated in 2004) and free media, and security forces (including the SBU, who also play a key security function in the electoral process) who are unlikely to be easily persuaded to do the bidding of a former convict.
Therefore it seems very unlikely that, even if tempted, Yanukovich and the PoR would be capable of turning the clock back to the Kuchma-era; Ukrainians have developed a taste for democracy precisely because they fundamentally distrust their politicians, and while Ukrainian democracy remains far from perfect, it is set to stay.
As a result, early parliamentary elections or not, Yanukovich will have to learn to govern by consensus, taking account of his continuing dependence on coalitions in the Rada and the interests they represent, and remaining conscious that, in the new Ukraine, voters will need to experience considerable improvements in their daily lives if he wants to avoid his predecessor’s fate, and win a second term.
While Medvedev’s liberal friends at the INSOR think-tank may have released their democratic-reformist manifesto in January, the President’s position remains precariously dependent on the Prime Minister and his supporters – who form what essentially remains a reconfigured Soviet nomeklatura with strong authoritarian and corporatist instincts. Since 2000, this elite has sought to move away the “western” template of political freedom and market economics, precisely because it considered, at a minimum, that these reforms had failed in the 1990’s, and additionally (for many) that they constituted little more than a western plot aimed at weakening the country from the very beginning.
A similar mindset was equally evident in 2004, with many in the Russian elite believing their own propaganda that Yushenko’s victory was engineered by western “special services” as part of a broader plot to weaken Russian regional influence and expand NATO. Yanukovich’s 2010 victory, and its ringing endorsement by the OSCE, may at least have calmed some of these wilder delusions, while also forcing an acceptance that overt Russian interference in Ukrainian politics is likely to be counter-productive.
Nonetheless, the likelihood of the emergence of a “top-down” push for reform in Russia within the next few years is very limited indeed. Instead, despite economic difficulties and recent demonstrations, the regime remains popular (doubtless in part due to wall-to-wall propaganda): Putin will probably make a return to the Presidency through (rigged) elections in 2012, as the nomenklatura reasserts power in order to insure its dominant economic position and interests.
The eventual influence of political liberalization in Ukraine on Russia may therefore only become evident over the medium-term, and depends on the continued development and strengthening of democracy and civil society in Ukraine itself (including a greater degree of political stability than we have seen since 2004) and above all the recovery of the economy.
Secondly, in order for the Russian elite to really sit up and take notice of the “Ukrainian model” we will need to see a concurrent lengthy economic slump in Russia over the next few years (especially compared with the other “BRIC” countries) as a result of its continued reliance on a hyper-corrupt “petro-state” model of development, and the privileged position within the economy that this implies for large and inefficient state-controlled corporations.
While the second half of this scenario (slowly deepening Russian economic stagnation, despite some recovery of hydrocarbon prices) seems possible/probable over the medium term, Ukrainian political stability and economic growth currently appear a more distant prospect. If Ukraine remains a chronic “basket case”, this will allow the Russian elite to continue to use it as a cautionary example in its domestic propaganda; if instead it somehow becomes a political and economic success story, then over the medium-term the writing may be on the wall for “sovereign democracy.”
The US and EU need to wake up to what is at stake. and make renewed and serious efforts to employ the three major potential levers of power currently at their disposal in relation to Ukraine; the huge attractiveness of the promise of eventual EU membership (which has not yet been fully employed); the new financial influence they the west has acquired since the 2008 economic crisis, and the democratic oversight and development role of the OSCE. If the democratic “Ukrainian” model is to be seen as an option by the Russian population or elite, Ukraine needs to become an economic, as well as democratic success story. This in turn also requires a deeper maturing of the political leadership, which the west can continue to promote through these international organizations.