Elizabeth Pond Blog

And Now For “Hybrid Politics”

After parliamentary elections, another chance for Ukraine to rid itself from post-Soviet kleptocracy

Now comes the hard part. Let’s call it “hybrid politics.” With Sunday’s election of a new parliament, Ukraine has its third chance in 23 years to rid itself of post-Soviet kleptocracy and grinding poverty.

Paradoxically, the odds are both better and worse than in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and independent Ukraine was born, or in 2004, when infighting aborted the democratic birth of the Orange Revolution. The odds are better because, ironically, Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine has finally forged an unprecedented consensus among Ukrainians that they have a distinct identity that differs from the fuzzy Russian notion of an East Slav brotherhood of senior Russians and obedient junior Ukrainians. The odds are worse because painful transformation must be effected while Russia’s “hybrid war” on Ukraine is ongoing. Already, the war has cost Kiev Crimea and half of Donbas to Russian annexation and control, along with some 3,700 lives, one million displaced persons, and a projected shrinking of GDP between 7 and 10 percent.

Preliminary results suggest that a reformist coalition led by President Petro Poroshenko (21.5 percent for his own bloc) will win an unexpectedly high majority of 60 percent, in tandem with interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front (21.9 percent), and (less formally) the Self-Help Party of democratic activist and Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovy (11 percent), and the remnants of the Orange Revolution in Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party (close to 6 percent). The exact majority will be known only after votes in the single-mandate constituencies that determine half of parliamentary seats have been counted. It will clearly give the centrist parties a caucus that approaches the two-thirds majority needed to amend Ukraine’s dysfunctional constitution and allow fundamental political and economic reforms.

The overwhelming vote for centrist pro-European parties has marginalized the extremes. On the left, for the first time since independence, Communists fell far below the 5 percent minimum needed to enter the Verhovna Rada (or simply Rada) legislature. The Opposition Bloc, successor to the old regime’s Party of Regions, won 9.8 percent – a sufficiently low figure to curtail the residual influence in eastern Ukraine of Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced billionaire president of Ukraine who fled to Russian exile last February. The bloc is financed by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and former Fuel Minister Yuriy Boyko , who is affiliated with oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Firtash, the one-time intermediary for Russian gas exports to Ukraine, was arrested in Vienna last March to face an American request for extradition on charges of bribery and involvement in a criminal enterprise.

On the right, both the Right Sector ultranationalists and the more moderate Svoboda nationalists – whom Russian propaganda brands as fascist engineers of a “coup” in Kiev last February – failed to enter the Rada. The Radicals, under the flamboyant Oleh Lyashko, who is equally renowned for his fistfights on the parliamentary floor and for his role in organizing volunteer militias to fight separatists in eastern Ukraine, won 6.4 percent.

Sunday’s vote was based on old rules designed to help autocratic leaders control their party followers in the era of pro-Russian Ukrainian governments. Democratic reformers are intent on changing this party-list system. Yet in a chaotic election in which most parties campaigned on identical bland platforms of patriotism, fighting corruption, and participating in Europe’s peace and prosperity, the legacy rules helped reformers. With the old Yanukovych political machine reduced to a shadow and a horde of unknowns seeking office, the familiar president and interim prime minister stood out as heroes who had rebuilt the desolate Ukrainian army and would have defeated motley pro-Russian separatists in Donbas if Russian paratroopers had not invaded Ukraine directly in late August to save their proxies. President Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk, who is likely to continue as prime minister, should be able to keep their parties and broader coalition with them in the next one or two years.

Despite the pro-European landslide in the election, the fight for reforms will be a tough one in what is still a hybrid system with more old-timers than newcomers in the Rada. Mustafa Nayem –the Afghan-born investigative reporter who initiated last winter’s three-month-long pro-democracy protest on Kiev’s “Euromaidan” square – and his fellow activists who are now entering the Rada will have to challenge the many troglodytes still in office, including those in their own parties.

The most painful reforms will be economic and must start with a sharp hike in the cheap rates for electricity. State enterprises that have served as golden geese for those politicians or magnates who controlled them – Anders Aslund at the Peterson Institute for International Economics calculates that billionaire Yanukovych could single-handedly solve Ukraine’s budget deficit by returning money to the state that he took from it – must be privatized fairly. And the whole bureaucratic system must be stripped of regulations for business that serve as gates for the extraction of bribes.

In politics, controversial decentralization must be enacted and anti-corruption laws must be enforced once the constitution is amended. Lustration of Russian agents still in place from the Yanukovych administration must be carried out without becoming a witch-hunt. The stranglehold on politics by oligarch-criminal-political networks must be broken, and real political parties that offer coherent policy choices must be formed from the bottom up. The judiciary must be de-politicized, election laws must be revised, and the rule of law must be established. The parties, ministries, and the legal system must be depersonalized and replaced by sturdy institutions that are strong enough to resist being highjacked for private gain.

This agenda would be daunting for any government. It is herculean for a state that has had its territory dismembered by a giant neighbor that is still waging undeclared war on it. The big question now is whether the shock of Russian aggression will unite Ukrainians long enough to transform their country.

NB. This blog post was updated on October 28, 2014, to take account of changes in the projected election results.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe.“ She has covered Ukraine for over 30 years.

© Elizabeth Pond

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  October 27, 2014