Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

Opinion

Ukrainian elections: is there any way to stop the rot?

In the frying pan of sultry Kyiv, the political temperature has also reached unusual heights for summer. After months of speculation, all the major political camps have made public their lists of candidates for parliamentary elections.

The vote on 28 October will show how effective the self-styled "opposition" to the increasingly authoritarian President Viktor Yanukovych really is.

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  • Yanukovuch (c) greets EU leaders: the Union's genteel approach is miles away from Ukraine's street-wise political scene (Photo: president.gov.ua)

As many disillusioned voters ask themselves: "who is the real opposition?" the motley crew deserves a closer look.

Changing sides and last-minute policy u-turns are all too common in Ukraine.

In 1999, former security chief Yevhen Marchuk and a fierce "opponent" of the then president Leonid Kuchma took a job in his administration just before the second round.

In 2002, a band of "opposition" MPs ditched the then former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko's camp to join Kuchma. In 2006, former parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz quit the Orange Revolution side to back Yanukovych.

These days, MPs who used to sit with former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko routinely become Yanukovych button-pushers.

No wonder voters are less interested in policy than in who is likely to stay in opposition to Yanukovych once they are elected.

So far, just four opposition groups have a chance to make the 5 percent cut-off for parliament.

One is the United Opposition Batkivshchyna - an alliance between Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna party and former foreign minister Arseniy Yatseniuk's Front Zmin. The nationalist Svoboda party and boxing champion Vitaly Klytschko's Udar party each have a chance.

Businesswoman and former Tymoshenko MP Nataliya Korolevskaya's Ukrayina-Vpered is also in the running.

The "opposition" is already at one another's throats.

United Opposition Batkivshchyna and Svoboda made a deal on single candidates for given constituencies. Udar refused to join them. Meanwhile, nobody asked Ukrayina-Vpered, while some have labelled Korolevskaya as a Yanukovych stooge.

The infighting suits Yanukovych's Party of Regions and "independent" candidates down to the ground.

The "independents" are usually businessmen and local bosses who bow to whomever holds power at any given time.

Some of them choose not to play at independence and are simple turncoats. Three of the Party of Regions’ list, businessmen-MPs - Tariel Vasadze, Andriy Verevskiy and Mykola Bagraev - used to be in Batkivshchyna before Tymoshenko lost power.

Despite its track record of defections, Batkivshchyna's list also contains a lot of unknown and apparently ideology-free businessmen.

The new money-bags have created tension inside her group by bumping old loyalists out of the running.

Meanwhile, the "independents" are mostly local oligarchs - often the major (or only) employers in their region - and the "opposition" does not compete with them with its own big beasts.

Go on, have a drink. And a bicycle

In Ukraine, election campaigns are normally preceded by "baiting."

In Ukrainian political jargon this means wealthy candidates give out free vodka, tins of sugar or boxes of cereal to would-be voters in their constituency. In some cases, as with Volodymyr Lytvyn, the current parliament speaker, the largesse has even stretched to free bicycles.

The celebrity factor is another feature of the campaign.

Party leaders, who have vivid memories of Soviet customs, have no more cosmonauts or peredoviki (top-performers of state industry) to stand for parliament. So they have turned to sportsmen, pop-stars, actors and mass-selling writers instead.

Klytschko - a world boxing champion - is relying on his name as the best known feature of his six-year political career. He has also enlisted Maria Matios, a novelist, as the number two name on his list.

Korolevskaya's top five include football hero Andriy Shevchenko and Ostap Stupka, an actor from the National Theatre in Kyiv.

The ruling Party of Regions did not abstain: it recruited Taisya Povaliy, a dated pop singer, as its number two. At the party congress she read out a prepared speech, thanking the party for the new terminal at Kyiv airport and promising to bring morality back into Ukrainian politics.

Bohdan Benyuk, another theatre actor, and Ihor Myroshnychenko, are number two and four on Svoboda's list. But they are, in fact exceptions which prove the rule: both are genuine nationalists and years-long party members who actually get involved in party work.

The celebrity crew are used to going in and out of politics.

Oleg Blokhin, the coach of the national football team, is the master of the game - he has been in parliament twice as a member of three different parties. He would have been an MP three times if he had not backed a losing party in 2006.

How stupid do you think we are?

The voters themselves have outgrown the old practice. Analysts agree that celebrities have a lot less impact on voting than party leaders seem to think.

The rest of the candidates are all too familiar: former Communist Party and Komsomol functionaries; loyalists (people devoted to party chiefs like Tymoshenko or Yanukovych); and hardy perennials (people who once in the corridors of power have managed to say around, with varying degrees of luck).

Only Svoboda stands out from this still-life picture as a party with genuine ideological content.

There are no "bright new faces", no grass-roots activists, no youthful Western-educated intellectuals - no breath of fresh air.

Nominations of three popular opposition journalists by Batkivshyna came closest to that. But they can be put in the celebrities tradition. Journalists have been hauled in before and these three are in no way new to the political scene.

The eternal question tormenting people who want to know what is going on in the false-bottom, ideology-free world of Ukrainian politics is: who is sponsoring whom?

There is no shortage of unsubstantiated opinion in the media: Yatseniyuk is funded by steel magnate Rinat Akhemtov; Svoboda is funded by sources close to Party of Regions’ campaign chief Andriy Klyuev; Klytschko is funded by gas oligarch Dmitry Firtash; Korolevskaya is funded by Yanukovych or even the Kremlin.

Those who know do not talk. So the only thing the voters can do is vote blind and see what happens next.

In order for the opposition to make a mark it has to alchemise potential opposition voters' apathy and mistrust into political energy.

Polls do show widespread discontent with the state of affairs in the country.

The oxygen-starved air of the Party of Regions' recent congress - in which every effort was made to isolate independent journalists and the general public from ‘the elite’ - was remarkably different to Batkivshyna's summit in the street.

Despite the long history of disappointment with the "formers" (former prime ministers, former foreign ministers), the potential to consolidate an opposition electorate still exists.

At the very least, Batkivshyna is not a dynasty. Tymoshenko's daughter has stayed out of the elections. But Yanukovych's younger son has a good place on the party list and prime minister Mykola Azarov's son is running for a safe seat in the party's Donbass home turf.

It is too early to say if the formers, their faceless confidantes, business friends and celebrities can stand up to the harsh reality of the regime.

The only party with real convictions, Svoboda, is prone to accusations of anti-Semitism, extremism and xenophobia.

Nihilism and inertia

Ukraine seems to be locked in a vicious circle - there is no hope of change because there are no new politicians, there are no new politicians because there is no hope of change.

There is ground for suspicion that the status quo suits all the parties and that voters have more integrity than the people who claim to represent them.

The realities of Ukrainian politics have their parallels elsewhere in Europe, but EU policy-makers do not seem to grasp them anyway.

Instead they rely on the facade of official reports and declarations.

OSCE monitors will look closely at technical aspects of the election process. But will they uncover the clandestine agreements or the bogus election commission members? Will they stop turncoat MPs from switching sides once the dust settles?

The EU's soft power methodology is not well suited to confront the double standards and realpolitik of a post-Soviet election battle.

EU statements or even demands are met with new promises and new masterpieces of obfuscation and deception.

Meanwhile, the key players remain the same. The rules of the game do not change. And the net result is damage - to the potential of EU-Ukraine relations and to the fabric of Ukrainian sovereignty and society.

Yegor Vasylyev is an independent political analyst in Ukraine

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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