Ukraine’s Parliamentary Poll: Results and Reflections

Ukraine concluded a parliamentary election this weekend, electing parties largely with a pro-Western and nationalist platform. Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front won first place, edging out his main rival, Petro Poroshenko. In third place came the West Ukraine-based Self-Reliance Party. Fourth place was the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, which brings together the remnants of Viktor Yanukovych’s old Party of Regions. Then, in the fifth and sixth places respectively were Oleg Lyashko’s Radical Party and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party.

Many in the West have already hailed the election as a “clear victory” for Ukraine’s “European majority.” However, such an assessment is questionable. In fact, it was an election that really did not help to bring Ukraine any closer to unity. The voter turnout in the country illustrated this.

Voter Turnout, 2014 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election

Voter Turnout, 2014 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election

Overall, the national turnout for the election was 52.42%. On a regional level this varied. In the Southeastern oblasti, the turnout was low, with the lowest recorded in the Kiev-controlled sections of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti.

Lower voter turnouts were also registered in the far-western oblast of Zakarpattia (Carpathian Rus’) as well as in Chernivsti oblast on the Romanian border.  Turnout was low throughout Zakarpattia, home to the Rusyn-speakers and a distinct region in its own right.  However, it was lowest in districts on the border with Hungary, inhabited by ethnic Hungarians.  Likewise, in Chernivsti, the areas with the lowest voter turnout were those with significant populations of ethnic Romanians.

Not surprisingly, electoral patterns were more divided in the Central oblasti, with an average turnout ranging from 50 to 60%. Of these, Kirovograd oblast registered the lowest turnout. Finally, in the Western oblasti, turnout exceeded 60% and in Lviv oblast, it reached 70%.

It is also interesting to observe which parties managed to win which oblasti in the nationwide election results.

Nationwide Election Results by Oblast

Nationwide Election Results by Oblast

In this regard, Petro Poroshenko managed to carry much of the South and the far-western oblast of Zakarpattia (Carpathian Rus’). His contest with the pro-Western nationalist and current Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was most heated in the Central oblasti. Of those Central Ukrainians who participated in the election (about half of the region’s registered voters), most were primarily divided between Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk. With the conclusion of the election, Poroshenko was able to secure three Central oblasti: Chernihiv, Sumy, and his native Vinnitsya. He lost most of the others by as little as a single percentage point.

In addition to securing most of the Central oblasti, Yatsenyuk and his People’s Front secured their greatest victories in much of the Western oblasti, including all of historic Galicia and Volhynia and Yatsenyuk’s native Chernivsti. Yatsenyuk and his party are known for their more hawkish stance toward Russia, which may explain their appeal to many in the Western part of the country.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk inspects his wall project on the Russian border (Getty)

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk inspects his wall project on the Russian border. (Getty)

In fact, Yatsenyuk’s main pet project has been the construction of a large Berlin Wall-style rampart along the entire Russo-Ukrainian border.  Yatsenyuk is fully committed to this grandiose and costly scheme, even as Ukraine’s economy spins into bankruptcy.  Ironically, in March, it was Yatsenyuk who, in an apparent attempt to channel Ronald Reagan, called for Putin to “tear down this wall.”  In response to news about the proposed plan, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev stated, “I am against all walls,” adding that “let’s hope that those who are planning such a ‘construction’ come to their senses.”

Finally, the Opposition Bloc managed to secure much of Ukraine’s Eastern oblasti. This included Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhia, and the Kiev-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Other pro-Russian parties also fared well in the East, including the Communist Party which placed second in Luhansk. The conclusion one may derive from the latter is that, even without the presence of the Donbas rebels, the locals are still largely pro-Russian.

Yet, overall, Ukraine’s new parliament has very little pro-Russian representation.  Among other things, the election marks the first time in Ukraine’s entire post-Soviet history that the Communist Party will have no representation.  The Opposition Bloc will be the only major pro-Russian force in the Rada.

By contrast, most of the remaining newly-elected parties in parliament are primarily pro-Western and nationalist in character. Though some commentators have been quick to label some of them as “fascist” or “neo-Nazi,” the fact is that their stated ideologies, while fiercely nationalist and hawkishly anti-Russian, are not explicitly fascist.

Ukraine's far-right Svoboda Party marches in Kiev.  The party did not receive enough votes to retain its position in parliament.

Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda Party marches in Kiev. The party did not receive enough votes to retain its position in parliament. (Gleb Garanich / Reuters)

Additionally, Ukraine’s two overtly neo-Nazi and fascist parties, Svoboda and Right Sector, garnered only 5% and 2% respectively and thus will not be among the major parties in parliament. This is despite the fact that these two parties played a significant role in the success of the Maidan Revolution.

At the same time, it is important to note that there are some political figures with fascist proclivities and UNA (Ukrainian National Assembly) connections among the “mainstream” nationalist parties. One of them is Andriy Parubiy of Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front. It was Parubiy, together with Oleh Tyahnybok, who founded the original Svoboda (then known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine) in 1991.

Further, the major parties will only occupy half of Ukraine’s parliament. The rest will be representatives from single-mandate districts and these include far-right activists, not just from Svoboda and Right Sector, but from the feared Azov Battalion as well.  In fact, Right Sector’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, even won a single-seat constituency in Dnepropetrovsk.  Additionally, Right Sector, Patriots of Ukraine, and other far-right groups still have influence on the streets and certainly in Kiev’s volunteer battalions that have fought in the “anti-terrorist operation” in the Donbas.

Darth Alekseyevich Vader (The Independent)

Darth Alekseyevich Vader in Kiev (The Independent)

Meanwhile, one of Ukraine’s more interesting candidates, the elusive Darth Alekseyevich Vader, also sought political office. A candidate of the Internet Party of Ukraine, Mr. Vader pledged to turn Ukraine into a “galactic empire.” However, the Sith Lord was denied registration for his candidacy after refusing to remove his mask.

Another loser of sorts was Yulia Tymoshenko. The “gas princess” and self-styled Marianne of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko’s arrest sparked a cause célèbre in Europe against the Yanukovych regime. How ironic it must seem to otherwise uniformed outsiders that Tymoshenko was barely able to make it into parliament and had to compete against Svoboda (of all parties) to assume that place. However, to Ukrainians who are familiar with Tymoshenko’s role in plundering the country since its independence, such a result was to be expected.

Ukraine's Oleg Lyashko in the Rada

Ukraine’s Oleg Lyashko in the Rada

In a twist of fate, Tymoshenko actually placed lower than the formerly marginal Oleg Lyashko, leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party. A flamboyant populist known for instigating brawls in Ukraine’s parliamentary circus, Lyashko has used the Maidan revolution, the Donbas war, and Ukrainian nationalism to advance his political career. His Radical Party is a typical post-Soviet personality-based party, serving as a mere vehicle for his political aims.

The eccentric and controversial politician has advocated for a buildup of nuclear arms in Ukraine and has a laundry list of promises, albeit few explanations on how to deliver on them. He has also become an active participant in the Donbas War, where his actions and abuses have been criticized by the human rights organization Amnesty International among others.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Lyashko’s party, like Yatsenyuk’s and others in Ukraine’s newly elected parliament, also advocates a continuation of the Donbas war. The fact that these “war parties” have been emboldened by their recent election victory will present a serious challenge to President Poroshenko, who will have to forge a coalition with them.  The “chocolate king,” as Poroshenko is often known, is in a tough spot, caught between his domestic hawks and pressure from the European Union (especially Germany) and Russia to maintain the ceasefire and find a diplomatic solution to the Donbas conflict.  He is in an unenviable position.

In addition, Ukraine is bankrupt and its economy is in total disarray. The newly-elected parliament will soon discover that being pro-Western, nationalist, and anti-Russian is simply not the answer for Ukraine’s mammoth economic problems.

Russia and Georgia: In Search of a Caucasian Peace

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

In October 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition swept into power, dealing a severe blow to the ruling party of Mikheil Saakashvili. First and foremost, the Georgian billionaire promised to adopt a more pragmatic approach toward relations with Russia and to entice its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia by peaceful, diplomatic means.

Two years later, Russo-Georgian relations are at a standstill. Communications appeared to be heading toward a thaw in February when, during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to meet the newly-elected Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such a meeting would have been the first between the Russian and Georgian leaderships since the 2008 South Ossetian war. However, this proposed summit was postponed indefinitely, overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

Russo-Georgian relations remained in a state of “freeze” since that time. Meanwhile, in the absence of official diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, the region is becoming increasingly more militarized. Encouraged by Washington, Tbilisi continues to pursue NATO and was recently granted a NATO security package at the recent NATO Summit in Wales. Among other things, the package allows for the establishment of a NATO training facility on Georgian territory and for NATO to “occasionally” hold military exercises in Georgia.

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

Moscow has reacted to this with alarm. Indeed, their fears seemed confirmed when, on October 13, it was announced that the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship for the US 6th Fleet in Europe, would land at Batumi. According to Washington, the visit was intended to “strengthen ties with NATO allies and partners like Georgia, while working toward mutual goals of promoting peace and stability in the Black Sea region.”

That same day, Moscow proposed a treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia as a means of strengthening ties with the rebel region.  Among other things, the proposed draft called for a total standardization of the Abkhaz and Russian militaries and for additional Russian troops to be stationed along the de facto Abkhaz-Georgian border. It also called for looser border restrictions, a standardization of Abkhazia’s customs legislation with that of the Eurasian Union, a gradual “harmonization” of Sukhumi’s budgetary and tax policies with Moscow’s, and for Russian diplomatic aid in expanding Abkhazia’s international recognition.

Moscow’s move was likely a gambit to call Tbilisi’s bluff on its NATO aspirations. It also indirectly signals to Georgia that it regards NATO as a very serious threat to its security. It further communicates that while Tbilisi still has a realistic chance at reconciliation with Sukhumi now, it may lose such an opportunity permanently if it continues to pursue NATO membership.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

As expected, the draft agreement was received negatively by official Tbilisi, which warned that it “will seriously endanger the process of normalization of the Georgian-Russian relations” and may represent a de facto “annexation of Abkhazia.” The Abkhaz have reacted negatively as well. Though most Abkhaz support the idea of one day joining the Eurasian Union and of having Moscow’s backing on security, they see the proposed treaty as going too far and “infringing on Abkhaz sovereignty.” Even the new Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba, who is usually known to be close to the Kremlin, spoke out against it.

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Talks in Prague between Tbilisi’s special envoy to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, and his counterpart Grigory Karasin, have failed to yield results. Meanwhile, Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and at least one politician from within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have called for a total cessation of any dialogue with Moscow. Indeed, UNM members have argued that the Abkhaz treaty is clear proof of Moscow’s sinister intentions toward Georgia. Consequently, in their view, there is no purpose for future talks and they should be cancelled completely. Of course, such a reckless move would have negative implications for both Georgia and Russia. Abashidze, a veteran diplomat from Shevardnadze-era Georgia and from the USSR, knows this better than anyone and has been quick to defend continued talks.

Do these most recent developments indicate an end to the efforts by the Georgian government toward a Russo-Georgian rapprochement? Are the options for a peaceful and diplomatic solution between both sides exhausted?

Hopefully not.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi are still searching for the right moment to reset relations beyond practical economic and trade issues. In fact, as it became increasingly apparent that the ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbas appeared to be holding, Georgian President Margvelashvili expressed renewed interest in finally realizing his proposed meeting with Putin.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

In media interviews in September and October, Georgia’s philosopher-president stressed that relations between Tbilisi and Moscow must first be eased before serious talks can begin on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He likewise warned Moscow of the potential danger of the status quo, and expressed interest in greater dialogue.

In one such interview with the Georgian edition of Forbes magazine on 8 October, Margvelashvili stated that “it is difficult to talk about Putin in such an open discussion. Putin is interesting to me as the real decision-maker in the most difficult issues for Georgia. I do not personally know him, but I hope he is rational and supports a rational policy. I hope at some point it will be possible to construct the Georgian-Russian relations in favor of our countries’ interests. I hope for this.”

A potential Putin-Margvelashvili meeting would do much to improve relations between both countries and may even lead to a future compromise resolution over Georgia’s breakaways. While it is difficult to imagine that Russia would simply “unrecognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is possible that Moscow could offer an equitable solution to the problem through a co-equal federal or confederal structure among Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali. A Moscow-backed peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways would also ameliorate Russia’s concerns of seeing an enlarged NATO on its southern flank.

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

In this regard, Georgia has sought to pursue a more balanced policy toward its estranged regions, emphasizing peaceful dialogue and coexistence as opposed to military confrontation. On 12 October, the Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili engaged in one peace initiative with his Ossetian counterparts by donning a football jersey. He and other members of the Georgian government, together with current and former Georgian football players, engaged representatives from South Ossetia in a football friendly in the city of Gori. The captain of the Georgian team, Garibashvili, decided to switch sides in the second half and joined the South Ossetians. The game ended 4:4 in yet another variation of Caucasian “football diplomacy.”

“We don’t want to be enemies of Ossetian and Abkhazian brothers, we want fraternity with them and today’s game was a clear demonstration of it,” stated the Prime Minister after the match. “I have an amazing feeling. It was a step towards confidence building. I am so glad that our Ossetian brothers have so sound generation. I am really in a good mood. I felt love and friendship coming from them.”

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Garibashvili has been another voice of reason in Georgia, calling for the continuation of talks and dialogue. Reacting to the proposed Abkhaz treaty, he emphasized that Moscow confirmed that the treaty was still incomplete and remained only “under consideration.”

“I am very interested in the Russian government’s final position,” he said. “I do not want to believe that the Russian government intends to respond to our constructive and pragmatic policy by such a step. This should not be in anyone’s interest.”

He continued stated that “we started a direct dialogue, which was a direct recommendation from the international community. We successfully continued the pragmatic policy, launched by Bidzina Ivanishvili as early as two years ago, and as a result of this the trade and economic relations were normalized with Russia, resulting in increased export to Russia. We have not spared our efforts to demonstrate that we are a maximally pragmatic, constructive and stable government.”

At the same time, he also noted that such efforts still have “not significantly affected the political situation” outside of trade and economic ties. Indeed, immediate talks between Moscow and Tbilisi would be in the best interests of both countries. In this regard, a direct meeting between Putin and Margvelashvili would do much to restore confidence on both sides and would lead to a serious and constructive dialogue on important and difficult issues. Overall, it is clear that diplomacy is the best route toward normalization, compromise, and resolution.

UPDATE (20 October 2014): Vano Machavariani, the Former Foreign Affairs Advisor to the President of Georgia has stated today that Tbilisi had been preparing for a direct meeting between Margvelashvili and Putin but that it had been indefinitely postponed due to the “government’s reluctance.”  While he notes that the situation is “more complicated now” and that “it is difficult to organize a high-level meeting,” he also emphasized that such a meeting is still possible

“If the partner countries will engage in [this meeting],” he stated, “some steps can be taken.”  He also maintained that such a move is particularly important now, given the recent controversy over Moscow’s proposed treaty with Abkhazia.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Davit Zalkaliani and Tbilisi’s envoy to Moscow Zurab Abashidze have stated that they were unaware of such preparations.  However, Zalkaliani does not exclude that Machavariani may have been pursuing extra diplomatic efforts.  He also noted too that a potential visit is still possible.

“As you know, the organization of a visit is a very serious matter and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be involved in it,” he stated.  “All organizational issues are agreed on through diplomatic channels. We do not have diplomatic relations with Russia. Hence, it should have been done through the Swiss Confederation, though we have not sent any note or letter.”