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Will Ukraine’s Euromaidan democrats enter parliament and government?

A recent forum of democratic forces in Kyiv may have finally started the formation of a broad pro-reform coalition of largely untainted Ukrainian anti-corruption fighters.

February 8, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Jose Luis Orihuela (cc) flickr.com

On January 11th 2019, Kyiv hosted a congress of various pro-reformist groupings that together announced their support for the presidential candidacy of former Minister of Defense Anatoliy Hrytsenko. In fact, the meeting was largely an event of Hrytsenko’s party, “Civil Position,” that managed to gather a number of similarly oriented micro-parties which decided to come out as public backers of Hrytsenko’s bid. They included the so-called civil movement “Wave,” the civil movement “Home-Country,” the European Party of Ukraine, and the political force “Alternative” – small organisations even many Ukrainians may have never heard of. In addition, a number of prominent MPs from the well-known inter-factional group “Euro-Optimists,” including Svitlana Zalishchuk, Serhiy Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayem, demonstratively joined the congress. The latter gave a speech welcoming the unification congress, and calling for an even broader coalition of pro-reform politicians.

In fact, Nayem touched upon the crucial question of the entire enterprise: will the new alliance eventually become broad enough to exert real political influence on Ukraine’s future domestic and foreign affairs? Nayem called explicitly upon Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi and the lead singer of the popular group “Elza’s Ocean” Sviatoslav Vakarchuk to join the coalition in support of Hrytsenko’s presidential bid. For a number of reasons, Nayem’s appeal may have more political meaning and practical significance for the autumn 2019 parliamentary elections than for the presidential ones this spring. This has to do with both Hrytsenko’s relatively low chances of becoming president in April, and the constitutional division of real power in Ukraine.

A real liberal alternative

To be sure, Hrytsenko would, perhaps, be the ideal choice for president of Ukraine, of all the candidates currently running. National defense, state security and foreign affairs are the main prerogatives of the Ukrainian presidency while social and economic matters are largely in the hands of the prime minister (elected by parliament). A former military officer and experienced politician, Hrytsenko would be well-prepared for the particular tasks of the President.

Moreover, his Civil Position party has official observer status with the European Parliament’s liberal ALDE group. His team includes a number of internationally well-connected politicians who could, in particular, help him to deepen Ukraine’s relations to the West. Hrytsenko is one of the few Ukrainian politicians – known inside and outside of Ukraine – with an untainted reputation, and image of a resolute anti-corruption fighter. He and his team would probably be very welcome as Ukraine’s new leadership, in the EU and North America.

Alas, it looks – as of early February 2019 – a long shot for him to actually win the presidency. This is not the least because of Hrytsenko’s very standing as a no-nonsense corruption cleanser. In as far as Ukraine’s presidential elections will, to significant degree, be decided by the amount of money each candidate can spend, Hrytsenko is at a disadvantage. He cannot count on much support from Ukraine’s oligarchs, as he is – at least, in public – not willing to offer anything in exchange. Even if he manages to enter the second round of the presidential elections in April 2019, Ukraine’s oligarchic clans would probably mobilise against him, out of sheer fear. Most likely, he will not even make it into the second round, as he may be neither financially nor rhetorically strong enough to prevail against his, in both regards, more potent competitors Petro Poroshenko, Yuliya Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Still, his candidacy and the recent rallying of reputable forces around Hrytsenko and his Civil Position party are important for Ukraine and its integration with the West. That is because the unification process that the January forum started offers a chance to create an appealing list and powerful force for the October 2017 parliamentary elections. In 2014, Hrytsenko’s Civil Position also formed a coalition with the small, but reputed Democratic Alliance. Yet, this political couple eventually proved too weak to pass the five per cent barrier and thus did not gain a faction in the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council, Ukraine’s one-chamber parliament). One hopes that this autumn, things will be different, and that the new alliance that Hrytsenko is now assembling will be far broader. Ideally, this should push his list, in October 2017, over five per cent.

In such a case, the new Rada would not only gain a – particularly in the eyes of Ukraine’s Western partners – important player who could be relied upon, with regard to pushing through economic as well as judicial reforms, implementing the Association Agreement with the EU, or further advancing Ukraine’s ongoing decentralisation. A strong showing of Hrytsenko’s list in autumn could offer the opportunity of his group being included in Ukraine’s new coalition government. Hrytsenko himself, as well as such well-respected veteran democrats like Viktor Chumak, Mykola Tomenko or Taras Stetskiv might, in a best-case scenario, obtain ministerial portfolios or other relevant positions within Ukraine’s legislative and executive branches.

Dangerous Disunity

In order to achieve this result, however, Ukraine’s pro-democratic forces will have to further coalesce, team up and consolidate. The field of not only the presidential, but also of the parliamentary elections will be crowded. Most likely, Tymoshenko, Poroshenko and Zelenskiy will propose their own lists, and invest considerable resources into their electoral campaigns to enter the legislature. In addition, Oleh Liashko’s notoriously populist Radical Party, Ukraine’s far right groups, and, at least, one successor organisation of the Party of Regions will probably make strong bids in the parliamentary elections. There is, however, only 100 per cent to be divided, and five per cent needed to get a list into, and, subsequently, a faction in, the Supreme Council. As a result, there may be not enough political space and urban educated electorate for even two (not to mention more) pro-democratic anti-oligarchic groups to make it into parliament. In a worst-case scenario, two or more similarly oriented parties could divide Ukraine’s anti-oligarchic electorate, and thereby leave all of these groups, below the 5 per cent – entry barrier for the parliament.

It will thus be imperative for the various Euromaidan groups to show political wisdom, electoral pragmatism and strategic foresight, in order to make it jointly over five per cent in October. One the one hand, Hrytsenko and his team will have to be inviting, tolerant and generous, when forming a joint list with other interested groupings. On the other hand, these other groupings will need to be realistic, modest and oriented towards the common good. The famous proverb “when two Ukrainians get together, there will be three hetmans (chieftains)” is an apt warning. If the various more or less potent groups and electorally strong personalities, within the anti-oligarchic spectrum cannot get their act together, they could eventually all lose in autumn.

There may even be a Western role in the preparation process and electoral campaign. Many of the relevant leaders of the groupings mentioned above are frequent guests in Western embassies and capitals. Ukraine’s European and American partners should tell their friends in Kyiv, Lviv and other places, in no uncertain terms, that they need to act constructively and work towards consolidation of Ukraine’s anti-oligarchic forces. Those who break out of the currently shaping alliance and decide to make their own competing bits, or who behave unhelpfully within a broadening coalition should be warned that they may later face consequences for any divisive conduct. Western diplomats, activists and politicians could make clear to their interlocutors that invitations to embassy receptions in Kyiv, and political gatherings in EU capitals – not to mention other benefits – may occur less frequently for those found to be guilty of splitting the pro-reform vote, hindering political alliance formation, and thus weakening the anti-oligarchic forces in Ukraine’s future parliament. The stakes are high in Ukraine’s upcoming elections, and so should Western attention for them be.   

Andreas Umland is a senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, principal researcher with the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and general editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed by Columbia University Press.

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