Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Ukraine, held at temperatures close to zero, sent several important messages. According to exit polls, seven parties are set to enter Ukraine’s Rada. This should make it clear for everyone: Ukraine’s political life is quite diverse, and voters are not partial to “united” (read: centralized) solutions. There is neither enough support for a monopolist party of power nor for militant populist groups. Ukraine’s resilient streak is still evident, and it has a much nicer face now in Samopomich (Self-help), which turned in a strong showing. Voters demonstrated their maturity and put the country in a position to shift from war-fighting toward implementing overdue reforms.

A lower turnout, around 53 percent (in 2012 it was 58 percent) suggests that Ukrainians are also increasingly tired of their politics. Lower turnout was observed across Ukraine, and was substantially lower in southeast Ukraine. Pro-European parties did quite well, in part because Crimea and large parts of Donbas weren’t able to participate.

Samopomich’s Surprise

Balázs Jarábik
Jarábik was a nonresident scholar focusing on Eastern and Central Europe with particular focus on Ukraine.
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Ukraine’s new heroes are from Lviv—again. The much expected fresh blood are not “Banderovites” but rather Samopomich (Self-help) who may reach upwards of 13 percent in party list voting and appeal primarily to the middle class. Ukrainians “hired” Svoboda back in 2012 to fight with the increasingly ugly Donetsk-based Party of the Regions during Viktor Yanukovych’s reign. Although many of the fallen activists in Maidan were connected with Svoboda, the party was hurt by a reputation for corruption and a poor governance record in municipalities in western Ukraine. Now, Ukrainians are “hiring” Samopomich to enable reforms. The party is not new though: it was established in 2003 and has competed successfully in six local elections in Lviv. Their surprise showing was primarily a surprise for those who don’t know the local (regional) details.

Sampomich’s secret is a fresh approach to Ukraine’s otherwise old politics: Andriy Sadovij is seen as a good manager as mayor of Lviv. He’s also rich enough (thanks to a media empire) to invest in what he sees as a long-term project that has the additional benefit of putting Western-educated, younger figures into parliament. He deliberately chose to put his own name on the party list at the unelectable 50th position. That’s a fresh approach (he has another job after all) compared to the political verticals and personality-based parties that dominate Ukrainian politics. According to local journalists, it is the only party not engaged in “jeansa” (Ukraine’s version of pay-to-play journalism). The party mounted a straightforward but not terribly pushy or glossy campaign platform. Chesno, the anti-corruption watchdog named them most transparent party.

Militan Populism Fades

Militant populism, including the so-called pitchfork populist Oleh Lyashko and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivschina party, received much less support than polls had predicted, suggesting that Ukrainians now prefer players who are ready to focus on re-building the state instead of just battling on.

Ukrainians now prefer players who are ready to focus on re-building the state instead of just battling on.
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But cleaning house in the Rada is easier said than done. The single mandate districts will likely give Poroshenko Block a larger fraction than exit polls predict.  Some 160 Yanukovych-era MPs who voted for a restrictive slate of anti-democratic measures in mid-January 2014 stood for parliament again. Likewise, the Opposition Bloc, which is based on the ruins of Party of the Regions, received new mandates. It is most telling that more voters in Southeast Ukraine voted traditionally, for the recycled Party of Regions (Opposition Bloc) than for Tihipko’s Strong Ukraine in attempt to do some re-branding. We still don’t know how well the 100 paramilitary fighters and commanders performed as candidates since they were spread across nearly all parties.

Samopomich’s approach is a decidedly minority one, though. The majority of voters expressed a desire for stability, which in Ukrainian terms, means being taken care of. That is what the “party of power” (the Poroshenko Bloc) is supposed to ensure. Re-building central authority for this party means to strengthen the president and his team. Ultimately Poroshenko, who has inherited so many remnants of the old system, may increasingly resemble the previous dominant party, the Party of Regions. He needs to think about how to be more inclusive, promise less and focus on real achievements. Ukrainians did not buy empty promises or quick solutions.

Talking Less, Listening More

For the sake of democracy and a system of checks and balances, it is important that Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenuk’s National Front also did very well. Yatsenuk’s performance as a crisis manager was clear. He appeared overworked and kept talking about real challenges. Keeping him on as prime minister would be good for Ukraine’s democracy but not necessary for the swift—meaning centralized—implementation of reforms.

But neither he nor Poroshenko has a strong team, and they are expected to clash about how to change governance patterns particularly in the patron-client nature of politics and the rent-seeking opportunities that exist at the national-level. Poroshenko wanted a technocratic government that can implement the reforms, which his administration has hastily prepared. Unfortunately, the government will remain the weak link so long as there is neither understanding what to do, nor a will toward change things. Despite the best intentions, Ukrainian politicians, still, mostly want to provide answers instead of asking questions from their very own citizens. Lack of listening may be the crucial shortcoming in the coming period.

Another Pre-mature Victory for “Europe”

The new Rada will be pro-European on the surface but the West would be well-advised not to declare yet another “victory.” The task for Ukraine’s new leaders is to re-build the state, not to wave EU flags. Being pro-European does not supplant the need for politicians to be genuinely committed to or deeply knowledgeable about reforms.

The Rada campaign was one of the ugliest and one the most expensive ever.
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The Rada campaign was one of the ugliest and most expensive ever. Vote buying in single districts, ruthless campaigning, jeansa, and non-transparent  and dishonest campaign financing were all in evidence. All politics in Ukraine are increasingly more local in feel. After refusing Yanukovych’s Donetsk rules via the Maidan protest movement, “UPA rule” was also violently refused in Donbas. The lingering feeling is that many Ukrainians won’t want to live under Kyiv rules either unless the ruling elite seriously pursue decentralization. Doing that will require a serious dialogue with regional stakeholders including local strongmen and local leaders such as Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes, Dneptropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoyski, and others.

A Warning for Brussels

George Soros suggested recently in an important piece on Ukraine in the New York Review of Books that “there must be something wrong with the EU if Putin’s Russia can be so successful even in the short term. The bureaucracy of the EU no longer has a monopoly of power, and it has little to be proud of. It should learn to be more united, flexible, and efficient.”

If the EU wants to believe that Ukraine is now united and that everything is simply Russia’s fault, Brussels will not be able to make the necessary policy corrections or to understand the reality on the ground. Ukraine is not the first country where central authority has vanished overnight. But it could be the first one where a campaign of reforms implemented at the same time as decentralization yields a managed process that actually build a new country.

Soros cautioned that “Europeans themselves need to take a close look at the new Ukraine. That could help them recapture the original spirit that led to the creation of the European Union. The European Union would save itself by saving Ukraine.” Indeed, but both the EU and Ukraine could be better off realizing that the way forward is accepting diversity and working on decentralization, rather than forcing or imitating unity. After all, diversity is one of the most important Western values, and one of the very cornerstones of the EU whose motto is united in diversity. Otherwise, the fight for and within Ukraine will continue with no winners at all.