Ukraine: A new era dawning?

Analytics | David R. Marples | 5-07-2019, 07:05

Has Ukraine reached the end of an era? The March 2019 presidential elections and the forthcoming parliamentary elections (July 21) suggest that Euromaidan has ended and the population—other than a small segment—has rejected or is about to reject its seasoned political leaders. In both cases the results seem to be emphatic. The new parties do not need to elaborate policies. Their redeeming feature is their perceived lack of association with what has gone before. The question is why? Why has Ukraine changed direction so emphatically? 

A brief look at two recent surveys by Rating and Info Sapiens, which cover a period from mid-June to late in the month are illustrative of these changes. Voters who have confirmed their choices favor the Servant of the People Party linked to new president Volodymyr Zelensky (45.3% and 46.7%). In a distant second place is the Opposition Platform “For Life” led by Vadim Rabinovich, Yurii Boyko, Viktor Medvedchuk, and Serhii Lyovochkin (12/1% and 11.8%). Former president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party (7.2% and 8.6%) and singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s Holos (8.2% and 8.4%) are competing for third place, with Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party (7% and 7.8%) the only other party likely to make the 5% cut-off to acquire seats in the Rada. 

Among those who likely to be excluded from the Assembly are Strength and Honor (Ihor Smeshko), Civic Position (led by former Defense Minister Anatolii Hrytsenko), the Radical Party (Oleh Lyashko), Svoboda (Oleh Tyahnybok), the party of Volodymyr Groysman, the Prime Minister, and Mikeil Saakashvili’s Movement of New Forces, which currently stands at a meagre 0.6% of decided voters. Both Poroshenko and Lyashko are distrusted by 80% of respondents, with Tymoshenko in the mid-70s range. Opposition leader Boyko is more popular than either Poroshenko or Tymoshenko who might be considered the two most influential politicians of the past two decades. 

None of the above is to say that all the policies associated with the previous administration have been completely rejected. Zelensky, who retains a personal level of trust of 67% according to the Rating poll, has already expressed his wish to join the European Union and NATO, even while hoping to bring an end to the conflict in the east. By contrast, he has made no overtures toward Moscow and has engaged in a war of words with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. So, what has changed?

Several comments can be made about popular attitudes. The first is that residents of Ukraine care more about prosperity (or lack of poverty) and peace than they do about language or religion. The new directions embraced in Decommunization have little appeal as electoral issues, and the rightist radicals, similarly, are peripheral or relevant to the hopes and aspirations of most people. Most citizens either do not care about or reject the sort of nationalist sentiments enunciated by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. Attitudes towards Russia and Russians are less clear, despite growing support for membership of NATO, and the Opposition Platform—the successor to the dissolved Regions Party of former president Viktor Yanukovych, is particularly strong in the Russophone regions of unoccupied Donetsk and Luhansk. 

The lack of faith in past leaders translates into a virtual blind faith in the new one, who in truth has done little thus far to generate much optimism. Zelensky has made positive moves but he has not made any clear policy statements other than the suggestion of a referendum on NATO membership. There is no indication how the war could be ended or how the two partially occupied regions could be rejoined to Ukraine. The giant obstacle of Russia needs to be addressed and Putin continues to insist that the Donbas conflict cannot be ended by his country but requires the consent of the two so-called national republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, further, demands that Ukraine must first fulfill agreements reached during the Minsk Accords Normandy format before talks can be reopened.

Arguably Zelensky intends to reveal his policies only after he has acquired a strong mandate in the July 21 elections, after which he should have substantial parliamentary support. That seems reasonable but he will need to disassociate himself from the powerful oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and yet still have the power to deal with those remaining. It is also unclear whether the oligarchs will exercise control over single mandate constituencies as they have in past elections. Likely the Servant of the People will need a political ally in one of the four other parties likely to enter parliament. Of these only Vakarchuk’s Holos seems a feasible choice. But the task is gargantuan and both Zelensky and Vakarchuk lack experience. Indeed, Vakarchuk’s campaign seems to have lost some momentum according to the recent polls.

On the other hand, few people in Ukraine want to return to the past. The rejection of Poroshenko, a popular figure in the Ukrainian Diaspora, is not as decisive as that of Viktor Yushchenko in 2010, but it is more remarkable given the patriotic nature of the campaign launched by the recent president. Either the electorate did not believe the slogans of “Army, Language, and Faith” or they had little appeal during a period of economic slowdown. Moreover, the slogans were only likely to appeal to ethnic Ukrainians, mostly in the west rather than those living in centres such as Odesa, Izmail, Kharkiv, or Dnipro. 

Zelensky’s appeal is not without logic. There is an analogy from Ukrainian historiography. In 1988, York University (Canada) historian Orest Subtelny published his much-praised history of Ukraine, which remained a staple of the Ukrainian education system for many years. The book was in fact a history of ethnic Ukrainians in Ukraine. Eight years later Paul Robert Magocsi of the University of Toronto published an alternative history that depicted the lives of the various peoples who have inhabited the territories of modern-day Ukraine. The inclusive nature of Magocsi’s survey rendered his book a fuller and deeper treatment than that of Subtelny. In similar fashion, Zelensky’s campaign appealed to all residents of Ukraine regardless of nationality, religion, or language spoken. 

It is a sophisticated approach that deserves success for its boldness and inclusive nature, whether or not the new president realized its potential force. It also reflects the fact that Ukraine is a much more democratic country than its closest neighbours Russia and Belarus and has the maturity to embark on such a path. Russia in particular is not immune to the changes in Ukraine and the potential danger a future populist campaign may pose to Russians weary of Putin’s authoritarian realm. Ukraine above all needs to find a way to eliminate corruption and deal with Russia. It must find a means to develop as a pan-European democratic state without constant external interference whether on social media, through military force, or the provision of weapons and troops to the separatist zones. That is the biggest challenge facing the new leadership and the one that will determine its success and duration. 


About the author:

David R. Marples is Distinguished University Professor, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Canada. 

About the author:

David R. Marples

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