Europe in the World

Ukraine: The Moment of Truth

26 October 2012
Amanda Paul (Senior Policy Analyst) and Roman Rukomeda (External authors)

Ukraine’s upcoming parliamentary elections on 28 October represent an important litmus test of the country’s democracy and will set the scene for 2015’s presidential election. But while this weekend’s poll is significant for Ukraine’s relationship with the EU, it seems unlikely to trigger a massive change in that regard.

Ukraine declares EU integration to be its geostrategic choice, while the EU describes Ukraine as a key strategic partner. Yet relations are presently in a stalemate amid a democratic backslide and the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other members of her former government, which the EU considers to be selective justice.

The Tymoshenko case has turned Ukraine-EU relations into a single-issue relationship, putting on ice the signature and ratification of an Association Agreement, including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). The agreement, once implemented, would significantly strengthen political and economic ties, and could potentially underpin the reform and modernisation process in Ukraine.

The EU has tied further integration to a number of conditions: holding elections in accordance with international standards, ending selective justice, and re-launching the reform process. While there has been little progress on the Tymoshenko issue and reform remains patchy, well-conducted elections could reduce the ‘chill factor’.

Ukraine’s leadership sees the EU’s approach as a ‘blame and shame’ policy inspired by those member states which have never been enthusiastic about Ukraine’s further integration with the Union. Brussels, for its part, is pursuing a ‘more for more’ or ‘less for less’ strategy: further EU integration goes hand-in-hand with adherence to values. Thus if Ukraine does not comply, then it should not benefit from the incentives on offer. Unfortunately, the EU has been inconsistent in applying this policy towards its Eastern neighbours, which has undermined its credibility.

The election

With over 3,500 short and long-term election observers in Ukraine, this election will be one of the most closely monitored ever. The implementation of a new electoral law (adopted a year ago with the support of both the ruling Party of Regions (PoR) and the opposition) is under particular scrutiny. The election campaign has been highly competitive, which is a positive sign and demonstrates that Ukraine is not a ‘hegemonic regime’. However, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) interim monitoring report cited several areas of concern, including restrictions on media freedom, procedural irregularities and vote-buying. The Ukrainian leadership was urged to make rapid improvements prior to the election.

The latest polls indicate that five parties are likely to pass the 5% threshold for taking seats in parliament: the PoR (20-23%); ‘new kid on the block’ and reigning WBC world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and his UDAR party (16%); the united opposition (Batkivshchyna) under Arseniy Yatsenyuk (13-14%); the Communists (9-12%); and right-wing nationalist party Svoboda (5%).

Weary of the country’s political elites, almost one quarter of Ukrainian voters remain undecided ahead of the election. While some may choose not to vote, others may opt for the PoR simply because they know what they will get.

Batkivshchyna entered the race in a favourable position, against a background of the PoR having increasingly isolated Ukraine from the West, the poor economic situation, and the Tymoshenko issue. Yet Batkivshchyna has failed to capitalise on this. Yatsenyuk has blamed this on his lack of charisma, claiming that if Tymoshenko had been able to campaign, the picture would now be different. Yet this would seem to be only part of the picture. While the PoR has not improved the economic situation, the opposition’s track record in government was no better. Ukrainians have also not forgotten the wasted Orange years. Furthermore, Batkivshchyna’s campaign seems to have focused heavily on criticising the PoR rather than on presenting concrete policies. The PoR has been more or less able to rely on its core support base while also having run a successful campaign, maintaining a high degree of cohesion.

The increase in Klitschko’s popularity means that he is now well-placed to be kingmaker in the new parliament should he so wish – although this could affect his future plans for the presidency, for which he is now a serious contender. With many Ukrainians seeing UDAR as a viable alternative to the cronyism and ‘politics as usual’ of Ukraine's mainstream parties, both in the government and opposition, Klitschko was able to take votes from both Batkivshchyna and the PoR. For many in the East who are sceptical about parties with connections to the Orange Revolution, UDAR is seen as the only real alternative to the PoR.

Possible scenarios

Whether or not the PoR or Batkivshchyna is able to form a majority will depend on deal-making in the aftermath of the election. Whether or not Klitschko decides to join forces with Batkivshchyna – something which he has so far rejected out of a desire to maintain his independence and comparatively clean image – will be crucial. There is also a possibility that Batkivshchyna may refuse to recognise the election result.

If the PoR were to maintain a majority, some are concerned that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych may seize the opportunity to amend the constitution in order allow parliament to elect the next president. Yet should Batkivshchyna secure a majority, this would not necessarily translate into a change of gear. In the past, political elites from all parties have preferred to concentrate on the redistribution of powers and spheres of influence rather than on the reform that Ukraine so desperately needs. Moreover, the current power/governance structure – which puts the majority of power in the hands of the president – leaves little scope to change the status quo. Therefore dramatic changes in the political landscape should not be expected until the presidential election.

What Ukraine really needs is a new generation of political elites. The fact that Klitschko has attracted so much support demonstrates there is a big appetite, particularly among the younger generation, for new faces.

Relations with the EU: no major changes

While on the day the election may be reasonably free and fair, pre-election violations and the impact of Tymoshenko’s inability to campaign must be taken into account.

EU foreign ministers will discuss Ukraine on 19 November. The results of a European Parliament Monitoring Mission headed by former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former European Parliament President Pat Cox – which has been assessing the Tymoshenko case from a legal point of view – will also be crucially important.

On the one hand, should Tymoshenko’s imprisonment continue, then a dramatic change in EU-Ukraine relations would appear unlikely; on the other, given that the EU has placed so much importance on these elections, for Brussels to subsequently state that regardless of their conduct there can be no change in relations due to Tymoshenko’s ongoing imprisonment would perhaps be considered unfair and further undermine Brussels’ credibility.

Instead, the EU could move towards the signature of the Association Agreement in 2013. This would bring an end to the impasse, bind Ukraine more closely to the EU, show support for reformers – including many in the foreign ministry – and civil society, reduce the effect of pressure on Kyiv from Russia and partially remove Ukraine from the grey zone of uncertainty in which it currently resides. It could be viewed as a compromise that restores some confidence, with the Agreement’s eventual implementation and ratification left to the judgement of individual member states and the European Parliament.

The worst-case scenario would be a fraudulent election, which would potentially herald a further worsening of relations. In order to further punish Ukraine, some EU decision-makers may push to freeze Ukraine’s visa liberalisation talks. Yet measures that impact directly on ordinary citizens should be avoided, because they could foster anti-EU sentiment which would tarnish the image of the EU as a credible actor. Because EU integration remains popular among ordinary Ukrainians, it should be used to push Ukraine’s leadership to reform.

Therefore in the run up to the presidential elections, while political ties may remain tricky, the EU should focus on strengthening its public diplomacy, supporting citizens and other actors who can influence developments in the country, and sending a clear signal that Brussels remains committed to supporting the process of modernisation and democratisation, which not just important for Ukraine but also the wider region.

Amanda Paul is a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels and Roman Rukomeda is a political analyst at the Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy 'People First'.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Commentary are the sole responsibility of the authors.

Ukraine: The Moment of Truth

In this programme


Programme Team

Head of Europe in the World programme and Senior Fellow

Giovanni Grevi

Researcher in EU energy and climate policy, Institute of European Studies, Free University of Brussels

Marco Giuli

Senior Policy Analysts

Paul Ivan
Amanda Paul

Junior Policy Analyst

Ivano di Carlo

Programme Assistant

Marco Zeiss