By Maryna Polataiko. Originally published on 2012/11/20

Before the Ukrainian elections of October 28, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, vice-president of the European People’s Party, declared that the vote on October 28th was to be a “historic opportunity to reach a consensus among all actors of the democratic opposition.” Such cooperation from the opposition would ensure that the incumbent Party of Regions would not reclaim a constitutional majority in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament.

Taking a stand against the pro-Eastern Regions’ oligarchical domination proved to be little more than wishful thinking. Despite talk of oppositional alliances, challenges to the status quo remained splintered as pro-Western parties such as Tymoshenko’s Fatherland came out with 25.53 % of the votes, Udar with 13.96 %, and Svoboda with 10.44%. This lack of cohesion is reminiscent of the internal divisions that plagued the 2004 Orange coalition, wherein the coalition marginalized itself in the eyes of its popular support and as a result lost the chance for democratization. The October 28th election then, characterized by the absence of a strong coalition, intersecting with the handicap of a discriminatory electoral playing field, has carved a political space enabling Yanukovych’s Party of Regions to maintain a stranglehold on power.

This October, Ukraine was stormed with an unprecedented electoral observation mission, with more than 3,700 foreign observers coming to ensure the materialization of free and fair elections. But rather than witnessing democratic growth, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) came away with allegations of recidivism: the “democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine.”

Without question, the most flagrant manifestation of Ukraine’s democratic rollback has been the imprisonment of oppositional leader Yulia Tymoshenko. On the legislatively irrelevant pretext of harming her country’s interests by engaging in negotiations with Russia over the price of natural gas in 2009, she was sentenced to serving seven years in 2011. As an OSCE representative put in plain words, “one should not have to visit a prison to hear from leading political figures in the country.”

Less conspicuous but equally destabilizing are the disproportionate amounts of media coverage vis-à-vis competing parties, which favor the incumbent Regions. In addition, laws against libel and slander in the press resembling those recently passed in Russia have been enacted, carrying out the function of media censorship.

Observers also highlighted the lack of transparency in the events leading up to and during the election, reporting that there had been a lack of transparency in both the electoral vote tabulation as well as in regards to campaign and party financing.
Structural hurdles have also posed challenges to the opposition, as reforms implemented by the Yanukovych administration have put his party at an advantage in the elections. The proportional electoral system has been switched to a mixed one—half the seats are now chosen through party lists, with the other part selected via individual races. An Al Jazeera reporter explains the situation as such: “Yanukovich’s candidates are stronger in those individual races since the opposition was fielding multiple candidates and the ruling party enjoyed greater access to government funds.”

Yanukovych’s monopoly over power does not bode well for Euro-Ukrainian relations, as the Party of Regions bears a strong pro-Russian bent. Not unlike a satellite government, it has installed laws mimicking those of Russia—namely, the recent ban on the promotion of homosexuality. Less overt reforms have also spread forms of Russification, such as one enabling the regionalization of official languages, serving as a vehicle for the formalization of Russia’s linguistic hegemony throughout parts of the country.

Despite its pipedream of European integration, Ukraine is being pulled back into the hands of former domination. With a track record highlighting a slew of democratic reversals, European membership is proving to be little more than pie in the sky.

With the phantoms of the Orange Revolution’s failure still in the wind, Ukraine’s recent history paints a bleak picture of a string of unseized opportunities. But while the juncture of October 28th failed to breed the ideal cooperative outcomes predicted by Saryusz-Wolski, it nevertheless served as a watershed moment for what would come days later.

On November 5th, thousands of Ukrainians came out to the central elections commission in Kiev to protest the government’s failure to publish the final results of the elections. It was on November 5th that leaders of the opposition finally and firmly banded together to declare the Yanukovych administration as invalid, accusing the party of electoral falsification.

This popular upsurge bears a mirror image to the accusations that bolstered the mass protests of the Orange Revolution. While that event became a symbol of democratic failure in Ukraine’s collective consciousness, combined with the events of November 5th, together they may prove to serve a dual function. Recent failures may, in fact, provide an important lesson to the opposition: Faced with political inequity, Ukraine’s oppositional forces must learn to ally, and avoid at all costs the internal tensions which had led to the downfall of the Tymoshenko administration.

Dis­claimer: This art­icle was ori­gin­ally pub­lished as “Growing Pains: Ukraine’s Case of Benjamin Button” on November 8, 2012 in The Polit­ical Bouil­lon, EST cooper­a­tion partner.

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