Ukraine: Elections without the East

Ukraine’s presidential elections did not bring back the rebellious Donbas.

Part of Eastern Ukraine did not take part in the presidential elections [Getty Images]

On May 25, Ukrainians went to the ballot boxes to elect their fifth president. This time, unlike after the Orange Revolution ten years ago, little space was left for illusions and naive trust in “good politicians”. Many of those who voted for Petro Poroshenko did it in the sober understanding that the country badly needs a legitimate president in order to move towards peace and stability.

These elections were quite unusual not only because they happened under the adverse conditions of an armed conflict. For the first time both leading candidates represented a pro-Western orientation, while pro-Russian politicians were marginalised. The traditional pattern of Ukrainian politics – East vs West – seems to be broken. Does this indicate the transformation of Ukrainian political culture and the emergence of a new pro-Western national consensus? Such a conclusion might, however, be too optimistic as long as in Donbas a peaceful political process is disrupted by separatist insurgency and the mistrust in Kiev remains high.

Overcoming the East-West divide?

The regular presidential elections in Ukraine were scheduled for March 2015, and there were little doubts that President Viktor Yanukovich was going to stay in office for a second term. With his main opponent Yulia Tymoshenko behind bars, the charismatic boxer Vitali Klitschko seemed to be the only hope of the pro-Western voters.

At the same time, the president’s PR-specialists deliberately promoted the leader of the radical nationalist “Svoboda” party, Oleh Tyahnybok, who would have been the most convenient opponent for Yanukovich in the second round of elections. In other words, the usual “West vs East” game was the most probable scenario for the 2015 presidential elections.

People&Power – Ukraine: A dangerous game

But the Euromaidan protests trumped this scenario and pave the way for a different kind of election – one in which Yanukovich’s Party of Regions failed to put forward a strong candidate, which allowed for different kind of electoral race.

With the Russian intervention, the annexation of Crimea and the separatist insurgency in the Donbas region the elections became crucial. Insisting on the legitimacy of dismissed president Yanukovich and refusing to negotiate with the new Kiev government the Kremlin was obviously interested in further destabilising Ukraine. The Western partners, on the contrary, urged Kiev to hold the elections in order to strengthen its position vis-avis Moscow.

Some sceptical voices expressed concern that the elections could be sabotaged and disrupted by Russian provocations, or even military aggression. Fears were especially strong around May 1 and May 9, traditional Soviet holidays usually used for mass mobilisation by Communists and pro-Russian forces.

Therefore, the very fact that under the current conditions the elections took place should be seen as a success. The predictable outcome – Petro Poroshenko won with 54.7 percent votes in the first round – saves the Ukrainians a second round and thus another three weeks of uncertainly. More surprisingly, Poroshenko emerged as the number one in all regions of Ukraine (including the few electoral districts in Donetsk and Luhansk where elections could take place). The absence of the traditional East-West polarisation is a real sensation for Ukrainian politics – this time, the electoral map of the country is covered by one single colour.

Unlike in 2004 and 2010, when the results of the elections were contested by the opponents and taken to court, Poroshenko’s victory in the first round leaves no room for conflicting interpretations. The turnout, even if a bit lower than in 2010, was high (59.57 percent according to official data). This applies in particular to Western and Central Ukraine, where the elections turned into a second referendum for national independence and were celebrated by voters dressed in ethnic Ukrainian clothes.

Elections without Donbas

The electoral map of Ukraine would have looked a bit different if the majority of citizens in Donetsk and Luhansk and nearly all in Crimea had not been prevented from voting. The self-proclaimed authorities of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” which held separatist “referendums” already on May 11 did everything to disrupt the elections. According to the OSCE observer mission, “forced evictions and closures of District Election Commissions by armed groups, abductions, death threats, forced entry into private homes and the seizure of equipment and election materials were attempts to prevent the election and to deny citizens their right to vote”.

The other reason for the very low turnout was the resignation of the local population and the mistrust towards Kiev. According to an opinion poll conducted on the day of the elections in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, 67 percent of the respondents said that they had no intention to vote; of them, 30.5 percent knew that voting was not possible in their area; 26,6 percent saw no suitable candidate; 6.8 percent referred to the lack of security; 12.4 percent doubted the fairness of the elections; and 7.7 percent did not consider their region a part of Ukraine. In fact, those few who dared to go to the ballot boxes were motivated pro-Ukrainian citizens and voted rather in accordance to the rest of the country.  

The de facto absence of the Donbas vote in the presidential elections is difficult to overestimate. The political machine of the Party of Regions was created in the late 1990s, when then president Leonid Kuchma made a deal with the Donbas oligarchs which provided him and his “party of power” with electoral support. The use of “administrative resources”, massive election fraud, black PR and destructive identity games pitting the East against the West of the country were the Party of Regions’ favourite instruments of power which degraded the Ukrainian political system.

Donetsk and Luhansk were the motor of Yanukovich’s election campaign in 2004, which resulted in the Orange Revolution; the same two regions secured his victory in 2010 and brought Ukraine’s most unfortunate president to power. After the escape of Yanukovich, the Party of Regions failed to reinvent itself and had to face the early elections without a strong leader. Its powerful sponsors, such as the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, tolerated and even supported separatism in the East. Ironically, it was the Party of Regions which, due to separatist unrest, lost most votes in their own domain.

The very fact that current elections were relatively free and fair and took place without much black PR and fraud is ascribed by some observers to the non-participation of the Donbas elites and the marginalisation of the Party of Regions. Even if this is true the problem of political representation and re-integration of the Donbas in the Ukrainian nation remains. A solution is problematic in a situation of civil conflict, with growing casualties on both sides. And yet, if the early parliamentary elections are scheduled for this autumn, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, like the rest of the country, should have a real political choice and an opportunity to vote.

Tatiana Zhurzhenko is Research Director of the Russia in Global Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, Austria, and Lecturer at the Department of Political Science of the University of Vienna. Having studied Political Economy and Philosophy in Kharkiv (Ukraine) she published widely on gender politics and feminism, on borders and borderland identities and on memory politics. Her last book is “Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine” (Stuttgart 2010).