Ukraine's future in the balance

By  Taras Kuzio

Ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in Ukraine, JID's regional correspondent reviews the implications of a new electoral law and assesses the extent to which the poll will determine the country's future orientation.

Following the elections scheduled to take place on 26 March, Ukraine will have new parliament with a five year mandate. Significantly, the poll will also make use of a fully proportional election system for the first time.

Despite the low election threshold of three per cent (the European standard is five per cent), the new system is not expected to result in parliamentary representation for many of the smaller parties. Moreover, many electors are likely to consider this election as the second round of the 2004 presidential poll. The contest will once again be a battle for power between President Viktor Yushchenko and his pro-Moscow rival, Viktor Yanukovych.

Although 45 parties and blocs have been registered by the Central Election Commission, only six or seven of these are expected to win seats in parliament. These can be divided into three principal political forces representing the divisions following the 2004 election: Yanukovych's Party of Regions and two factions of the Orange Revolution - Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc. Of the remainder, between three and four of the smaller political groups will be left wing or supporters of former president Leonid Kuchma.

Democratic reform in question

The forthcoming elections will also feature a range of constitutional changes accepted by Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution. The most important of these has transformed Ukraine from a presidential to a parliamentary republic and are set to have positive, long-term effects on Ukraine's democracy. This makes the chances of sustained democratic development in Ukraine more likely than in Serbia, Georgia or Kyrgyzstan where similar revolutions took place.

Following the elections, the coalition that is created will have a direct impact upon the choice of Prime Minister and on the future government's direction. Two of the three principal political groups elected to parliament will be needed to form a viable governing coalition. As president, Yushchenko is expected to play a key role in influencing the final political map of the next parliament, although this role is highly risky.

Since the Our Ukraine bloc is the President's main political power base, it is likely to hold the trump card in choosing which of the other two main political groups will enter the anticipated coalition. Our Ukraine and the rival bloc headed by former Prime Minister Tymoshenko have already agreed that whichever of the two parties holds more seats will propose the new premier.

This is vitally important as the powers of the Prime Minister have been greatly enhanced by constitutional reforms. However, there is little enthusiasm within Ukraine's elites - and especially in the Yushchenko camp - for these new powers to go to the more populist Tymoshenko. For this reason, Our Ukraine's strategy will focus on successfully denying the former Prime Minister's return to office.

The determination to thwart Tymoshenko is expected to result in a coalition with Our Ukraine only if her bloc is the junior partner - and she is not poised to become premier. If it tops the poll, Our Ukraine will be in a position to retain the incumbent Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov. However, should that strategy fail, Yushchenko will face the prospect of forming an uneasy coalition with his 2004 election rival, Yanukovych.

The second scenario is that if Our Ukraine trails behind Tymoshenko's bloc, they will be forced into striking a coalition deal with Yanukovych's Party of Regions. If so, then there is likely to be a period of political horse-trading before a candidate for the premier's post can be agreed. The most likely compromise would see Yekhanurov staying on as Prime Minister, while Yanukovych appoints senior Party of Regions personnel to the two first deputy premier posts.

Reversing Yushchenko's decline

The choice of coalition partner will have important strategic ramifications for Ukraine's domestic and foreign policies. A re-united Orange Revolution coalition could reinvigorate Yushchenko's presidency and reverse his opinion poll ratings which have been declining during the past six months.

However, a coalition between Our Ukraine and Yanukovych's bloc can be expected to leave Yushchenko as a lame duck president, hopelessly compromised by his political association with his arch-rival. Such a move would leave him open to charges that he has 'betrayed' the Orange Revolution.

There are also other high risks in adopting this strategy. Yanukovych's close allies include senior officials from the Kuchma era. Some of these are alleged to have been implicated in election fraud back in 2004 and even of involvement in Yushchenko's poisoning. Such a move can be expected to hit the President's popularity further. After Yushchenko signed a memorandum of understanding with the Party of Regions back in September, his personal poll ratings - and that of Our Ukraine - have plummeted.

One likely outcome is that Yushchenko's support base in western and central Ukraine could defect en masse to join Tymoshenko. Should this occur, Yushchenko is unlikely to be re-elected for a second term in 2009.

Yushchenko's manoeuvres in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections will send a signal to both Russia and the West over the prospects for the future of reform in Ukraine. Kyiv is expected to pass the first test set by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the EU and NATO by holding free and fair elections for the first time since 1994.

A second key test will rest on whether the parliamentary coalition and resulting government will be committed to reform by consolidating the democratic progress made since the Orange Revolution. While a re-united Orange coalition would send a positive signal to the West, a political alliance with Yanukovych would be regarded negatively as a potential victory for the Kremlin. Whether Ukraine will be invited to sign up for NATO's Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the forthcoming summit in Riga in October is expected to depend on the outcome of this poll. If Yanukovych remains in opposition, Kyiv is likely to be included alongside Albania, Croatia and Macedonia in the third wave of NATO enlargement which will be approved at its 2008 summit. Ukraine would then join NATO in 2010. The process is more likely to go ahead if Yushchenko is re-elected for a second presidential term in 2009.

On the other hand, an alliance with the pro-Moscow bloc risks sending the signal to the West that the Orange Revolution is in retreat. Such a coalition deal could result in NATO postponing its decision to invite Ukraine into the MAP. Kyiv would then merely continue with the yearly Action Plans first instituted in 2003, thus missing out in the third round of enlargement. In the event that Yushchenko fails to be re-elected to the presidency in 2009, this postponement could well become indefinite. Ongoing political interference by Moscow is highly likely since derailing Ukraine's membership of NATO will remain one of the Kremlin's top priorities for the remainder of this decade.