Yesterday’s presidential election in Ukraine was more than just a demonstration of Ukrainians’ readiness to elect their government democratically. These polls are a watershed moment in Ukrainian history, and they have broader international implications as well. More than 80 percent of Ukrainians (the votes aren’t all in yet, but the picture is clear already) supported candidates who favor Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and the unitary state—meaning they support the Western trajectory. In fact, with 85 percent of ballots counted, Petro Poroshenko is leading with 54.5 per cent of vote; the pro-Russian candidates Tihipko and Dobkin together have only 8.58 percent, and the nationalist candidates Yarosh and Tygnibock have about 2 percent each (they also supported Ukraine’s integration with Europe). We can look at this outcome as confirmation of Ukraine’s turn toward the West; that turn, as the voters see it, can guarantee Ukraine’s independent statehood.That the Ukrainian election took place in spite of ongoing provocations, the forced annexation of Ukrainian territory, the threat of further invasion, and violence in the east by pro-Russian separatists is a victory for Ukrainian society and a sign that it has closed the book on the old regime. This election has legitimated the Maidan, its drive for freedom and dignity, and its longing for a strong and stable Ukrainian national state.The election also marks a defeat for the coalition that sought to turn Ukraine into a failed state. The key player in this coalition is of course the Putin regime, which is using Ukraine as a tool to ensure its own survival. But the Ukrainian crisis would not have been possible without the Kremlin’s Ukrainian partners—primarily, the Communist Party and the Party of Regions, which are responsible for the grave state the country now finds itself in. Corrupt local officials and police who, along with criminal elements and oligarchs (by which I mean, first of all, Rinat Akhmetov), tried to use the separatist mood to pursue their own interests also contributed to the instability in the southeast of the country. This is not to say that they all acted in concert or received their instructions from a “central authority” abroad. Of course not. But they all bear some responsibility for the heightened chaos.The anti-Ukrainian coalition also found quite a few followers who perhaps were working unwittingly to destabilize the country or turn it into a failed state. But witting or unwitting, members of this coalition over the past few months have all tended to use the same arguments—arguments, not coincidentally, that have also been articulated by the Kremlin. Here they are:
- Russia can’t be blamed for destabilizing Ukraine, because it was Ukrainian forces that were fighting each other.
- Ukraine shouldn’t hold elections; it has been torn apart by war. Instead, there should be a referendum on constitutional reforms making Ukraine a federal state. Only then should it hold elections. There also should be dialogue with the leadership of the unrecognized “people’s republics” in the east and a halt to Kiev’s anti-terrorism offensive against them.
Putin restated these arguments at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on May 23; Dialogue with the separatists and constitutional reforms leading to Ukrainian federalization, he said, are also the main pre-conditions for normalizing Russian-Ukrainian relations. In other words, he insisted he knows what’s best for Ukrainians—on the eve that they were to decide that for themselves.What would have happened if Kiev had accepted Putin’s “anti-crisis package”? First of all, it would have meant that Kiev agreed with Moscow’s portrayal of the political situation in Ukraine as a civil war. In reality, the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine was provoked externally, and separatists have terrorized locals who do not support them, as this HRW report and others have documented. Some locals do support the separatists, to be sure, but this doesn’t change the big picture: The separatists wouldn’t have been able to create their strongholds without financial support from abroad (even if it were only support from the Russian-based branches of the Yanukovych family).Postponing yesterday’s presidential elections would only have weakened Ukraine even further and prolonged the term of its indecisive provisional government. It’s ironic, furthermore, that the Kremlin, which has long forsaken its own constitution and quashed its own people’s right for a referendum on constitutional reform, demands similar reforms and referenda in another country.Ukraine’s federalization, an odd option by global standards, would only trigger the fragmentation of the state and its foreign policy. But this is not to say that rejecting federalization means refusing to decentralize Ukraine’s system of governance. Kiev, in fact, has agreed to such decentralization. As for dialogue with the leaders of the unrecognized “people’s republics”, who have used terror, kidnapping, hostages, and murder to support their cause, such dialogue would only demonstrate the weakness of the Ukrainian state and invite the country’s further dismemberment.Ironically, it was Putin and Moscow that strengthened Ukraine’s readiness to hold yesterday’s election and helped determine its outcome. But the election is only a first step toward a Ukrainian renaissance. The new President was borne to power on the wings of a compromise: he represents the old elite, which was responsible for the formation of Ukraine’s corrupt state in the first place. Poroshenko will have to prove that an oligarch who was himself well-versed in the old rules of the game is capable of running a rule-of-law state. He will face an even more difficult task in helping to create a new Ukrainian elite, untarnished by corruption of the old order.These are just a few of the challenges Poroshenko and the new Ukraine will face. Carrying off constitutional reform is another crucial challenge. The current version of constitutional changes, as drafted by the parliament, essentially provides for a parliamentary system that, given current conditions, may very well perpetuate the power of the oligarchic clans and turn the President into a figurehead. Ukraine will have to hold parliamentary elections promptly; the old parliament was responsible for Yanukovych’s policies and for sanctioning violence against the Maidan. However, the legal means to call the pre-term Rada elections are not clear. The Kremlin will back the creation of a parliamentary republic, in hopes that this will allow it to meddle in Ukrainian politics and create a faction to back its interests. Thus, Ukraine’s new challenge is to create a system that preserves independence while preventing the old corrupt clans from maintaining their power.The new Ukrainian authorities will be forced to deal with one final challenge. Not only Moscow but many in the West, too, have called for Ukraine’s “Finlandization.” This option, it is hoped by some in the West, will accommodate the Kremlin. For instance, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius says, “The Russian leader may be ready to accept a neutral country, between East and West, where Russia’s historical interests are recognized.” But in reality, under current conditions Ukraine’s “Finlandization” won’t keep it within the civilizational gray zone it has occupied up to the present; if it attempts to remain in that zone as before, it is bound eventually to fall into Russia’s orbit.True, Putin has agreed to respect the “choice” that Ukraine made on May 25 and has reconfirmed his readiness for dialogue with new Ukrainian authorities in phone conversations with Merkel and Hollande. Earlier today, Sergei Lavrov reiterated that Moscow is ready for a dialogue with Poroshenko without any intermediaries. But so what? Putin has been known to change his mind; he’s even been known to contradict himself. The Kremlin may be looking to gain some flexibility in its relations with Kiev, but you can be sure that it is preparing to influence the future Ukrainian state, and it has quite a few weapons to do so, including the “gas garrote.”In short, the Ukrainian drama lives on. But there is now much more reason for optimism: Yesterday’s vote means that Ukraine is ready to leave behind the Soviet past and to get out from under Russia’s shadow.