The Aftermath of Ukraine's Elections: One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?

"For a truly peaceful resolution to take place, Ukraine has to embrace dissenting voices in its government not with contempt, but with an intention to work with them." 

Following Sunday’s highly anticipated parliamentary elections, the EU and United States celebrated the overwhelming win by pro-European parties in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada. However, the results of Sunday’s election show that Ukraine is still deeply divided and will face an uphill battle in implementing future reform policies. In the coming months, President Poroshenko will have to work towards reconciling the differences between the major parties and ensure that no group feels alienated from decision making. Otherwise, Ukraine could face an escalation in the conflict and further splintering.

Over the past week, the main focus in Western media has been on the overwhelming support for the pro-Western parties, namely Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, which placed first at 22.2 percent, and President Poroshenko’s party, Poroshenko Bloc, receiving 21.8 percent.

Overlooked is the fact that Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko came to power during two different, but equally critical, phases of the conflict in Ukraine and as a result represent different political priorities. Yatsenyuk, who was designated prime minister by the Maidan Council when Yanukovych fled, represents the revolutionary spirit of Maidan. Poroshenko on the other hand, was elected president and as an oligarch embodies a mix of Ukraine’s past and possible future. While both parties agree that Ukraine should be heading in the European direction, points of contention will arise in exactly how to achieve this goal.

Meanwhile, the Opposition Bloc, with many of former president Yanukovych’s associates, placed fourth at 9 percent. While significantly lower than its previous standing, it demonstrates that there is still a significant constituency. In celebrating the pro-Western parties’ dominance in parliament, the West is promoting a winner-take-all approach and risks alienating those who voted for the Opposition Bloc, many of which are located in areas of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by the Ukrainian government. Isolating these voters will not only lead to future dissent and hurt attempts at reconciliation, but more importantly, could push additional areas in eastern and southern Ukraine to fall under the separatists’ control.

Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk are already focusing on reforming Ukraine in a way that will be appealing to the West in hope of receiving more military and financial aid, even proposing to name the coalition the European Coalition. With a high probability of obtaining a comfortable majority, it will be easy to exclude the Opposition Bloc and promote policies that focus on developing a dialogue with the European Union, rather than the separatists. Despite placing fourth, the Opposition Bloc was excluded from the first Rada meeting to discuss the formation of the coalition party and is likely to be omitted from the coalition altogether. With the possibility of a grand coalition not even discussed in the Rada, Yatsenyuk said that he would like to see the final coalition consist of the People’s Front, Poroshenko Bloc, Samopomich (which placed third in the elections and is lead by the mayor of the west Ukrainian city of Lviv), Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party and the Radical Party (whose leader, Oleg Lyashko, ordered an angry mob to dump a city official into a dumpster). Including parties like the Radical Party in the coalition, while avoiding the Opposition Bloc, will only promote distrust and damage the image that the pro-Western parties want to create of Ukraine as a European nation.

That being said, the enthusiasm for closer ties with Europe, recognized in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, has not been reciprocated by the West. The support that the EU and United States have provided to Ukraine thus far has been mostly rhetorical. Instead, Western governments are too preoccupied with pigeonholing the Ukraine crisis as an external conflict predominantly caused by Russia. In the process, they are overlooking key domestic issues such as corruption and potential for future tension between not only the pro-Western and pro-Russian parties, but also diverging views within the pro-Western parties on how to reform Ukraine. As a result, the West’s response in dealing with the Ukraine crisis has been ineffective.

For example, in early October, Victoria Nuland smugly delivered monitoring equipment to Ukraine and like a kid who just received a bad Christmas present, high-ranking Ukrainian officials politely shook her hand and thanked her for the binoculars and drones, while perhaps internally cursing the lack of substantial aid provided by the United States. Rather than sending the lethal aid that Poroshenko asked for in his speech to Congress, the fact that the United States chose to send mostly monitoring equipment to Ukraine is an indication that the United States is very hesitant to risk entering into direct confrontation with Russia. But, as President Poroshenko said in his speech to Congress in September, “one cannot win the war with blankets.”