Ukraine elections and the Russia model

MOSCOW—Election results reported Monday in Ukraine’s parliamentary election point to an effort by the ruling Party of Regions and President Viktor Yanukovych to follow the same path of government-by-strongman as neighbors Russia and Belarus.

In balloting that was sharply criticized by international observers and denounced as flagrant fraud by the opposition, the party appears to have furthered its grip on power. Tax investigations, denial of television airtime and intimidation of opponents marked the election campaign up until Sunday’s voting, and individual precinct vote totals from the balloting have been kept confidential.

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The government, which generously wielded public resources on behalf of the party, operated in a “climate of impunity,” Walburga Habsburg Douglas, leader of a group of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Monday.

Most disturbing, she said, was that this election was a “step backward” from the democratic progress that Ukraine has made in years past.

Yet in important respects, Yanukovych’s standing is not parallel to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Ukraine is a deeply divided country: between east and west, between Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, between those who loathe the 2004 Orange Revolution and those who only regret its subsequent disappointments.

And even those who voted for Yanukovych — eastern, Russian-speaking citizens — are increasingly dismayed by the corruption and cronyism that mark his regime.

Yanukovych’s opponents, even if they are divided and relegated to minority standing in the parliament, will be a vocal force nonetheless. Vitali Klitschko, a champion boxer and head of a new party called UDAR, said at a Monday press conference that he wants the opposition groups to join together to put Ukraine on “a democratic path” and remove “the Yanukovych regime.”

It’s not at all clear they could do that, even if they could find a way to unite. But unlike Putin, who has faced vocal opponents recently, Yanukovych has no oil or gas revenue to lavish on his country. He has raised salaries and benefits, with no obvious way of paying for them now that the election is over. His critics believe he also lacks the political savvy that Putin has used to cement his place at the top in Russia.

“Without money, they will try to stick to power by using physical force,” predicted Denis Kazansky, a political journalist in Donetsk, Yanukovych’s home town. But that has its own risks.

Yanukovych’s oligarch friends, rather than fearing him, show signs of wanting to distance themselves from him. Rinat Akhmetov, a Donetsk businessman and one of Ukraine’s richest tycoons, chose not to keep his seat in parliament. He’s more interested now in improving his own image, said Yevgeny Stratievsky, a blogger in Donetsk, and Yanukovych and the Party of Regions aren’t good for that.

“Their shadow falls on his name,” Stratievsky said.

And Yanukovych has Europe to worry about. For 20 years, Ukraine has been trying to tie its future to the European Union — under Yanukovych as much as with his predecessors — and a break with Europe would be devastating to the Ukrainian economy. It also would make Ukrainian businesses vulnerable to Russian takeover artists.

Western Europeans were loudest Monday in denouncing the conduct of the elections and have been the most vocal critics on the imprisonment of Yanukovych’s rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (as well as her ally, Yuriy Lutsenko). The OSCE observer mission was unusually forthright in its criticisms of Ukraine: Its members talked of their “deep regrets” at the election’s lack of fairness and transparency.

Habsburg Douglas pointed out that the election process continues right up to the seating of the parliament, and she promised that the OSCE would keep it under constant observation.

Final results of the election won’t be tabulated until November. Voters on Sunday chose half the parliament by party list, and half by individual district. There are at total of 450 seats.

As of Monday afternoon, with 60 percent of the votes counted, the Party of Regions had won 34 percent of the party ticket, Ukraine’s election commission reported.

Tymoshenko’s opposition party, Batkivshchyna, was reported to have received 22 percent; the Communist Party, 15 percent; UDAR, 12 percent; and the virulent nationalist group Svoboda, 9 percent.

The ruling party’s reported results were markedly stronger than exit polls taken Sunday suggested. So far, according to the commission, the Party of Regions won 117 of the 225 district votes. Allied with the Communists, it is nearly certain to control the next parliament.

Yanukovych’s room for maneuver also will be defined to some extent by the results of the U.S. election next week. Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have been more hostile to Russia than has the Obama administration, and Ukrainian analysts expect that a Romney administration would be more likely to give Yanukovych at least a partial pass as long as he professes independence of Moscow.

Democrats, on the other hand, have kept Yanukovych and the opposition at arm’s length — out of fear that they could become hostage to Ukrainian politics, which could have unforeseen consequences for U.S. relations with Russia.

Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who led a group of observers to Ukraine on behalf of the International Republican Institute, said in a phone interview from Kiev that there was “cause for concern about the credibility of the election.”

Nothing about it, he said, is likely to change the cool attitude of the West toward the current regime.

 
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