After almost six months in power, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko appears to have strenghtened his position following the victory of pro-Western parties in the October 25 parliamentary elections. In theory he can now turn to address, through a new parliametary coalition, the two most pressing problems: the breakaway regions of the Donbas; and radical economic reforms. Concerning the former, he has already responded firmly to the “elections” one week ago: they were illegal and the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” (LNR and DNR) violated the Minsk Protocol signed in September (http://ukr.segodnya.ua/politics/pnews/psevdovybory-v-donbasse-resheniya-ukrainy-i-reakciya-zapada-566025.html).
Poroshenko’s position, however, is weaker than it might appear.
In the first place, whether or not the “elections” in the DNR and LNR broke the Minsk Protocol, the accords themselves represented a form of recognition for regimes that can at best be termed “thugocracies,” and which are unsustainable in the long term. Even if those regimes should manage to expand their territories to capture Mariupol, or towns that were once under their control like Sloviansk, they cannot survive without support from Ukraine for such basic commodities as food and water. Yet in order to reach an agreement that would halt the advance of Russian regular troops, the Ukrainian side recognized de facto the existence of the two Donbas regimes when they also signed the Protocol in Minsk on September 5 (http://www.osce.org/home/123257).
Second, while the Ukrainian parliamentary elections of October 25 were hailed in Western media circles as a triumph for pro-European forces, they were probably not such an unqualified success in the eyes of Poroshenko. The turnout was woefully low by Ukrainian standards at 52%, even accounting for the difficulties in voting in some regions, signifying the weariness of the electorate. Moreover, the popular success of Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk’s People’s Front, which received a higher percentage of electoral support than the president’s Petro Poroshenko Bloc (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ukrainian/politics/2014/10/141029_electoral_geography_sx), may have secured the coalition, but also represents a potential divergence of official goals. Yatseniuk took a more militant position in his election campaign than Poroshenko, and the People’s Front became known as “the party of war,” with a more militant anti-separatist stance.
During the formation of the parliamentary coalition, the duties of the victorious parties have been carefully divided, with the Poroshenko Bloc reportedly occupied with constitutional, budget, and infrastructural reforms, and the People’s Front concerned with national security and defense. Also involved is the new Self-Reliance Party headed by the former Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi, whose area of concern is energy independence and reforms of the agro-industrial complex. Still, there are prognoses that the coalition might be short-lived and even the most ardent reformers might struggle to implement their goals because of the economic situation in which the country now finds itself.
The national currency, the hryvnia, has fallen dramatically—it was trading at over 14Hr to $1 on November 7: http://economics.unian.ua/finance/1006462-grivnya-na-mijbanku-prodovjue-padati-1496-za-dolar.html ), and Ukraine has lost several important industrial bases since the spring of 2014. Currently, 40% of the national budget is devoted to debt repayments and servicing (http://www.day.kiev.ua/ru/article/podrobnosti/osobennosti-nacionalnoy-koaliciady-0.), and the GDP has fallen by an estimated one-third over 2014 (http://news.finance.ua/ua/news/~/336785). The only solace is the achievement of an agreement on reduced prices for Russian gas, as a result of discussions between Ukraine, Russia, and the European Union (http://news.finance.ua/ua/news/~/337577), but the country remains the third largest purchaser of Russian gas after Germany and Turkey (http://www.rferl.org/content/russian-gas-how-much-gazprom/25442003.html).
The third factor limiting the optimism after the elections is desire to end the period of corruption in Ukraine, which in the past was identified with former president Viktor Yanukovych and his Regions Party. But the new president, unlike Yatseniuk, can hardly shed his status as an oligarch who was successful in exploiting the post-Soviet transition to develop highly profitable business interests. The avoidance of the perception of Poroshenko as “part of the problem” rather than a solution may depend on his willingness to take on fellow oligarchs in cleansing the system of government and business that has plagued Ukraine since independence.The Guardian newspaper has already delineated Poroshenko as a “reformist” oligarch—http://www.dialog.ua/news/25136_1414481321)—but removing these powerful figures without bringing economic and social upheaval will be hard to achieve.
It is the east that surely occupies most of the president’s waking hours. The parliamentary elections succeeded in eliminating the influence of Regions, Communists, and other parties that might be called pro-Russian or Soviet-nostalgic, representing that part of the electorate that seemed wedded the Soviet legacy, as well as the most corrupt of Ukraine’s business clans. The Parliament no longer includes the parties that dominated the Donbas for the past two decades. The new situation appears to give the president a mandate to carry out substantial changes that can take Ukraine along a new path, yet Poroshenko in reality has minimal options as to the direction the Ukrainian state can take because of external factors that are largely beyond his control.
First of all, the Western powers seem, quietly, to have shelved the Ukrainian question. Their position was reflected on November 9 by the departing Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, Vadym Prystaiko, who commented bitterly that the West was no longer interested in Ukraine, and its fear of Russia precluded any real forthcoming aid. By contrast, he noted, the West was much swifter to take the fight to the Islamic State in Iraq: “You’re bombing, you’re sending F-18s… Iraq’s government is asking for help and you’re sending everything. Then the Ukrainian government asks you the same… and you tell us what? No” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/vadym-prystaiko-says-west-losing-interest-in-ukraine-1.2827717).
The United States seems resolved to perceive the Ukrainian crisis as a European issue, a priority of Brussels, rather than Washington. Yet the Europeans are also divided, with leaders of some states, most notably the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, demanding that the sanctions on Russia be lifted. Other “friends” of the West are joining the chorus, and even former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev felt obliged to comment during the 25th anniversary celebrations of the end of the Berlin Wall that the Western powers should take into account Vladimir Putin’s comments at the recent Valdai Discussion Club. These remarks, stated Gorbachev, reflected a desire for a reduction of tensions and eventually a new partnership with the West (http://en.ria.ru/russia/20141108/195321770/Gorbachev-Urges-West-to-Lift-Sanctions-Consider-Putins-Valdai.html).
Concerning relations with Russia, Poroshenko has made concessions that weaken his domestic standing. As noted by a team of Belarusian analysts, Ukraine has postponed the introduction of trade issues in Ukraine’s Association Agreement (Title IV: Trade and Trade-Related Matters) with the EU and retained a Ukrainian presence in the Free Trading Area of the CIS. The postponement may allow Russia to interpret any changes in the provisions of Title IV as a violation of the agreements with Moscow, to be penalized through heightened import duties. The analysts note also that the prospects of Ukraine joining NATO, though more popular than in the past, has few prospects of success at present, and maintain that the most likely scenario for Ukraine is a delay of both moves toward the EU and radical reforms—they term it a “mothballing” of the current socio-political system for several more years (http://belinstitute.eu/en/print/2246).
As winter approaches, the prospects for a resolution of the conflict in the east seem dim. The rump states of the DNR and LNR remain, with their gangster-style leaders trying to form the semblance of state structures. Over the past week, convoys of tanks have entered these territories from Russia (http://galinfo.com.ua/news/176302.html), suggesting that the Russian Federation, while not committing itself to all-out war, intends to continue its protection of these quasi-regimes, which are too weak to stand alone. Poroshenko’s halting of the ATO attacks followed the catastrophic defeat at Ilovaisk, which although not decisive—the Ukrainian army per se was not destroyed—proved to be a psychological setback that demonstrated the prospects of restoring Ukrainian rule in the Donbas were slim. It has also provoked much soul-searching as to its causes (http://tyzhden.ua/Society/122995)
Moreover, despite the significant reduction of separatist territory over the summer, not all the Messianism of the so-called Novorossiya movement has dissipated. On November 9, the “newly elected” leader of the DNR, Aleksandr Zaharchenko decorated the notorious former Defense Minister of the DNR Igor Girkin (Strelkov) with the title “Hero of the DNR” (http://vlasti.net/news/205908). The ceremony suggested not only that the current leaders of the breakaway regions wish to create their own heroic legends, but also that their ambitions may go beyond the more cautious approach of the Russian leadership in Moscow, which has studiously ignored Girkin since his departure from Ukraine.
The Donbas conflict has also raised a pressing problem of displaced persons. Some residents—as demonstrated in the DNR and LNR “elections” when they were permitted to vote—moved to Russia, but many more dispersed throughout Ukraine. In Dnipropetrovsk, their numbers had reached 400,000 by late October, prompting governor Ihor Kolomoisky to declare that he would not permit a repeat of the tragedy in wartime Leningrad in the winter of 1941 (http://ua.korrespondent.net/ukraine/3436057-dnipropetrovska-oblast-chekaie-naplyvu-bizhentsiv-z-donbasu-cherez-kholody). The lack of water, heating, and food supplies in several towns of Luhansk still under Ukraine’s control is being exacerbated by constant attacks by forces of the LNR (http://tvi.ua/new/2014/11/08/cherez_obstrily_terorystiv_chastyna_luhanschyny_zalyshylasya_bez_svitla_hazu_i_vody).
But the question that faces Poroshenko most urgently is how to satisfy an electorate that has first voted him into power and now endorsed a pro-European parliament. There is no open gate to the West waiting for him to open, let alone prospects for Ukraine promptly joining the European Union or NATO (see, e.g. the remarks of former US ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/compromise-over-ukraine-will-be-hard-11629). The Western powers have rejected his request for weapons to continue fighting, and his forces are ill-equipped to recapture the Donbas. The displaced persons factor adds to Ukraine’s economic woes. It is unlikely that Poroshenko perceives the future with the same euphoria with which many Western governments greeted the sweeping victory of the pro-EU and reformist parties in Ukraine. The new coalition will require a delicate balancing act that may test even this most polished of political leaders.
An earlier version of this article appeared in OPEN DEMOCRACY RUSSIA on November 11, 2014