The pro-Russian Party of Regions retains power in Ukraine

The Ukrainian election results signal the two main groupings, the Party of Regions and the Fatherland Union, have lost some support, while radical forces have gained considerably, revealing quite a few similarities to the Russian Duma elections of December 2011.

By Pawel Piotr Styrna l November 21, 2012

On left, support for main parties on an oblast (province) level: Party of Regions (blue), Fatherland Union (purple), and Svoboda (brown).

On November 12, 2012, the results of the Ukrainian parliamentary elections of October 28 were finalized and made public. Out of a total of 450 deputies to the unicameral Verkhovna Rada (literally “Supreme Council,” an institutional continuation of the Soviet-era republican Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR) 445 have been elected. Due to protests by the opposition, which alleged voter fraud, repeated voting has been ordered in five single-representative districts, the Ukrainian system (like the Georgian one) being divided 50/50 into proportional, party list constituencies and simple majority, single-deputy ones.

While allegations of fraud by the opposition may be interpreted as self-serving, it is certainly suspicious that more than two weeks were required to finalize the results, and post-communists are not above attempts at vote-rigging. The European Union even criticized the Ukrainian election as “marred by irregularities, delays in the vote count and lack of transparency in the electoral commissions,” which has led Brussels to freeze a trade deal with Kyiv.

Election results

The ruling post-communist, pro-Russian, and Kremlin-oriented Party of Regions—associated with the country’s incumbent president, Viktor Yanukovych—retained power winning 30 percent of the vote and 185 seats.

The center-right, pro-Western Fatherland (Batkivshchyna) Union, headed by Arsenyi Yatsenyuk, came in a close second with 25.55 percent and 101 seats. The party’s famous chief, former Orange Revolution leader and prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is currently imprisoned by the Yanukovych regime for alleged “abuse of power.”

The third prize—i.e. 13.97 percent and 40 seats—was seized by the opposition UDAR (the official party name is Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, albeit the word “udar” means “strike” in Ukrainian) of heavy-weight boxing champion, Vitaliy Klichko.

The unreconstructed Communist Party of Ukraine of career apparatchik Petro Symonenko came in fourth with 13.18 percent of the vote and 32 seats, while the national socialist Svoboda (Freedom) Union of Oleh Tyahnybok garnered 10.45 percent and 37 seats. Interestingly, Svoboda secured more seats than the Communists in spite of their greater popular vote, no doubt owing to the concentration of support for Tyahnybok’s party in some western districts.

Comparisons and contrasts to the Russian Duma election

These results signal that the two main groupings, the Party of Regions and the Fatherland Union, have lost some support, while radical forces have gained considerably. In a way, the Ukrainian elections reveal quite a few similarities to the Russian Duma elections of December 2011, albeit the ruling post-communist United Russia Party secured a majority of seats. In the Russian case, the Communists won almost 20 percent of the vote and the chauvinists of Zhirinovsky also made a relatively strong showing with fourth place and over 8 percent of the vote. In Ukraine, however, the non-totalitarian opposition is a stronger factor than in Russia. Nevertheless, both electoral contests underscore the self-perpetuating pathologies of post-Sovietism.

Azarov, an ethnic Russian, likely to continue as prime minister

The Party of Regions clearly benefited from the change to the election system (passed in 2011) as it gained ten parliamentary seats in spite of losing 4.4 percentage points since the last election. Thus, the current Regionalist prime minister (as of 2010), Mykola Azarov, is very likely to retain his position. Although the ruling party lacks a solid majority in the Verkhovna Rada, it can count on the support of the Communists and some independents on at least some of the issues. These include a pro-Moscow foreign policy and Russian as a second language.

The 65-year-old Ukrainian prime minister is a dyed-in-the-wool “Soviet Man.” Born Nikolay Pakhlo in Kaluga near Moscow, Azarov is an ethnic Russian (his father was possibly half-Estonian). He moved to Ukraine—and more specifically Donetsk in the Russophone far east of the country—only in 1984, and was a delegate to the 28th Congress of the CPSU in 1990. Not surprisingly, but much to the chagrin of the more nationalist-oriented opposition, Azarov prefers to speak Russian in the public square. His career in “free” Ukraine two decades after independence demonstrates clearly the degree to which the country is still quite Bolshevized.

The moderate opposition

The Fatherland Union, in spite of scoring second place, is, paradoxically, the biggest loser of the election. While Tymoshenko and Yatsenyuk’s formation lost only 5.16 percentage points since the last election, it was forced to part with one-third (55) of its Rada seats, a devastating loss. The current electoral law in place obviously grants the winning party a great advantage, even if the distance separating it from the second-place rival is less than five percentage points.

The relative success of the UDAR party may be explained by three factors: the fame of boxing champion Klichko, his anti-corruption rhetoric, and the fact that the party is a relatively new phenomenon. The Udarovtsy are pro-NATO, pro-EU, and call for lower taxes. Notwithstanding the tension between the desire to join the EU and cut taxes, Klichko’s party is likely to join Tymoshenko and Yatsenyuk’s in opposing the post-Soviet Regionalists of Yanukovych and Azarov.

The Communists: Denying genocide and worshipping Stalin

The unreconstructed, Sovietonostalgic Communist Party’s share of the popular vote has climbed by almost 8 percentage points since the last election: from 5.39 percent in 2007 to 13.18 in 2012. Apart from their traditional, ideologico-economic positions, such as the nationalizing of “strategic” sectors of the economy and the banning of the sales of agricultural land, the CPU supports joining the customs union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and the reintroduction of Russian as a second and equal official language at the state level (this controversial measure was already allowed on a regional level in the south and east in August 2012).

The Communists and their leader Symonenko naturally oppose the rehabilitation of “fascist collaborators” and “nationalists” (both lumped into one category) while simultaneously denying that the infamous Soviet-engineered Terror-Famine of 1932-1933 (Holodomor)—which claimed the lives of anywhere from 2.4 to 7.5 million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine—was a deliberate genocide.

By comparison, the post-Soviet current president Yanukovych does not officially deny that Stalin’s policies caused the famine, but reversed his predecessor Viktor Yuschenko’s stance on the Holodomor as an anti-Ukrainian genocide. Yanukovych’s argument that the famine occurred in other republics—including Russia and Kazakhstan—ignores the clearly anti-Ukrainian dimension of the Terror-Famine in Soviet Ukraine.

The unreconstructed Communists of the Ukraine not only deny the crimes of Bolshevism but even erected a monument to Stalin himself in the southeastern city of Zaporizhia in front of their party headquarters in 2010. In response, the monument was first decapitated and later blown up by radical nationalists, forcing the Communists to rebuild it in 2011. Opponents of the monument also unveiled a giant billboard of Adolf Hitler inquiring rather logically “how am I worse than Stalin? Why don’t you erect a monument to me as well?”

Disconcertingly, a public opinion poll conducted in July 2011 revealed that 36 percent of post-Soviet Ukraine’s population (esp. southeasterners) considers Stalin a “great leader,” and only 34 percent condemn him (esp. northeasterners). The mainstream Western press, however, has largely ignored these developments and glossed over the Communist gains in this election. The mainstream media has instead been preoccupied with sounding the alarm over the success of the radical nationalists, while continuing to give the post-communists and unreconstructed Communists a pass. This selective blindness naturally reflects the assumption among Western liberal elites that all nationalism is suspect and dangerous, while internationalism is constructive and noble.

Svoboda: The radical nationalist problem

Oleh Tyahnybok’s Svoboda party has attracted so much media attention partly because it had been suddenly catapulted into the parliament (it had enjoyed local successes in the west before) with more than 10 percent of the vote, up from less than 1 percent in 2007. True to its stated philosophy of “natiocracy,” Svoboda desires a Ukraine for Ukrainians defined ethnically. While Ukranian nationalists tend to be anti-Russian and anti-Polish, all varieties of Ukrainian nationalism are by no means necessarily nefarious. Svoboda, however, originates in a particularly aggressive, neo-pagan strain of chauvinistic ethno-nationalism associated with the OUN of Stepan Bandera and Andryi Melnyk.

While in the wake of multiple Soviet atrocities many Ukrainians initially welcomed the Germans in 1941—hoping that they would establish a Ukrainian state as they did during the previous war—it was this extremist faction that assisted the German Nazis in murdering the Jews and carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign against Poles during the Second World War. To this day, Western Ukrainians deny that the OUN perpetrated these crimes, and their fight against fellow totalitarians, the Soviets, has earned them the role of national heroes in the west and center. (By contrast, the post-communists and easterners condemn all nationalists for being anti-Russian and anti-Soviet.)

Not surprisingly, Oleh Tyahnybok worships Stepan Bandera and the OUN. The fact that, in spite of all its virulence, Svoboda has not been cracked down upon by the authorities, which so eagerly incarcerated Yulia Tymoshenko, is suspicious, however. Some suggest that Tyahnybok’s formation received covert support and inspiration from the post-communist secret services tied to the Yanukovych regime. This would certainly be useful in vilifying a nationalist, anti-communist, and anti-Russian agenda; taking some support away from the more mainstream opposition; and making the post-communists look reasonable and preferable by comparison with the “fascists.” After all, if one thinks like a Chekist, a controlled opposition in a country where some opposition to post-communist policies seems inevitable is safer than an independent one.

This is perhaps why much indicates that the automobile accident of moderate nationalist leader and anti-Soviet dissident, Viacheslav Chornovil, who challenged post-Soviet Leonid Kuchma for the Ukrainian presidency in 1999, was actually a political murder. Regardless of Svoboda’s exact relationship to the post-communist establishment, if any, they should certainly be watched, albeit it is crucial not to lose sight of the machinations of the Regionalists and Communists. Observers of Central and Eastern Europe should bear in mind that rabid and radical nationalist and populist movements are, in many important ways, the product of communist and post-communist pathologies.

Shall East and West ever meet?

The election has also once again brought attention to the deepening political and cultural polarization in Ukraine. This divide is evident in geographic terms but has an historical basis. The post-communists of the Party of Regions and the unreconstructed Communists enjoy most support in the south and east.

Centuries ago, much of this area constituted the steppe belt roamed by various nomadic tribes, mostly of Turkic and Mongol descent. Until their final subjugation in the 18th century, for example, the Muslim Tatars of the Crimea launched destructive raids into Slavic territories north to capture and sell “white gold,” i.e. tens of thousands of slaves. It is also the regions on the Black Sea coast and in the Donbas that are the most culturally and linguistically Russified—due to a longer period of Russian rule in addition to the migration of ethnic Russians—and Sovietized.

By contrast, the lands in the center and west, which support the pro-independence, pro-Western opposition, are more ethnically and linguistically Ukrainian due to longer association with Western Civilization. The West and Center of Ukraine, including the capital of Kyiv, belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian union (later Commonwealth) for several centuries. The Commonwealth, in spite of its faults, emphasized liberty and self-government as its guiding philosophy, while the Mongols and Muscovites preferred despotism and control.

Afterwards, the southwestern province of Galicia (where Svoboda enjoys the greatest support) was ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs who, after 1867, granted their Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians wide autonomy. By contrast, the Russian Tsars suppressed the Ukrainian-Ruthenian language and sought Russification.

During the interwar period, what is now western Ukraine constituted the southeastern provinces of a reborn Poland, where Ukrainians were at most subjected to some restrictions. By contrast, the central and eastern parts of Ukraine languished under Soviet rule and millions died. The large amounts of freedom in the west thus allowed a strong Ukrainian nationalist movement to develop, while Ukrainian national sentiments were ruthlessly crushed and drowned in a sea of blood by the Soviets. This historical legacy and the chasm it has created is very difficult to repair.

For all intents and purposes, there appear to be two Ukraines. This development has been closely observed by the Kremlin, for whom Ukraine is the most important post-Soviet successor state due to its large population (second only after Russia in the former USSR), size, location, and substantial Russian-speaking population (many Russian-speakers are of ethnic Ukrainian descent, of course). Ukraine’s reintegration into Putin’s post-Soviet neo-empire is thus a priority for Moscow. Russia would prefer to control Ukraine in its territorial entirety, of course, but Russian geopolitical thinkers have also pitched ideas of partitioning the country or incorporating the south and east while turning the center and west into a protectorate of sorts.

Geopolitical significance

In any case, upholding the political division of Ukraine and marginalizing pro-Western elements is certainly in Moscow’s interest. The results of the October 28 Ukrainian election, i.e. the victory of the post-communist Party of Regions and gains by the Communist Party, are a victory for the Kremlin. The success comes at a time when pro-Russian forces have also won elections in Georgia and Lithuania. Meanwhile, the countries that can, and have tried in the past to help pull the post-Soviet successor states from the Gulf of Finland to the Caucasus away from the orbit of Russian domination—the United States and Poland—have chosen to absent themselves in favor of satisfying Moscow. In such a context, the West can only hope that Yanukovych’s desire to be a president of a sovereign and separate state will surpass Putin’s desire to turn him into a governor of a dependant and subordinated province.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.