Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 11

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

The Communist victory in Ukraine’s recent parliamentary elections was predicted by all the analysts and the pollsters. They disagreed only on the amount by which the leftists would beat all the other parties. Some polls gave the Communists 12 percent, while others had them winning with 15-17 percent. According to Ukraine’s new majoritarian-proportional electoral law, a party needs four percent of the vote to make it into parliament.

But no one managed to predict the actual Communist vote–6,550,353 votes or 24.65 percent (which translated into 84 seats in parliament). This was more than two and a half times the vote for the Communists’ main rival–Rukh, which got only 9.4 percent of the vote (32 seats). The Communists’ ideological allies, the socialist-agrarian bloc and the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine got 29 and 14 seats respectively. Of the 432 people’s deputies registered on May 11, 114–i.e., one-fourth of the total 450-seat parliament–were Communists. (1) In total, the leftist bloc may get up to 180 seats, or about 40 percent, thereby more than doubling its representation in the previous parliament.

If the leftists and the Hromada party (23 seats), which is in radical opposition to President Kuchma and is headed by former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko–Kuchma’s main rival–form a bloc, and some of the 114 independent deputies join forces with them, Kuchma’s parliamentary opposition could have a real chance of getting up to half of the seats in parliament.

There is another possible alternative, under which the Communists would form a bloc only with the independents and would not come to the assistance of Hromada and its ambitious leader. (2)

In spite of the obvious failure of his administration and his party–the Popular-Democratic Party, which received only 17 seats–President Kuchma and his administration say that nothing special had happened, and that there would be no changes in Ukrainian domestic or foreign policy. Paradoxically, this is also the prevailing view in public opinion. Are there any real grounds for this mood, and if so, does the “lack of change” in the situation in Ukraine mean stabilization and an opportunity for progress, or is it only the calm before the storm? What can we expect from the Ukrainian Communists, in distinction from their leftist allies in power in certain Eastern European countries? And finally, what are the prospects for the Kuchma regime in the light of the 1999 presidential elections?


At first glance, it is very easy to answer this question. Long before the elections, the pro-presidential press and, especially, television (the program “Seven Days”) assured the population of Ukraine and the West that the Communists’ supporters were, for the most part, pensioners and those who advocated the restoration of the USSR.

But this facile explanation should not satisfy serious analysts. If one follows its logic (which, by the way, was widely used to analyze the leftist victory in 1994), the number of pensioners in Ukraine–the Communists’ main electorate–must have nearly doubled since 1994. The leftists got about 80 seats in the Rada in 1994. That year, there were about 12 million pensioners in Ukraine. Doubling that number would bring it close to Ukraine’s total work force, i.e., 25 million people, which is patently absurd.

There can be only one conclusion: people who voted for the national-democrats and the centrists in 1994–i.e., people capable of working and young people–voted for the Communists and the leftists in 1998. For example, the Communists won in nine of the 23 single-mandate districts in Donetsk Oblast and in eight of Lugansk Oblast’s 12 districts, which, on a percentage basis, makes Lugansk Ukraine’s biggest Communist stronghold. The centrists’ and the democrats’ loss of their electorate in these key industrial regions of Eastern Ukraine, which brought the present administration to power in 1994, substantially complicates the present regime’s chances in the 1999 elections.

In Crimea, 95 percent of whose population voted for Kuchma in 1994, the situation is catastrophic. Here, the Communists got 67 percent of the seats in the local parliament and, for the first time, have the chance to remove the head of the Crimean government, Anatoly Franchuk (a relative of Kuchma’s), from power legally. It isn’t hard to imagine what Kyiv’s reaction to this and other possible steps from the Crimean Communists, who feel Moscow’s support for their separatist sentiment, would be: the introduction of direct presidential rule, the repeal of the Crimean constitution and other authoritarian moves.

Paradoxically, Kuchma has also lost the support of the Crimean Tatars, who had always supported him. As the result of imperfections in the Ukrainian citizenship law, tens of thousands of Crimean Tatars, who actually live in Crimea but do not have residence permits, and thus, are not citizens, could not vote. The Tatars, who make up 12 percent of Crimea’s population, have lost their representation in the Crimean parliament, which is completely dominated by Crimea’s pro-Russian Communists.

Kuchma’s political future depends on Crimea. If Russia (especially after Yeltsin’s departure and the coming to power of a nationally-oriented politician) succeeds in taking back Crimea, it may have catalytic effects on other territories in Ukraine, the Baltic states and Central Asia which have ethnic Russian majorities. (3)

The loss of the national-democratic and centrist electorate was obvious and predictable. Beginning from the end of 1994, all the opinion polls taken in Ukraine showed the steady growth in the number of people dissatisfied with their life: from 80-85 percent in 1994-1996, the number has grown to 90-95 percent in 1996-1997. The percentage of those satisfied with their lives remained virtually unchanged at 1-3 percent, within the statistical margin of error. (4) The Kuchma regime’s neglect of this important indicator of public opinion shows that the president is losing control over the political situation in the country.


There were also other reasons for the Communist victory, which are rooted in the country’s political and national culture. The doubling of the number of seats held by the leftists in parliament since 1994 is evidence of a mass rejection of the values of Western liberal democracy, with its accent on individual rights, the Protestant work ethic, modesty, punctuality, and sobriety. One may suppose that in 1994, the population of Ukraine still lived in hope of “salvation” from the West and Russia, promised by the national-democrats and Kuchma respectively. Therefore, the number of leftists in parliament at that time was relatively small–about 80 seats.

But by 1998, paternalism and egalitarian ethics won out over the revival of private entrepreneurship of the middle 1990s. This is shown by statistical data, according to which the number of small businessmen has fallen by half. What happened to them? Small businessmen have simply ceased to exist, disappearing from the field of vision of official statistics. They have become the “sociological-statistical homeless,” people without a definite form of employment. They are filling–on a massive scale–the ranks of the supporters of the left-wing and “independent” candidates.


The disappearance of the entire stratum of small businessmen from the social arena in Ukraine was not reflected in the official unemployment statistics–that Ukrainian “Never-Never-Land.” The sixty-percent drop in GDP since 1991 has led to only a one to three percent drop in official unemployment statistics. This is impossible in any economy except for one which is based on ethical values and standards absolutely opposite to those which exist in the West.

The key value here is collectivism or spontaneous “communitarianism,” which was first analyzed by the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev in the 1920s and 1930s. Communitarianism is very closely linked with the dogmas of Eastern Orthodox Christianity–with its paternalism and the primacy of the will of the collective over the interests of the individual–and egalitarianism. The conception of labor, within the framework of this communitarian-egalitarian paradigm, does not consist of performing a number of formalized tasks (such as a job description in the Western model), but in the individual’s carrying out the will of the collective. The work ethic, under the communitarian model, is not formalized. The norms of workplace morality are understood intuitively by all of the members of the collective.

In such a situation, it is difficult to go into business for oneself, i.e., to “fall out” of “community.” It is virtually impossible, within such a paradigm, to work out formal job descriptions. They simply do not exist in Ukraine.

The Communists played on this communitarianism and egalitarianism in the 1998 elections.


Trying to downplay the significance of the Communist victory in Ukraine and the failures of their own policy, official propaganda in Ukraine, echoed by certain Western analysts, (5) brings up the examples of leftist regimes in power in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. But the leftist regimes in power there are oriented toward Western social-democracy, or “Eurocommunism,” and reject totalitarian and chauvinist values.

Communism in its Ukrainian version, like its Soviet predecessor, continues to be oriented toward violence and the rejection of private property, especially in the large means of production and in land. Right after the elections, Ukrainian communism–through the mouth of its leader Petro Simonenko–came out with an radically anti-Western policy and advocated the re-nationalization of privatized enterprises.

The Ukrainian Communists have every objective reason to do this. The industrial technology in Ukraine remains unchanged; the main industries are the military-industrial complex and the mining industry. This production technology has been kept “frozen” ever since Ukraine became independent, and has not had to undergo any structural changes. All the Communists have to do is “thaw it out.” The fact that this will doom Ukraine to becoming the “pariah” of Eastern Europe does not upset them; it fits in with their ideological doctrine.

On the other hand, the technology of production in all the other Eastern European countries (with the exception of Romania, Bulgaria and Albania) has undergone radical structural changes. It has become open to competition, advanced technology, and entrance into European structures.

Unlike its Eastern European neighbors, the Kuchma regime has done virtually nothing over its years in power to get Ukraine into the EU. (6)

This is a crisis of national identity in its global economic manifestation. The indecisiveness and vacillation of the Kuchma regime in the area of national strategy only made the Communist victory easier.

PROSPECTS FOR THE KUCHMA REGIME AND FOR UKRAINE AS A WHOLE 1) Although weakened by the Communist victory, Kuchma will remain in power for another year and a half. It will now be harder for Ukraine to persuade Western (and even Russian) investors and international financial organizations that it wishes to speed up the privatization process and other necessary market-oriented reforms. 2) The experience of transition from communism to the market everywhere in Eastern Europe has shown that those who hesitate with the reform process, or do not have a consistent national strategy of reform, are doomed to prolonged stagnation and a decline in the standard of living. That has happened in Romania and Bulgaria. Ukraine risks joining them (if it hasn’t done so already).

The prospect of the “Belarusization” of Ukraine, which could take place if a leftist candidate wins the 1999 presidential elections, is especially dangerous. But the continuing “authoritarization” of the Kuchma regime, the suppression of the press and imprisonment of its political opponents would be no less dangerous. 3) The best thing that happened in the Ukrainian elections was the formation of the new bloc of “independent” candidates. Many of them are businessmen, or at least do not resist Western market values. They could bring “fresh blood” into the stagnating economic processes in Ukraine. But they could also form an alliance with the Communists in hope of getting some ministerial portfolios. The future of Ukraine as a market economy, and Kuchma’s own survival as a politician could depend on his regime’s flexibility in forming an alliance with these “independents.” 4) The West should do everything possible to encourage modernization in Ukraine and to persuade the Ukrainian electorate that nostalgia for Brezhnev-era stagnation is not an alternative to modernization. (7)


1. U tsentralnii vyborchii komisii, May 11, 1998 2. For a political portrait of Pavlo Lazarenko, see Volodymyr Zviglyanich. “Pavlo Lazarenko Discusses His Plans,” in Prism, Vol. III, No. 19, November 21, 1997, pp. 6-7, 11 3. Charles Clover, “Crimea: A Turbulent Past, Present and Future,” The Financial Times, May 5, 1998 4. See “Disgruntled Ukrainians are Losing Faith in President Kuchma,” Russia/NIS Opinion Alert, USIA Office of Research and Media Reaction, February 9, 1998; Public Opinion in Ukraine 1997. A publication of the Voices of the Electorate Series, December 1997–IFES, Washington, DC, 1997 5. According to Paul Goble, the Ukrainian Communists, because they won in competitive elections, “are far more like leftist parties in Europe than their Bolshevik predecessors.” (Paul Goble, “The Ramifications of the Communist Victories,” The Ukrainian Weekly, No. 16, April 19, 1998, p. 2) 6. According to The Financial Times, in 1996, the CIS countries and Russia constitute 54.1 and 38.7 percent of Ukraine’s exports respectively, and 67.8 percent and 48 percent of its imports. (The Financial Times, May 5, 1998) The Eastern European countries began their accession to the EU by re-orienting their foreign trade from Russia to the West 7. Strobe Talbott. “Countering a Communist Comeback,” The Washington Post, April 13, 1998

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University, and a Senior Fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.

Translated by Mark Eckert