The formation of a majority-based parliamentary coalition and legitimate government promises relative stability to Ukraine after a year of chaos and misgovernance. Simply ending the turmoil and attending at last to the country’s pressing needs is a promise that undoubtedly meets the expectations of voters across the political spectrum and country. The Party of Regions’ entry might improve the government’s managerial competence or at least discipline, while the retention of the Orange-period foreign affairs and defense ministers may ensure policy continuity there.
However, the four-party governing coalition formed under the aegis of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is being billed as a democratic way of “unifying Ukraine” east and west. This is a very hard sell to attempt in Ukraine itself or abroad.
This Ukrainian government is the first-ever in post-communist Central-Eastern Europe in which the Socialist and Communist parties support oligarchic power, as embodied by the Party of Regions in this case. The oligarchic model of transition to capitalism that failed in Russia in the 1990s seems hardly worth rehabilitating for use in another country. Experimenting with an updated version of this model in Ukraine would not advance the country’s integration with the West, though it may facilitate the access of certain oligarchs to the West, and in the most felicitous of cases their political cooptation there.
The coalition’s heterogeneity does not reflect a national consensus at the grass roots or the voters’ mandate. It mainly reflects an arrangement to share access to political power and its economic benefits among leaders that otherwise profess conflicting ideologies and goals. Such an arrangement seems inherently provisional.
In terms of eastern Ukraine-western Ukraine and regional representation, it seems far from certain that the groups in the new government are qualified to “unify” the country in a political and civic sense. Election returns, opinion surveys, and the configuration of interest groups suggest that this government’s composition rather lacks that nation-unifying quality.
Based on the March parliamentary election returns, clearly the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (YTB) seems the best positioned to “unify the country;” “bridging the Dnipro” across the traditional east-west divide. The YTB won the elections in 14 regions out of Ukraine’s 27. It carried the heartlands on both sides of the Dnipro River, as well as three western regions; and under normal conditions could have scored well in parts of the industrial east (where Dnipropetrovsk was YTB’s original power base). However, the Party of Regions and the pro-presidential “business wing” of Our Ukraine have joined forces to exclude the YTB from any commensurate role in government. The YTB is the only all-Ukrainian party in the country at this stage.
With Regions representing Ukraine’s east, Yushchenko and his side in the pro-presidential bloc are presumed to represent Ukraine’s west in the coalition to “unify Ukraine.” Additionally, the president is supposed to embody a national political consensus: “president of all Ukrainians,” as he continually asserted during the coalition negotiations. These assumptions are difficult to sustain, however. With Yushchenko on its banners, Our Ukraine carried only three of the western regions and just 14% of the vote nationwide in the March parliamentary elections.
Opinion surveys through July showed the president’s and Our Ukraine’s approval dropping to 10% or less, due to the president’s handling of the coalition negotiations. The bloc is on the verge of splitting between the “business wing” and the national-democratic wing, the latter based mainly in the western regions. Only 30 of Our Ukraine’s deputies voted for the government while 51 national-democrats variously refused to vote or voted against. Leaders of three national-democratic parties in the six-party bloc — Christian-Democrats, Sobor, and the People’s Party — have issued statements protesting the formation of this coalition, as has the elected regional council of Lviv oblast (one of three regions where Our Ukraine won the elections). Yushchenko is rapidly losing his remaining base of support in the west of the country. In sum, the main political forces in the western regions (national-democrats, YTB) are aghast at this government, whereas Our Ukraine’s “business wing” which supports the “unifying government” cannot be said to represent the western regions.
Whether the Party of Regions represents eastern and southern Ukraine overall is also questionable. The presidential and parliamentary elections, held in the space of 16 months, did catapult Yanukovych suddenly to the role of standard-bearer of those regions. But he has yet to create a real political and organizational base in most of them. The Party of Regions is a vehicle of oligarchic interests in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, with extensions in some adjacent eastern oblasts. It cannot be said to represent regions beyond that power base, and does not have strong ties to Ukraine’s southern regions and the main interest groups there.
Most of the party’s ministers in this government simply come from the “Donetsk clan,” rather than “eastern and southern Ukraine.” Even within the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, powerful and wealthy interest groups such as the Industrial Union of Donbas are not part of, but rather in an uneasy competitive coexistence with, the interest groups represented by the Party of Regions. Rather than a nation-unifying factor, this is still a sectional force that has successfully dealt itself into dominating the national government.
The formation of a “unifying government” would require a different, more representative configuration, as well as a more open democratic process that would involve civil society as an indispensable unifying factor. Instead, this government stems from a non-transparent deal at the top among business interests and political groups fronting for them, with anti-capitalist leftist parties covering the oligarchic flank.
(Survey based on Ukrainian media coverage of the coalition’s formation, August 1-9; also see EDM, August 7, 8)