The Ukraine elections: What will happen in the south and east?

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This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


As Ukraine heads towards its parliamentary elections this Sunday, the mood across the country is varied. 

As Ukraine heads towards its parliamentary elections this Sunday, the mood across the country is varied. Some are enthusiastic about the chance to clean out discredited members from the legislative body, to bring in the “fresh” blood of a new generation of politicians, and to set off a push towards real reforms. Others are ambivalent – they are not sure that the new parliament will be any better than previous ones. And others are downright sceptical, seeing in the work of the post-Maidan government the old familiar backroom deals, corruption, and lack of transparency.

The backdrop to the elections is not exactly rosy. The country is in a de facto state of war with Russia in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The economic situation is dire as never before. Prices are slowly rising and the national currency has weakened. There is no certainty about the supply of natural gas this winter.

Regional variations exist in the pre-election mood and in local situations around the country. Ukraine has proved itself to be not divided, but diverse. At the same time, there is a growing sentiment of togetherness in this land: the “we are under attack” factor is clearly working to unify Ukrainians. The simplistic, black-and-white “west and east” paradigm has never been quite appropriate for Ukraine; a much more nuanced approach is required.

In talking about the two most problematic regions in Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk – it should be remembered that even there, most polls taken before the outbreak of armed hostilities showed that supporters of a unified Ukraine clearly outnumbered those favouring some degree of separatism. Right now, large segments in both regions are under occupation and beyond Kyiv’s control. People there will be prevented from voting in the upcoming elections – the leaders of these self-proclaimed “republics” have a plan to come up with elections of their own. However, significant portions of the two areas are under Ukrainian control, and in those parts, voting will take place. It will be interesting to find out the real voting preferences in these regions, where people have become hostage to the hostilities and are eager for a return to law and order. It remains to be seen what will come out on top there: the impressions left by many years of Russian propaganda or the reality of the lands having been liberated (and now defended) by Ukrainian military and paramilitary units.

The events of recent months have shown that politically, there is no such thing as the “east” in Ukraine. Donetsk and Luhansk are a separate case now. However, Kharkiv and Odessa were also known for harbouring some pro-Russian views, but then gradually turned out to be more and more pro-Ukrainian. The Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the intervention in the east have been important milestones in solidifying support for the Ukrainian state in these cities. In both, the “Party of Regions” (previously led by ex-president Viktor Yanukovych) is now in disarray. Its remnants have failed to form a united political front. The parties that did emerge from it – “Strong Ukraine” (“Sylna Ukraina”) and “Opposition bloc” (“Oppozitsiyniy blok”) – stand no chance of winning anywhere near the vote share that the “Party of Regions” used to receive in these two cities. To get as many votes as they can, the “Opposition bloc” has placed two former governors (Mykhailo Dobkin of Kharkiv and Nikolai Skoryk of Odessa) in the top part of its list, but their chances of a strong showing are slim.

Leaving aside Kharkiv and Odessa, there is even stronger pro-Ukrainian/anti-Russian sentiment in a variety of other areas in the east and south, for example in Kherson and Mykolaiv. These two areas are next door to occupied Crimea, where there is a heavy concentration of Russian troops. So, volunteers have been very active in both places, purchasing materiel for the Ukrainian army and digging trenches. All this despite the fact that the region used to be part of “Novorossiya” (an administrative province during the time of the Russian Empire), the imagined space that is so dear to the Kremlin.

A number of regions in the east have become “fortress Ukraine”. They border war-ravaged Donetsk and Luhansk, so they know that they will be next in case of a Russian invasion. Here – in Dnipropetrovsk, Cherkasy, Zaporizhzhia and elsewhere – the various political parties that advocate a stronger Ukraine have a higher chance of success. It is likely that President Petro Poroshenko and his party will repeat here his success of the presidential elections in May. Other parties with a similar stance will do well too.

According to the polls, the radical populist Oleh Lyashko enjoys a lot of support, along with his appropriately named “Radical Party”. Well, there is a lot of room for populism anywhere in the world. The situation of war has surely helped Lyashko to ride on the sense of public outrage. His chances of getting a sizeable chunk of the votes in the east and south are quite high.

The nationalists enjoy limited support, in the east and south as elsewhere. They may do better than they did in the presidential elections (when they got quite a small number of votes), but even so, they might not be represented in the next parliament. In the long run, though, given the continuing state of war in the country and in spite of the “ceasefire”, they may go on to increase their influence and find a larger following.

Volodymyr Dubovyk is the director of the Center for International Studies at the I.I. Mechnikov National University in Odessa.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum, Wider Europe, EaP, Ukraine

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