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Ukraine: Election Results Big Blow for Yushenko’s ‘Orange’ Policies

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Neither ‘Orange’ nor ‘Grand’ coalition government solution for workers

Rob Jones, CWI, Moscow

The result of the elections to Ukrainian’s Supreme Rada (parliament), now that all the votes are counted, shows that the main parties that fought were, with the exception of Yulia Timoshenko’s Bloc, all losers. The biggest blow was dealt to President Victor Yushenko’s ‘Our Ukraine’ block, which came in third place, with just 14% of the vote, giving it 81 seats in the 450 seat parliament. His party suffered the wrath of the electorate which saw no real improvement in their living conditions, as formerly high growth rates in Ukraine plummeted over the last year. Further damage to Yushenko’s reputation was inflicted by growing allegations of corruption against members of his government and by Yushenko’s unwillingness to investigate some high profile crimes, such as the murder of a journalist, allegedly by the state, during the Presidency of Kuchma, Yuschenko’s predecessor.

The first place in the elections, in terms of percentage of the votes gained and, therefore, seats won in the parliament, was taken by the ‘Party of the Regions’, led by Victor Yanukovich. He was Yushenko’s opponent during the ‘Orange revolution’ events, in December 2004. This saw Yushenko led huge street protests in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, in protest at presidential election results that officially put Yanukovich as winner. Pro-Western Yushenko accused the pro-Russian regime of President Kuchma of rigging elections to allow his stooge, Yanukovich, to take power. Eventually, Yushenko won the struggle and became president.

In the latest elections, Yanukovich got 33% of the vote, gaining 186 seats in the Rada. Although this has been trumpeted in the media as a big comeback, the Party of the Regions actually saw its vote drop by 15% since 2004. Just as importantly the Regions party is isolated in the Rada because, apart from the ‘communists’ gaining just over the 3% necessary to gain any seats, there is no natural ally for the Regions to use to form a coalition.

The Communist Party suffered a devastating blow, losing 5 of every 6 seats they had in the previous Rada, with only 21 remaining. This is the price they pay for the ‘neutrality’ and inactivity they maintained during the past two or three years of heightened political conflict (in effect, the communist party was pro-Yanukovich).

Populist Timoshenko

The only party that made any real gains was that of Yulia Timoshenko, Yushenko’s former ally and the former premier. She gained 22% of the vote and 129 seats. Her victory, however, is very contradictory, and these contradictions will soon come back to haunt her. On the one hand, she gained votes by leaving the Orange government, complaining about corruption and inaction. This gave her, with her well-groomed Ukrainian Joan of Arc image, a reputation as a victim. Before she became the ‘Orange princess’, however, Timoshenko was known as the ‘queen of the petrol pumps’, because she and her husband literally owned and controlled Ukraine’s petrol supply business. In recent years, Timoshenko’s husband was in hiding and her uncle held in an American prison on money laundering charges.

The economic and social forces that Timoshenko represents are in direct conflict with the electorate that she leant on to increase her vote. She pushed her neo-liberal policies to the background and made many populist promises. Her party gained the largest vote in all but two of the western regions (Yushenko kept the other two), but, of particular significance, she also picked up significant votes in the pro-Russian eastern regions.

While the results continue to show a marked nationalist polarisation between the pro-Russian east and pro-Western west, it seems that a significant part of the protest vote, in both regions, went to Timoshenko.

The elections were described by Western institutions as the most democratic in post-Soviet Ukraine. It is probably true that the ruling elite, after the rigging during the 2004 presidential elections that triggered the Orange revolt, were very cautious about going too far this time. But, once again, Western election scrutinizing bodies showed their partisanship by ignoring blatant rigging that did take place in some areas. In the west of Ukraine, for example, polling stations were kept open for several hours longer than they should have been. In the east, a decision was taken that all names on the electoral register should be in Ukrainian. But names were not transliterated (the sound written in the Ukrainian alphabet) but translated (which meant the root of the surname could be actually changed – for example, the surname ‘Smith’ would be completed different in Russian and Ukrainian). This caused many complaints from Russian speakers, who discovered their names were simply unrecognizable on the electoral list.

There were also examples of state repression during the elections. In Kiev, one young campaigner from the ‘Pora’ group was shot by police for the crime of fly-posting!

However, the only parties that complained loudly about rigging are the minor parties that failed to cross the 3% barrier required to get seats in the Rada.

Cynical maneuverings between parties

Now the parties are negotiating over forming a coalition government, there is no longer any pretence maintained that the ‘choice’ belongs to the electorate. The decision is based on the cynical maneuverings between the main parties, each representing different sections of the ruling elite.

Many commentators assumed even before the election results that a new coalition government would most likely be made up of the three ‘Orange’ parties – Yushenko’s Our Ukraine, Yulia Timoshenko’s Block, and the so-called ‘Socialist Party’. Such a block would have a majority of seats. But there are many difficulties in forming it. Leaving aside the personal antagonisms between Yushenko and Timoshenko, Yushenko’s rule is increasingly seen by the population as corrupt and incapable of changing conditions. Yet Timoshenko waged her campaign against corruption and for more radical change. Yushenko has proved to be very reluctant to sign an agreement with Timoshenko, saying that he will wait until 7 April before deciding. This reluctance is compounded by a significant section of Yushenko’s party stating categorically that it will not support Timoshenko as new premier.

There is, however, another, probably more important factor that makes Yushenko hesitate over forming a new Orange coalition. A coalition of the Orange parties would leave the pro-Russian Party of the Regions in opposition. This party represents most of the Ukraine’s heavy industry. It is largely financed by the Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, who owned the Kryvorizhstal steel mill, the factory that became the controversial subject of Timoshenko’s re-privatisation programme, last year, when she was prime minister.

These powerful oligarch interests outside an orange coalition would make it very difficult for such an administration to manage the economy.

But, in addition, an openly orange coalition, particularly if it is headed by Timoshenko, would lead to increasing polarisation between the east and west. Timoshenko made it clear she will continue her ‘re-privatisation’ programme if made premier. To defend their position the Party of the Regions would be forced to oppose more ‘centralisation’ and privatisation of the industrialised east and to step up their campaign for ‘federalisation’ and on the language question. These factors would introduce huge instability into Ukraine and would mean that an orange coalition would be very fragile, unable to act decisively, and susceptible to sharp conflicts and splits.

A ‘Grand Coalition’?

It is, therefore, even possible that a “grand coalition” could be formed between Yushenko’s Our Ukraine and Yanekovich’s Party of the Regions. This is not so unlikely a coalition as it first appears. The Party of the Regions is pro-capitalist, despite its occasional pro-Russian and anti-Western rhetoric. Reportedly, the party is assisted by US republican spin doctors. One of them, US citizen, Alex Kiselov, explains that the Party is based on “real experience of real business people”. The deregulation of business and reduction of government involvement in the private sector are two key planks of the party’s programme. Kiselev describes how his job is to convince the West that that the Part of the Regions supports Ukraine’s “gradual” European Union integration, although as he cynically comments, “It wouldn’t make any sense to spread this message during the campaign”.

As the industrial giants that back the Party of the Regions are interested in stability, they could try to find an agreement with Yushenko. Such a coalition would probably be longer-lasting and more stable than an orange coalition, but, at the same time, it would push Timoshenko into a more ‘radical’ opposition.

If the formation of a grand coalition leads to a nationalist backlash in west Ukraine, Timoshenko would be forced to echo an increasingly anti-Russian position. But her completely opportunist and populist approach means that if a wider movement of social opposition develops, Timoshenko could quite easily jump on that bandwagon.

The support for the Party of the Regions in the east is due, firstly, to the illusion that many have in Yanukovich’s tenure as Premier, from 2002-2004, as it coincided with a period of record economic growth following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, capitalist restoration and Ukraine independence. They hope Yanukovich’s return to power would see a repeat of the economic success. However, growth from 2002-2004 was almost entirely due to external economic factors.

Secondly, Yanukovich got support because the ruling clans that control the regional governments and industry in the east (beginning with the Rinat Akmetov clan in the major eastern city of Donetsk) ensure that as much pressure as possible is put on voters to support their candidate.

Thirdly, the Party of the Regions won support at the polls because it consciously and quite cynically whipped up chauvinist moods to divert attention from its economic and social policies. Two of the key issues the party used in the campaign were the language question (calling for Russian to be made an official state language) and the demand for the ‘federalisation’ of Ukraine.

Before the election, the Party of the Regions promised a referendum on whether Ukraine should join NATO and argued that Ukraine should be part of the pro-Russian ‘Euro-Asian Economic Area’. Now the party says a referendum is not the best solution and the Ukraine will join the EEA only if it is in the country’s economic interests. Unfortunately, however, once the national genie has been released by the ruling elite, it can not just be rebottled and ignored.

Fake ‘left’ parties

That the pro-capitalist parties were allowed to get away with these policies during the election campaign is, ultimately, due to the lack of a real left, working class alternative. None of the large parties with left wing sounding names (the ‘socialists’, ‘communists’ and ‘progressive socialists’) put a clear and independent class policy. The so-called ‘Socialist Party’ positioned itself as a loyal member of the orange block and the Communists were pro-Russian. The ‘Progressive Socialists’ put a horrendously chauvinist pro-Russian position during the elections.

None of the smaller left groups were any better. Increasingly isolated from the working class, one so-called left group acted as an open agent of the Party of Regions by organising demonstrations against NATO throughout the country, without commenting on the growing influence of Russian imperialism, thus helping to whip up anti-Western chauvinism. Other left groups put a “Vote against all” position, without putting forward any positive programme for workers and youth.

A real mass left wing alternative, had one existed in the Ukraine, would have devoted its energy to campaigning on the social and economic questions, such as wages, jobs, the ownership of industry – in other words, to those issues that would unite workers in the east and west Ukraine in a common struggle against their common enemy, rather than assisting the different sections of the ruling elite to divide the working class on chauvinist lines. This is what the CWI in Ukraine called for.

The elections were a further lost opportunity for the working class in Ukraine. But they are not the last opportunity. Whatever coalition government is formed further attacks on working class living standards are inevitable, whether there is an orange or a grand coalition, and working people will, therefore, be forced to struggle. In this situation, a real working class, socialist alternative can develop. Workers will build powerful, independent unions and a new mass political alternative for the working class – a mass, socialist party, independent of all the wings of the ruling elite, and which fights for system change.

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