Things do not seem to have changed much in Ukraine since the last time I was here in April, and yet everything has changed, the National Endowment for Democracy‘s Nadia Diuk (left) writes from Dnipropetrovsk.
It was peaceful then, with the local population determined that their city and region would not give in to separatists and Russian-backed armed forces and that May’s presidential election would take place without incident. And it remains peaceful now, having seen a successful and peaceful parliamentary vote. But the country has changed in intangible ways and the new parliament—also with many new features and members—is about to be tested to see whether the new politics demanded by the Maidan protests last year and the demands of the war in the east, can become a reality.
The Maidan protests were driven by the uprising against corruption within state bodies and top officials; yet public opinion polling this month, according to the International Republican Institute’s Pre-election Poll, shows that the overwhelming concern among Ukrainian voters is Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine (73 %), with corruption and unemployment running second and third (37% and 24%).
The new parliament will include some old faces but also many new personalities. As the vote count proceeds the day after the election, the exit polls (co-funded by NED’s support for the Democratic Initiatives Foundation) show that seven parties will most likely enter the parliament. The two largest—the Poroshenko Bloc, named after the president, and the People’s Front, headed by the current Prime Minister—swept almost 45% of the proportional vote. They have invited other pro-Maidan parties to join a coalition, The Samopomich Party, the Svoboda Party and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Bat’kishchyna (Fatherland) Party, will be approached. The Opposition Bloc, made up of former Party of Regions members, will continue to be a voice for officials from the former Yanukovych regime. The Radical Party, that surged early, headed up by the fiery Oleh Lyashko came in at 6.4% in the exit poll.
The big losers are the Party of Regions and the Communists, who will not be in the parliament for the first time in two decades. Support for established parties Svoboda and Bat’kivshchyna, which may barely scrape through the 5% barrier, has also gone down. The other newcomer Samopomich, whose party list is headed by well-known civic activist Hanna Hopko (left) did better than expected, gaining 13.2% in the exit poll.
The new faces in the parliament will, for the first time, include civic activists and members from a group that has traditionally avoided elected office—investigative journalists. The decision to enter politics was not an easy one for this group. Having entered the struggle on the Maidan in full force, many of the activists were determined that the new wave of volunteerism and new spirit of dignity and responsibility should not allow politicians to squander the public’s support and lead to political gridlock and disappointment as happened after the 2004 Orange Revolution. In the past few months, they have pushed the effort to pressure parliament and government to take up reforms to its limit with the Reanimation Reforms Package initiative, which generated an agenda for politicians and government officials. Investigative journalists have continued their relentless exposure of corruption among the ruling elite. Having reached the maximum limit of what they felt they could do as civic actors, the next logical step was to work for change within politics using political means.
But the decision to jump from civic activism to politics was not an easy one in Ukraine, where politics is considered a dirty business and politicians generally have had a bad reputation. Nonetheless, a group of activists and journalists, including Mustafa Nayyem, who helped to launch the Maidan last year, announced a month ago that they would join various parties. For Nayyem, as well of for many of the others, this was a decision not take lightly and after much soul searching about their own role in the future of their country.
Another group new to politics will be the group of commanders and soldiers who have taken part in fighting in the east. Some like Semen Semenchenko, Andriy Teterchuk, and Yuriy Bereza will enter the parliament on party lists, others such as Andriy Biletsky, the leader of the Azov Battalion, and the Right Sector’s Dmytro Yarosh ran in single mandate districts. How their experiences of fighting a war with shortages of equipment and training will affect their activities in the parliament remains to be seen. Their focus will undoubtedly be on the military effort, but some such as Biletsky and Yarosh, come with a distinct right-wing ideology.
The new parliament will be overwhelmingly pro-European and pro-reform with no excuses to delay a vigorous legislative agenda for reform. The country has also shifted in a distinctly pro-European direction: support for joining the European Union grew to 59% in September according to IRI polling. The same polling also shows that Ukrainians overwhelmingly want to remain a unitary state (75%) and levels of pride in being a Ukrainian citizen are rising.
Voters in Dnipropetrovsk expressed a desire above all “for peace” and expressed interest and connection to Ukrainian language and culture that was not so overt in years in the past. The number of fences and walls painted in blue and yellow, and the amount of heartfelt patriotic graffiti certainly reveals a trend that was not evident here before. Dnipropetrovsk was once the heart of the Soviet missile production and the part of the airport that looks as if it served that enterprise now has military aircraft parked on its tarmac.
And when the steward on the airplane from Dnipropetrovsk to Kyiv ends the routine announcement “make sure to take all of your personal belongings” with the phrase “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine) you know you are in a different country…
Nadia Diuk, is Vice President for Programs, Africa, Central Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy and was a delegate for the International Republican Institute’s observer mission in Ukraine for the parliamentary elections.