KIEV — Ukraine’s parliament this week scheduled the country’s highly scrutinized presidential elections for Jan. 17. But the plummeting economy, widespread corruption and political infighting that has paralyzed the government raises the possibility that large numbers of voters will stay home, or cast their ballots for fringe parties.
The optimism that swept this nation of 46 million — one of the continent’s largest and a key contributor to stability in the region — after the 2004 Orange Revolution has all but dissipated, replaced among large sections of the population by anger, apathy and cynicism.
Now representative government itself is viewed by many as the root of the problems. And although many observers consider Ukraine still among the strongest democracies in the post-Soviet sphere — with a wide spectrum of viable political parties, and a wild, no-holds-barred public discourse — alarm bells have been set off recently in European capitals, who view the country as a ship without a captain, or even a sail.
The country’s economic output dropped by as much as 25 percent in the first quarter this year, according to President Viktor Yushchenko. World demand for industrial mainstays like metals, mining and chemicals has dropped off precipitously due to the economic crisis. Representatives from the International Monetary Fund arrive in Kiev this week to discuss releasing the third tranche from a $16.4 billion loan agreed on last year, which may help the government cover holes in the budget. A second gas war looms with Russia, as Ukraine may not be able to pay its monthly fee to Moscow.
Meanwhile the country’s government has cleaved into two warring camps. President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — who stood together five years ago to lead a massive street protest against a rigged election, and who nominally rule as a coalition — now exchange words only to accuse one another of treason or gross mismanagement, or unite just long enough to pull the country back from the brink of disaster. For months the country has lacked a finance and foreign minister, since the president’s and prime minister’s groups cannot agree on replacements. Defense and transport ministers have recently vacated their posts.
Tymoshenko sought this month to forge an alliance with her erstwhile Orange Revolution opponent, Viktor Yanukovich. The two reportedly planned to divide the presidency and premiership between themselves, and alter the constitution so that the president would not be elected directly, but by parliament. The arrangement disintegrated at the last moment, and Yushchenko called it an attempted “unconstitutional coup.”
Some observers believe a coalition between Tymoshenko and Yanukovich is still a possibility. “The talks could be revived,” said Mihail Pogrebinsky, director of the Kiev Center for Political Studies and Conflictology. “They have agreement on a large number of issues.”
Last week saw Germany and Poland’s foreign ministers pay, in their words, an “unusual” visit to Kiev to say that they were “particularly concerned” about the double political and economic crisis, and that the infighting could affect Ukraine’s ability to receive further international aid.
The country’s malaise has hit the three main parties’ popularity hardest, and has bolstered the standing of groups on the edge of the political spectrum. March local elections in the western city of Ternopol delivered perhaps a harbinger of things to come: The ultra-nationalist party Svoboda (Freedom) triumphed with a sobering 35 percent of the vote — more than double the second-place party and four times more than Yushchenko and Timoshenko’s parties combined. The party’s leader, Oleg Tiagnybok, has been quoted extensively in local press expressing anti-Russian and anti-Jewish views.
According to the FOM-Ukraine polling center, in a survey conducted at the end of May, both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko would lose at this point in an election to Yanukovich, who is more popular in the country’s Russian-speaking east, and who favors closer ties with the Kremlin.
Yanukovich received 26.6 percent in the poll, while Tymoshenko, whose numbers have dropped since the beginning of the economic crisis, drew 16.2 percent. The president drew only 1.9 percent, according to the survey.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the continued strong support for former foreign minister and parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who came in third with 12.8 percent and is perceived by many to be a new broom, untainted by the recent political machinations.
Another survey, conducted by the Razumkov independent research center in Kiev in March, tells a slightly different tale, however. There the order of popularity was the same, but in fourth place, nearly even with Yatsenyuk, was the statement “I would vote against them all” — a figure that has grown steadily over the past months. The percentage of undecided voters was close behind.
Tamara Artyomova, a manager at a Kiev hotel, is among the many who say a pox on all their houses. “Elections?” she asked incredulously. “Why would I want to participate in that circus?”
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