Listening to the Ukrainian People

Carlos Pascual
Carlos Pascual Former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Senior Vice President for Global Energy - IHS Markit, Former Brookings expert

March 26, 2006

Nearly fifteen months after the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians went to the polls and voted in parliamentary elections on March 26. The split outcome should send an unambiguous signal to all of Ukraine’s politicians: Ukrainians value political freedom, economic prosperity, and accountability in government. They want to see the nation’s progress translate into better health, education and pensions. They are disappointed with the performance of today’s leaders.

For politicians, the message is to get on with Ukraine’s substantive agenda and put their politicking and ambitions aside. The next steps on Ukraine’s internal agenda may also determine Ukraine’s place in Europe and its transatlantic relations.

The Ukrainian people have begun to radicalize the notion of politics in the former Soviet space by introducing accountability in politics. In parliamentary elections in March 2002 they ignored government control of the air waves and a considerable wielding of governmental “administrative resources” to signal that the vast majority of Ukrainians opposed the policies of politicians and parties in power. This election gave rise to Viktor Yushchenko’s “Nasha Ukraina” – Our Ukraine. The death knell began on a political world dominated by party bosses who told unions, workers, and the media how to vote. Ukrainians became aware that they could make a difference in politics. The concept of civil society took on meaning and transcended rhetoric.

The Orange revolution in November 2004 took “people’s power” to new heights. Ukrainians told their politicians that their votes could not be stolen. They occupied the streets until their actions in the polling booths matched the electoral outcome. Ukrainians once again voted for accountability and against corruption in political life and the disdain of politicians for the rights of ordinary citizens. Ukrainians not only insisted on a better life, but also a voice in creating it.

But just over two years later, none of the three leading political parties competing in the March 26 parliamentary elections has won an outright majority. It is possible that a coalition of any two will not gain more than 50 percent. This suggests two lessons for Ukrainian politics today: no politician should claim an unfettered mandate; and politicians should realize that a mixed vote is not a sign of public confusion, but a reflection of dissatisfaction with all the options on offer.

That around 30% of the population may support former Prime Minister Yanukovych after his assumed political demise just over a year ago should tell President Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Timoshenko that the Ukrainian people are not happy. However, the fact that Yushchenko and Timoshenko are not spent political forces after squandering the perceived harmony of the Orange Revolution should tell the old regime that the Ukrainian people value political debate and a free media. Transparency never replaced turmoil and corruption in government, yet the Soviet school of controlled and domineering politics is dead in Ukraine. Ukrainians will not give an outright embrace to yesterday’s practices.

Political leaders will need to translate these messages into practical politics or, better yet, into governance. Ukrainians have been consistent in their message: make government accountable, produce results, and respect our freedom. Rather than posture over the electoral outcomes, leading politicians would do well to put party politics aside and forge a government of technocrats focused on a policy agenda: balancing the budget, stimulating small business, fulfilling the country’s agricultural promise, improving competitiveness, protecting pensioners, ensuring energy security, and giving substance to the rule of law.

This agenda should transcend politics. Pursue such an agenda and the next Ukrainian government might have some longevity and be able to focus on the big issues: Ukraine’s prospective membership in the WTO and NATO, its relationship to Europe, dependence on Russia. Continue the well established pursuit of power politics devoid of an agenda and expect the next government to unravel and another election to occur within months.

Ukraine’s future in Europe and with its transatlantic partners depends more on what happens internally within Ukraine than on the often empty rhetoric about Ukraine’s European ambitions. Pundits and politicians will inevitably posture about who won these parliamentary elections and their geopolitical significance. We would all do well to pay attention to the complex but not mixed signals of the Ukrainian people: they want a government that performs and that they can trust. At least in this, Ukraine has come into the mainstream of European politics.