Pro-Western parties will dominate Ukraine’s parliament after an election handed President Petro Poroshenko a mandate to end a separatist conflict and steer the country towards mainstream Europe.
US President Barack Obama hailed Sunday’s election as “an important milestone in Ukraine’s democratic development” while top European Union officials said yesterday (27 October) it represented a “victory of the people of Ukraine and of democracy”.
But, reflecting the geopolitical struggle between Moscow and the West over Ukraine’s future, Russia’s foreign minister reacted cautiously, saying Moscow expected Poroshenko to form a government that would heal the “split” in Ukrainian society.
Poroshenko began power-sharing talks with Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk after their political groups led other pro-Western forces committed to democratic reforms in sweeping pro-Russian forces out of parliament.
“The main task is to quickly form a pro-European coalition for carrying out agreements with the EU,” Yatsenyuk said at a meeting with election observers.
International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave a further lift to the pro-Western Kyiv leadership, saying Sunday’s election had “largely upheld democratic commitments” despite the conflict in the east.
It was “an amply contested election that offered voters real choice and (had) a general respect for fundamental freedoms”, Kent Harstedt, OSCE special coordinator, told a news conference.
After months of conflict and turmoil there was no euphoria from Poroshenko’s allies. He faces huge problems: Russia opposes his plans to one day join the European Union, a ceasefire is barely holding between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the east, and the economy is in dire straits.
Russian President Vladimir Putin can also still influence events, as the main backer of the rebels in the east and through Moscow’s role as natural gas supplier to Ukraine and the EU. He could also remove trade concessions from Kyiv if it looks West.
But Poroshenko’s immediate task is to cement an alliance with Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, running neck and neck with his bloc on about 21% support after more than two-thirds of the votes on party lists were counted.
To secure a majority they are likely to turn to Samopomich (Selfhelp), a like-minded party with 11% of votes, whose leader Poroshenko also met on Monday. Final results for party list voting and in single constituency seats are due on 30 October.
The tandem between the 49-year-old confectionery magnate Poroshenko and the professorial Yatsenyuk, who has gone out ahead as an anti-Russian hawk in recent weeks, was emerging as a relationship likely to dominate the new political scene.
Yatsenyuk once called the prime minister’s job “political suicide” but, a favourite in the West, he could now keep the job to oversee deep and possibly unpopular reforms.
Return to normalcy
Poroshenko and his allies are trying to restore normalcy to the sprawling country of 46 million and draw a line under a year of upheaval that began with street demonstrations against Poroshenko’s pro-Russian predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich.
Yanukovich was overthrown in February in what Russia called a “fascist coup” after he spurned a deal that would have deepened ties with the EU. Moscow responded by swiftly seizing and annexing the Crimea peninsula and backing the separatist rebellions in which more than 3,700 people have been killed.
Moscow has also halted gas supplies to Ukraine in a row over the price and unpaid bills, causing alarm in the EU which gets a third of its gas needs from Russia, half of this via Ukraine.
Obama, in a statement, said the United States looked forward to the quick formation “of a strong, inclusive government” in Kyiv and expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity including the return of Crimea.
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council chief Herman Van Rompuy, in a joint statement, said they expected the Kyiv leadership now to seek a “broad national consensus” to intensify much-needed reforms.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a more downbeat reaction, said Moscow hoped for the formation of a “constructive government” to would solve social-economic problems, fulfil the terms of peace talks and “not preserve the split in society”.
The Kyiv government says it is hoping for modest economic growth next year after a 6 percent decline in 2014, but the World Bank expects the economy to continue shrinking.
In line with measures agreed with the IMF, Yatsenyuk’s government has cut budget expenditure and let the Ukrainian hryvnia float. The currency has lost about 40 percent of its value against the dollar since the start of the year.
The economic decline has been aggravated by the fighting in the east, where two more Ukrainian soldiers were killed on Sunday and shelling resumed on the edge of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Monday despite a ceasefire. Despite the violence, Poroshenko insists on a negotiated settlement.
Some allies of Yanukovich will be in parliament in the new Opposition Bloc but communists will not be represented for the first time since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
After months of beating back the separatists, Ukraine’s troops suffered setbacks in August, which Kyiv and its Western backers say was caused by Moscow sending armoured columns with hundreds of troops to aid the rebels. Russia denied this.
Voting did not take place in areas held by the rebels or in Crimea. Separatists in the east plan a rival vote on 2 November.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
The fighting has escalated sharply after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists. The EU's resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine on 17 July of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.
Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.
On 27 August NATO and the U.S. said Russian incursions into Ukraine took an ‘overt and obvious form’ and on 28 August Poroshenko said Russia had invaded Ukraine.
The West adopted sanctions against Russia and Moscow retaliated by banning the import of Western food. A truce was declared on 5 September, but the situation on the ground has remained volatile.