Pro-Western Parties Triumph In Ukraine (For Now)

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Bakı, 30 oktyabr 2014 –

As of the writing of this post the official results aren’t yet in, but exit polls have shown a resounding triumph for pro-Western parties in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. According to the Wall Street Journal these parties will hold an ''overwhelming majority'' in the new parliament, the first time in Ukraine’s entire post-Soviet history that they have been in such a dominant political position.

At first glance, it would appear that pro-Russian political sentiments, which not even five years ago were able to capture the Ukrainian presidency in a free and fair election, are nearing extinction. There have already been numerous articles about Ukraine’s ''shift towards Europe'', and there will undoubtedly be many more in the coming weeks and months. There is borderline euphoria among pro-democracy activists and among those foreign policy thinkers advocating for an enlarged, invigorated, and more aggressive European Union. It seems as if Ukraine might finally have made a clean break with, in Boris Yeltsin’s words, the ''grey totalitarian past''.

However while the electoral triumph of Ukraine’s pro-Western forces is obviously real and significant, I want to sound a note of caution. It is true that pro-Russia forces suffered a huge electoral defeat and that Ukraine’s new parliament will likely be able to ram through various kinds of legislation to harmonize the country’s regulations with the EU’s. It seems all but certain that, at least in the short term, Ukraine will move to decisively distance itself from its ''brother nation'' Russia. The (already faint) hopes that Ukraine might ever join Moscow’s customs union are as dead as a door nail.

So if Ukraine is moving towards Europe and away from Russia why the caution? Well, because Ukraine’s economy is a total shambles at the moment. The post-Soviet space’s history tells us that we should be highly wary of the prospects of liberal reform in the context of economic collapse. Today Ukrainians are optimistic about the possibilities of reform and of a ''European choice''; we shall have to see how optimistic they are a year from today when, as seems likely given the most recent economic forecasts, the economy is 10% smaller, unemployment is much higher, and already-high inflation is even worse.

The proof will be in the results that the new government can actually deliver. It is extremely easy to talk about ''reform'' in the abstract, and almost as easy to pass a law ''reforming'' this or that sector of the economy. It is far more difficult to deliver broad-based economic growth and a sustained rise in living standards. Recall the Orange Revolution, the last time that Ukraine supposedly made a ''break'' with its Soviet past. It ended up being a revolution in name only, and achieved almost nothing of lasting significance. Viktor Yushenko’s (remember him?) efforts to transform Ukraine quickly became slogged down in a mire of bureaucracy, corruption, and political infighting. Indeed the Orange Revolution failed so spectacularly that the politician against whom it was directed, Viktor Yanukovych, ended up winning the next presidential election.

Will the same happen to Ukraine now? There are reasons to think no, to expect that this time Ukraine will find a way to succeed where it has failed in the past. There does seem to be a stronger political mandate this time around, and the pro-European forces to be appear to be more energetic, more coherent, and better organized. But what has transpired so far is by far the easiest part of Ukraine’s struggle to join Europe. Now the hard work of economic governance will begin in earnest. To call the tasks facing Ukraine’s new parliament difficult is an extreme understatement: the new parliamentarians will have to find a way to cut spending, reform the bureaucracy, and transform the judiciary, while simultaneously dealing with an armed insurgency that controls two of the country’s largest cities andalso managing a tense diplomatic relationship with a large and angry neighbor that controls the flow of energy.

Can Ukraine succeed in this venture? Yes, it’s possible. Given a lot of European and US assistance and a healthy portion of good luck, Ukraine could forge a path towards Europe. But given the gargantuan economic challenges facing Kiev, there’s actually very little reason for optimism. 


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