Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election has the potential to restore the country’s prospects for democratization – but there is also a substantial risk that it could prove to be a further step towards the dismemberment of Ukraine. The outcome will depend heavily on whether the Moscow-provoked crisis surrounding them is handled properly by both Ukrainian leaders and by the U.S. and its European allies.
Precisely because the May 25 vote represents a prospect that all of Ukraine might be ruled democratically from Kiev, Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian elite in Russia had until recently strongly opposed holding elections at all. Putin’s longer-term goal has been de facto dominance of the entire country from Moscow – a goal that seemed within his reach until Viktor Yanukovich abandoned Ukraine’s presidency on February 21 in the face of the Maidan uprising. However, if Putin cannot restore his indirect dominance of Kiev through intimidation and/or negotiations, he is likely to resume his campaign to slice off Ukraine’s eastern provinces one or two at a time in order to bring them under direct Russian control, even if nominally independent. This could ultimately create Putin’s version of a “Greater Novorossyia” which would encompass about 45% of Ukraine’s population and two-thirds of its GDP.
The pattern has already been set. After Yanukovich fled Ukraine on February 21, Moscow seized Crimea within a matter of weeks, working largely through local surrogates. The same scenario is well along in the much more populous and industrialized provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Their sham independence referenda on May 11 were designed to provide a pretext either to incorporate them into the Russian Federation, or to run them as nominally independent states (as with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Republic of Georgia since 2008). These two easternmost provinces constitute nearly 20% of Ukraine’s population and 22% of its industrial production. This is on top of the 4% of the country’s population already subtracted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Absent skillful maneuvering by Ukraine’s democratically-oriented leaders, backed by strong Western measures, there is a significant threat that Ukraine will subjected to gradual stealth dismemberment. Alternatively, if the new government in Kiev chooses to take military action to hold its eastern provinces, the country could be plunged into a prolonged civil war. In the latter case, Moscow’s current covert support for the minority separatist movement could well evolve into overt military intervention. Either scenario would have far more severe implications for democracy in the region, and for western interests more generally, than did Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.
The May 25 Election as an Existential Threat
Given these grim possibilities, the upcoming election on May 25, 2014 will be critical in determining Ukraine’s future. If the balloting is properly administered and monitored, this will have a powerful legitimizing effect on the Kiev government, not only in the eyes of the Ukrainian people but also throughout Europe and Eurasia and in the international community.
However, Moscow’s massive propaganda machine and its covert operations on the ground continue efforts to undercut the elections and cast doubt on their legitimacy. Russian-instigated groups agitating for secession have established either dominance or high levels of intimidation in several eastern provinces, leading to violent skirmishes and to dismantling of polling stations. This violence and potentially low voter turnout in the east could then be used by Moscow to claim that the elections had failed to produce a legitimate mandate.
Similarly, the May 11 independence referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk could well be used to engineer these two key provinces’ secession from Ukraine – unless the new president accedes to Moscow’s demands either for a subservient Ukrainian government or for a loose confederation in which Russia could exert de facto control over the eastern provinces. To add still further pressure on the new government in Kiev, Moscow-inspired separatist movements in Kharkiv, Odessa and other provinces with a predominance of Russian speakers could be quickly re-launched.
How Can Dismemberment or Subservience be Avoided?
For the upcoming elections in Ukraine to have a positive impact on the stability, territorial integrity and democratic growth of the country, several factors will be critical:
First, the polls themselves must be well organized. Domestically, over 75,000 personnel, including 55,700 policemen and more than 20,000 volunteers will be on hand to try to ensure that the elections run smoothly. The Ukrainian interim government has also already set up 114 polling stations in 75 countries for the over 470,000 of Ukrainian voters who are abroad.
However, the government has had some difficulty organizing its domestic electoral machinery, mostly in terms of finding reliable staff, due to the recent “secessions” of Donetsk and Luhansk. University of Kansas political scientist Erik Herron is correct in judging that “the quality of Ukraine’s election will ultimately be determined on the ground by the efforts of hundreds of thousands of election workers and security personnel, as well as the millions of Ukrainian citizens who come to the polls.”
Second, there should be a large number of independent and well-deployed international election monitors to ensure that the elections are conducted fairly and without major incidents of fraud. Moscow will be sure to allege acts of fraud regardless of their actual occurrence and so, to maximize the perceived legitimacy of the elections, these claims must be quickly rebutted by a host of independent international observers. Thus, what will hopefully be the positive findings of the main electoral monitoring groups should be well-publicized.
As of mid-May, over 200 volunteers from the U.S. have gone to Ukraine to help ensure clean and fair elections.  They will join over 1000 election monitors from the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). These actions by the international community and by the Ukrainian government are important steps in the right direction in helping to ensure a democratic and stabilizing outcome on May 25, but they should be bolstered by aggressive publicity and by strong statements of endorsement by Western governments and international organizations.
Finally, it would be highly propitious if one candidate were to win convincingly on May 25. If no candidate wins over 50% in the first round, Ukraine will have to wait until June 15 for the second round. A mud-slinging campaign could easily play into Moscow’s hands, and the period between the first and second rounds would also provide more time for Russian agents and their internal allies in the east to establish new facts on the ground.
In sum, it is in the strong interest of Ukrainian democrats and of their Western supporters to encourage the creation of a stable government as quickly as possible in order to minimize the opportunities for further Russian incursions.
According to the most recent poll, Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate oligarch”, who played a fundamental role in funding and organizing protesters at Maidan, has a strong lead with 34% of the vote. He is trailed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at 6.5%, and pro-“federalization” candidate Sergei Tihipko at 5.8%, with 25% undecided. Among voters who have made up their minds, Poroshenko is projected to receive 54.7% of the vote, which would allow him to win in the first round and avoid a runoff. However, if enough Ukrainians abstain from voting, either voluntarily or as a result of intimidation from pro-Russian separatists, Moscow could threaten to brand the election of Poroshenko as illegitimate and use this as leverage to insist on subservience and/or greater autonomy for the eastern provinces.
A victory by Poroshenko in the first round would obviously give Ukraine the best chance for a more democratic and western-oriented Ukraine. His previous history of supporting democracy in Ukraine during the Orange revolution in 2004 – and his very early participation in the EuroMaidan movement last fall, long before its prospects for success became clear – make Poroshenko the most promising candidate to lead Ukraine’s democracy. Although he is himself an oligarch who had previously served in the Yanukovitch government, Poroshenko is now running on a platform of zero tolerance for corruption, Ukrainian integration into the European Union, and economic reform.But he has wisely also said he would not seek NATO membership and is seen as someone who might be able to deal skillfully with Moscow.
Despite her current strongly pro-democratic rhetoric, Tymoshenko’s failures as Prime Minister (2007 to 2010) and shady earlier ties to Russia make her a dubious presidential prospect if Ukraine is to escape its legacy of autocracy and corruption. And Tihipko’s ties to Yanukovych’s former party, the Party of Regions, also make him a questionable candidate to lead a new independent and democratic Ukraine.
An Urgent Post-Election Agenda
Even if the elections are won convincingly by Poroshenko and strongly certified by international election monitors, the actions of the new government – and of the Western democracies – in the days and weeks after elections will be critical. Given Ukraine’s precarious economic and geopolitical situation, it is critical that democracy is shown triumphing over authoritarianism or separatist nationalism.
To do this, the Ukrainian government, with the strong backing and financial assistance of Western governments and international financial institutions, must rapidly engineer a rescue of the bankrupt and stagnant Ukrainian economy. This requires making Ukraine’s economy more hospitable to business. According to the Heritage Foundation, Ukraine ranks last in economic freedom in Europe. In order to restore economic growth and create jobs, the new Ukrainian government must eliminate the culture of corruption, promote domestic business growth, and encourage foreign investment. The IMF and the current Ukrainian government have already agreed on completing a comprehensive diagnostic study by July 15 that will cover “an anti-corruption framework, the design and implementation of key laws and regulations that may have impact on business climate, the effectiveness of the judiciary, and tax administration.”
By creating a favorable business climate and encouraging economic growth in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government can demonstrate the advantages of democracy over Russia’s growing authoritarianism and economic stagnation (especially by showing higher rates of growth in Ukraine than in Russia-annexed Crimea).
On the domestic political front, it will be essential for the new president to woo back and reassure the many disaffected Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine who have either backed the separatist movement or else been either intimidated or indifferent. And here the role of Russia could prove crucial. If Moscow continues to promote violent conflict between the new government in Kiev and the “independent” Donetsk and Luhansk regions or other eastern provinces, then the odds will be long for either economic prosperity or political stability.
There could now be a new chance for movement towards democracy and national unity in Ukraine — but only if strong leadership emerges from the election and receives prompt and solid backing from the European Union and from the United States.
Adrian A. Basora and Aleksandr Fisher. “Putin’s “Greater Novorossiya” – The Dismemberment of Ukraine.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. /articles/2014/05/putins-greater-novorossiya-dismemberment-ukraine (accessed May 21, 2014).
 On May 11, two of Ukraine’s eastern regions with large Russian speaking populations, Donetsk and Luhansk, voted for sovereignty with 89% and 96% approval respectively.
Miller, Christopher J. . “Gunmen seize control of district election offices in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, steal ballots and documents.” KievPost. https://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/gunmen-seize-control-of-district-election-offices-in-donetsk-and-luhansk-oblasts-steal-ballots-and-documents-348578.html (accessed May 21, 2014).