The Ukrainian Election: Five Questions with Political Scientist Timothy Frye

October 24, 2014

Last November, after Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych postponed preparations to sign the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, a wave of antigovernment protests and civil unrest overtook Ukraine, resulting in the ouster of Yanukovych and a confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. In September, the European Union and Ukraine signed a “Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement,” which will take effect January 1, 2016, but Russia has objected to some provisions.

Timothy M. Frye, Marshall Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy and Director of the Harriman Institute, led a survey on voter attitudes and has been actively writing and commenting on developments in Ukraine. Columbia News asked Frye for his thoughts on the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Q: What is at stake in this election?

President Petro Poroshenko was elected in May with 59 percent of the votes and immediately called for new elections to parliament to bolster his position and to reflect new political realities in the country. After a series of divisive votes in parliament, the government fell, and new elections were announced. One critical issue at stake is the conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-supported Ukrainian rebels in two regions in Eastern Ukraine. Following the fall of the Yanukovych government in February, rebels in Eastern Ukraine backed by Russia have been in conflict with the Ukrainian government over the political status of these regions. More than 3,000 people have been killed and more than a million people have been displaced. A ceasefire was reached in September, but low intensity fighting continues and many fear a renewal of large-scale violence.

Q: How is the conflict influencing the elections?

Elections will not be held in Crimea, which was annexed by the Russian government in March. Nor will elections be held in 14 of 32 electoral districts in the parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The removal of these districts from the elections will reduce the seats of parties sympathetic to Russia compared to past sessions of the parliament.

Q: What factors will shape voters' choices?

Roughly 80 percent of the population identifies itself as ethnic Ukrainian and 15 percent identifies as ethnic Russian, but in the eastern and southern parts of the country many ethnic Ukrainians are also native Russian speakers. Overall, native Russian speakers make up about 40 percent of the population. At the same time, bilingualism is common in much of the country. But, when I surveyed 1,000 people in Ukraine in June, I found that, surprisingly, a candidate’s ethnicity and native language had little effect on a respondent’s vote choice. The key issue was the candidate’s support for closer economic ties with Europe or with Russia. Ethnic Ukrainians were willing to vote for ethnic Russians and native Ukrainian speakers were willing to vote for native Russian-speaking candidates. Similarly, Russian speakers were just as willing to vote for native Ukrainian speakers. The main cleavage among voters is a divide over whether the country’s future lies with Europe or Russia.

Q: What parties are likely to enter the parliament?

Opinion polls suggest that roughly 5-to-7 parties are likely to enter the parliament. The bloc in support of President Petro Poroshenko is likely to win 35-to-40 percent of the seats and play a dominant role. Five other parties, including the Fatherland Party, the Homeland Party, Strong Ukraine, the People’s Front, and the Radical Party headed by right-wing nationalist Oleh Lyashko are likely to receive between 7 and 12 percent of the vote. It is more difficult to predict how these parties will fare in the single-member district elections, which make up half the seats in parliament. Deputies elected from these districts can choose which parties to join. Many voters have despaired that the main parties are largely populated by familiar figures.

Q: How will the elections affect the tenuous cease-fire in the eastern part of the country?

This is hard to predict. The annexation of Crimea and absence of elections in Luhansk and Donetsk will empower more nationalist-oriented parties, but President Poroshenko who was elected in May has staked great political capital on maintaining the cease-fire and his party is likely to hold the lion’s share of the seats in the parliament, but parties critical of the cease-fire are also likely to be well represented in the government. Poroshenko’s hand will also be strengthened if he can improve Ukraine’s disastrous economic situation, but that is a very tall order.

— Interviewed by Masha Udensiva-Brenner