Ukraine’s regional elections on 25 October come within complex conditions, hardly imaginable some two years ago at the outbreak of the “Euromaidan” protests in Ukraine. Next Sunday’s vote catches the country conflict-torn and its population struggling amid socio-economic difficulties. The controversies surrounding the elections are indicative of much wider structural debates over the country’s political future.
Since the Revolution of Dignity over a year and half ago, Ukraine’s political transition has been intertwined with the outbreak of separatist conflict in the East and by extension the constitutional reform to include decentralisation plan in this respect. The upcoming regional elections are likely to reflect many of the concerns and controversies bubbling beneath the surface.
The economic outlooks of an average Ukrainian citizen suffer in light of rising prices linked with inflation (reaching 52% at the end of last month) as well as the vulnerability of the Ukrainian hryvnia to depreciation. Even with this year’s slight increase in minimum wage1, incomes are not increasing sufficiently to keep up with the higher prices. Ahead of a long winter, the phantom of rising energy prices imposes further constrains as households will be paying 450% more on energy bills. What’s more, the cuts in pensions and the insufficient financial support for internally displaced persons (IDPs) places an additional burden on the wallets of those helping their extended families. Meanwhile, austerity seems to be the only way forward for the state, which is in need of further loans. In this situation some pools indicate that more than half of polled Ukrainians are ready for street protests2 if life gets worse, with 17% ready for a violent protest3. While potential protests are not likely to gather a widespread uprising, their supporters are likely to pursue an increasingly radical line.
Alongside economic grievances, the ongoing conflict in the East has dominated debates in the run up to the elections: whether, how and with what impact people will vote in the regions of Eastern Ukraine, which is under the effective control of pro-Russian separatists in Donbas. Independent elections organised by the separatists would – in the eyes of Kyiv – be a move that would destroy the Minsk process.
Morel’s plan discussed in early October in Paris by the “Normandy Four” responds to some of these concerns. However, each proposed step seems to open more controversies than solutions. The major one is the sequence of the process following the Minsk agreement: elections first, then return of territory and ultimately control over the border. The initial proposal envisioned majoritarian elections, with election commissions formed by local residents (under the management of the Ukrainian Central Electoral Commission members), involvement of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and access for national media. Nevertheless, it remains problematic to imagine a free and open vote under the current physical insecurity in the occupied territories. Despite the ceasefire, a vote in the localities under armed control of rebel groups is rather unlikely to remain impartial, to say the least.
Another important aspect to highlight is the voting list in Donbas. The voting of IDPs is to happen in the region of their current residence. This might be an effective way forward in light of the insecurities in the East and perhaps also bearing in mind the need to integrate these internal migrants in the communities they currently reside in. Nevertheless it also implies that they have lost any voice over the future development in their place of permanent residence. If only those who remained physically in Donbas can vote, the elections will for obvious reasons mark a clear win for separatists.
Contrary to the traditional concerns over party competition and the overall fairness of the vote count, these elections are dominated by the rather non-traditional concerns outlined above. At the same time, settling the technicalities of elections is only a small aspect among the many issues that could play into the future resolution of the wider structural problem. The conflict in the East has led to over 8000 casualties so far, including civilian lives. Poroshenko says the conflict is costing Ukraine $5 million a day. It affects everyday life as over a million IDPs have relocated within the Donbas region and to other parts of Ukraine, increasing the pressures on the state budget and on the housing market in major cities. Societal need for reconciliation has not been this high since the outbreak of the conflict.
1. The minimum wage is currently at €55, a survival level rather than a living wage
2. For more see Kyiv Post, 19 October 2015
3. ICPS Kiev, diplomatic briefing of 3 October 2015