Ukraine in 2002
In the area of today's Ukraine there is a tradition of foreign rule and of resistance to it. Before the Soviet period Ukraine had had only fleeting and unstable experience of autonomous statehood. In the twentieth century Ukraine was formed in stages, following the First and Second World Wars, on the ruins of collapsed empires. Ukraine gained territorial integrity for the first time as part of the Soviet Union, and won autonomy as a sovereign state only following the Soviet collapse in 1991.
This fitful formation has left a number of social and cultural marks on the republic:
Ethnic diversityIn countries like Romania the various ethnic groups are distinct, but in Ukraine there are cross-cutting differences among them. Many ethnic Ukrainians are bilingual, and many of them identify with Russian or Polish culture too. Some 72 per cent of the population are ethnically Ukrainian and 22 per cent ethnically Russian; 80 per cent of the population are bilingual. About half the people in the country speak Ukrainian as their language of preference and half speak Russian.
Regional diversityThe east is russified and industrial; there is an agricultural centre where Russian meets Ukrainian; and the west with its light industry is almost totally Ukrainian. There are other culturally specific regions such as Crimea (with its Tatars) and Transcarpathia (with its own separate Uniate church).
Religious diversityUkraine is also characterised by religious diversity. About 60 per cent of the population claim to be religious believers and about 25 per cent claim to be atheists. The rest say they don't know or refuse to answer. About 40 per cent claim to attend religious services as often as once a week, and most say they attend several times a year. About two thirds of the believers claim to belong to a particular faith. When asked what their religion is, these people give responses which fall into three broad categories:
Efforts in some quarters since independence to create a single national church have been countered by those who think that Ukrainian pluralism should be nurtured as a virtue. I conducted a survey in 1998 asking which of several statements most closely reflected the view of the person being questioned. The questions and percentage responses were as follows:
The Current Political SituationDuring the decade since independence Ukraine experienced a period - roughly between 1991 and 1998 - of growing democracy but a declining economy. President Leonid Kuchma was elected in 1994 as representing western Ukraine and closer ties with Russia. He oscillated away from this orientation for a time, but has now returned to it. The debate as to whether Ukraine should look East or West is unresolved. In this context, we should note that former Russian prime minister Chernomyrdin has been Russian ambassador to Ukraine, and some complain that he has been acting like a Russian provincial governor.
Around 1998-99 the tide reversed; as the economy began to pick up, democracy began to falter. Since his re-election in 1999 Kuchma has been pushing at the bounds of constitutionality. He gradually used more authoritarian and corrupt means to consolidate his power and corrupt business leaders strengthened their grip on politics. Ukraine was judged the ninth most corrupt country in the world in 2001 by Transparency International.
In constitutional terms Ukraine is a unitary state, though it has one autonomous region - the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Under the 1996 constitution Ukraine has what is formally a semi-presidential electoral system, with both a president and a parliament (like France and many of the other countries in the post-soviet world, including Russia, Poland and Yugoslavia). On paper it has a relatively strong separation of powers, with an independent Constitutional Court. But in practice, the president is the strongest player, and the position of the prime minister is ambiguous. Governments are not formed by parliament; it is the president who chooses his prime minister and other ministers. President Kuchma - elected first in 1994 and then again in 1999 - has taken various measures to concentrate power in the hands of his presidential administration and marginalise the parliament (the Verkhovna Rada):
The Parliamentary Election of 31 March 2002 and its consequencesNeither side was successful in the parliamentary election of 31 March.
There was considerable unease in the West about the increasingly abusive electoral practices witnessed in the presidential elections of 1999 and the referendum of 2000, which most observers believe to have been rigged.
The OSCE coordinated a mission of over 1000 delegates to observe the elections, and this helped to ensure that they were free and fair. In the runup to the election democratic procedures were in fact reconsolidated, although there was violence, with two deaths and other incidents, and protests during the elections about interference by Russia and the USA, both of which made comments on the elections, provoking the idea that Ukraine was a political football.
The Ukrainian electoral system is composed of two separate parts. Half (225) of the 450 parliamentary deputies are elected in single-member constituencies on a first-past-the-post basis, and half on proportional lists in a single nation-wide constituency with a four per cent threshold. The greatest concern in these elections was for the single-member constituency polls, which were perceived as being easier to corrupt. The Rada initially tried to change the electoral system to a fully proportional one, but Kuchma vetoed this move, as he did also a proposal to move to a 75 per cent proportional - 25 per cent majoritarian system.
There were three main forces in the election: 'Our Ukraine' (pro-market, pro-western, right-wing); 'For a United Ukraine' (the pro-Kuchma bloc of centrists, including members of the old nomenklatura and more or less corrupt business owners); and the Communists, who up to this year had regularly won the largest number of seats in elections. There was also a range of 'independents', but these are not normally dissenters; they tend to be local notables, chameleons who take on the political colour of the region they come from.
How to interpret the election results:
Whither Ukraine?The results of the 2002 parliamentary elections indicate that Ukraine has not slipped as far down the road to corruption and authoritarianism as some had feared prior to the polls. At the same time, the elections provide scant evidence that Ukraine is continuing to democratise, and we are unlikely to see any substantial moves in the direction of democracy so long as Leonid Kuchma remains president.
Sarah Birch is a lecturer in Ukrainian Politics in the Department of Government at the University of Essex