Ukraine is losing the right to call itself a democratic nation and is drawing into question any hope it has for EU membership any time soon. For even before campaigning starts ahead of local elections on 31 October there is speculation that the result is being manipulated. This is because a recent law prevents parties formed less than a year ago, and individuals standing independently, from participating.
On 27 July, President Viktor Yanukovych enacted a law that prohibits candidates from standing who are not from a party registered, even locally, at least one year before the election. There is little logic to the new law apart from that it shuts the door on any newly formed parties and bars those of successful politicians Sergei Tigipko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who came third and fourth respectively in the presidential election held last January.
The new law also stops political blocs – umbrella organisations of affiliated parties – from putting up candidates as in previous elections. Only individual parties may compete. This weakens the opposition, which hitherto has competed in blocs. But it has little effect on the president’s Party of Regions, which has a powerbase in the predominantly Russian-speaking east and south of the country.
The new law also prevents independent candidates from running. Mayoral candidates can only be nominated by the local organisations of political parties, therefore denying unaffiliated citizens the right to stand. The law appears designed to propagate the ruling elite, where those in power nominate the candidates rather than selection by the people.
All this does little to shore up Ukraine’s fledgling democracy. Since the fraudulent presidential election of 2004 and subsequent orange revolution, Ukraine’s political scene has been characterised by political infighting between president, government and parliament. In February this year, Yanukovych – the defeated candidate in the 2004 presidential election – made a spectacular comeback, narrowly beating then prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, for the presidency. Soon after, his forces ousted the Tymoshenko government and today enjoy a virtual monopoly on power, controlling parliament, the cabinet of ministers and the presidency.
The new electoral changes do little to build the credibility of his administration. Since coming to power, Yanukovych’s administration stands accused of some decidedly undemocratic actions. These include bending constitutional procedures in order to form a government, railroading the budget through parliament without proper due process and curbing fundamental rights, such as the right to assembly and media freedom.
Also of concern is an apparent disregard for Ukraine’s constitution. This was highlighted by the signing into law of a 25-year extension to the lease of the Russian Black Sea fleet’s naval base in Sevastopol in contravention of the constitution, which bans any foreign bases on Ukrainian territory.
To be fair, Yanukovich has managed to instil a degree of stability, agree a $15.5bn financial injection from the IMF and begun work on resolving the rights and status of some 300,000 dispossessed Crimean Tatars deported during the Soviet era, which is commendable.
But if Ukraine still harbours aspirations to join Europe’s top table, it must demonstrate that it is worthy. A potential springboard to EU membership will be the conclusion of an association agreement with the EU, which includes a free-trade agreement and the possibility of visa-free travel with the 27-member nation bloc. Yet the new election law can only be described as an affront to European norms of democracy and represents the sort of electoral meddling that is inconsistent with a country aspiring to EU membership.
The international community needs to find its voice. The west already has sufficient reason to care. Ukraine is a country of 46 million people; a nation that controls the flow of gas to millions of EU households. It remains one of the world’s largest exporters of grain – the leading barley exporter and sixth largest of wheat – at a time when the global market is in turmoil. A stable, democratic Ukraine is in everyone’s best interests.
Viktor Tkachuk, a former deputy secretary of the national security and defence council of Ukraine, an advisor to three Ukrainian presidents and a former member of Ukrainian parliament.