Deja Vu in Ukraine

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Three years after the Orange Revolution, Ukraine is experiencing ... another Orange Revolution. The Sept. 30 parliamentary election will lead to the return to power of a coalition of the two pro-reform parties led by Yulia Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko, who together hold 228 of the 450 seats in the Ukrainian parliament.

Three years and three elections since the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians have learned that it is not so easy to run a democracy. What happened to the giddy optimism of the demonstrators on the streets of Kiev in December 2004, who managed to reverse the results of a rigged election and brought a pro-reform government to power? Feuding between then-Prime Minister Tymoshenko and Yushchenko led to her dismissal in September 2005 and her surprising replacement, the Moscow-friendly Viktor Yanukovych.

The roots of the country's unsettling experience with electoral democracy lie in the political culture of the newly independent Ukrainian state. Instead of dealing directly with the economic and social needs of ordinary Ukrainians, politicians have resorted to conjuring up imaginary threats to distinguish themselves in the political marketplace.

For one side, the enemy is Russia; for the other, it is NATO and the West. Speculative questions about the legal status of the Russian language and the future geopolitical position of Ukraine are used as effective instruments of electoral manipulation. The parties need frequent elections to sharpen their image and define their own identity. But by using this adversarial rhetoric, politicians have artificially generated and widened a division between the eastern and western regions. The real issues of most concern to ordinary voters -- wages, inflation, social benefits, corruption and the like -- are common problems for residents of both regions. But they are not in the front and center of the electoral programs of the competing parties.

The polarizing nature of the electoral campaigns means that the party leaders are incapable of transcending their differences and working together once the election is over. In Ukraine, politics is treated as a zero-sum game: Tymoshenko has been promising "criminal investigations" of the 2006 natural gas deal with Russia should she become prime minister. One positive development was the declaration by Yushchenko on Oct. 3 that he hoped to see a coalition government that included ministers from both sides -- including representatives of Yanukovych's Party of the Regions, which, together with its Communist allies, holds 202 seats in the new parliament.

Ukraine's difficulties also reflect choices made about what kind of democratic institutions to adopt. One problem is that Kiev opted for a French-style system, with both a directly elected president and a parliament-based government. That opens the door to a clash of interests between the president and prime minister since the majority that controls the parliament may not be the same as the majority that elected the president. Even if the prime minister and president are on the same team, personal rivalry may cause conflict -- of the sort which led to Tymoshenko's dismissal.

A second problem is the choice of an electoral system based on proportional representation. A U.S. style first-past-the-post system encourages the formation of two strong parties that converge on the "median voter" as they seek to win a majority. In contrast, a system of proportional representation allows parties to form around blocs of interests across the political spectrum. They often serve as vehicles for the personal ambitions of their leaders, and there is no guarantee that they will cooperate to form lasting coalition governments.

Another drawback with proportional representation is that it can give excessive influence to small parties that can act as a tie breaker between equally balanced blocs. Dominique Arel of the University of Ottawa pointed out that if only 0.14 percent more voters (about 30,000 people) had supported the Socialist Party, it would have cleared the 3 percent threshold required to win seats in the parliament. That would have meant that the Orange coalition would have won only 222 seats, or four short of a majority.

Of the 15 post-Soviet states, only the Baltic countries and Ukraine are rated as "free" by Freedom House. Armenia, Georgia and Moldova are rated as "partly free," and the remaining eight are "unfree."

So Ukrainians can be proud that they have established a functioning democracy. But until politicians learn to put the interests of the nation above those of their own faction, it will continue to be a work in progress. Winston Churchill's famous adage still holds true: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Helen Chebanenko is a researcher at the Agency for Legislative Initiatives in Kiev. Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University and an adjunct professor at Columbia University.