Ukrainian Elections

Pro-Western Parties Win, but Will the Maidan Spirit Prevail?

KIEV, Ukraine — High expectations for change in Ukraine resulted in early parliamentary elections held in late October that solidify pro-European forces.

What remains in question is whether the reform efforts of the Maidan Revolution will prevail, as the country struggles simultaneously with corruption, violent conflict and near economic collapse. 

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatzenyuk’s party, the People’s Front, and President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc received the highest number of votes, each with about 22% of the vote. Surprisingly, the new “Self Reliance” political party, which emerged in western Ukraine and is premised on Christian values, came in third — making it a significant power broker.

For the first time since independence, the Communist Party failed to gain enough votes to enter the 450-member parliament. Nor did far-right-wing parties succeed in passing the 5% threshold needed to gain seats.

The election results should secure President Poroshenko’s ability to advance much-needed reform legislation. His bargaining position in ongoing negotiations with Russia should also benefit.

But with low voter turnout and the exclusion of millions of voters — including refugees from the Donbas region’s war zone; voters living in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March; and voters in eastern territory controlled by rebels — these elections can be seen as just one step on democracy’s long path.

Meanwhile, the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk planned to hold their own elections on Nov. 2. Despite a cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and Russia since Sept. 5, peace in the east is very fragile.

According to many Church officials, Ukrainian reformers and foreign diplomats who spoke to the Register, the first order of business for Ukraine’s government in Kiev is to prove it can overcome the burdensome legacy of corruption and mismanagement.


Maidan Revolution

When former President Viktor Yanukovytch abruptly rejected plans to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) last November, angry Ukrainians occupied Maidan Square, a major public space in downtown Kiev.

Among the earliest participants were students and professors from Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University, an important center of education and culture run by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which represents 5.4 million believers, centered in the country’s west.

Christian clergy were especially active on Maidan, offering daily prayers from the main stage, standing between the police and protesters during tense standoffs, hearing confessions and blessing people.

The Maidan movement emerged as a protest not just in favor of the EU, but as a spiritual movement for greater social solidarity, political transparency and respect for individual dignity. In the end, as security forces moved to oust them in late February 2014, some 100 demonstrators were killed, and hundreds more disappeared.

Maidan is a constant reference point as Ukrainians contrast their hopes with daily reality.

According to Bishop Borys Gudziak, eparch of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris, the Maidan encampment has become a symbol of sacrifice for a revisioning of Ukraine.

“Maidan was a revolution of dignity, sanctified by the blood of sacrifice (or zhertva), which we work to defend today,” the bishop told the Register.


A Church Matures

The UGCC was banned in 1946 by the communist dictatorship, which closed churches, transferred Church property to the Orthodox Church and persecuted its clergy. For decades, the faithful functioned in the catacombs, with no outward manifestation of belief. Finally, in 1989, the Soviet government granted legal recognition to the UGCC. Since then, the Church has experienced a revival. In many ways, the fruits of this revival can be seen in places such as Maidan and reform efforts in Ukrainian politics today.

Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy, a devout Greek Catholic, came into office in 2006. His wife, Yekaterina Kot-Sadovaya, works with a charity for the disabled sponsored by the Ukrainian Catholic University. The Sadovys have five children.

Sadovy founded “Self Reliance” (Samopovitch in Ukrainian) as a national political party less than two years ago, although it has been operating in Lviv as a non-governmental organization since 2004. The party’s strong showing in the parliamentary elections exceeded even his predictions.

The day before the parliamentary election, Mayor Sadovy talked to the Register about the importance of local governance and efficiency. Asked how his religious belief influences his governance, the mayor said, “Every session of the city council starts with a prayer, an ecumenical prayer. We pray for honesty.”

He favors focusing on efficiency to improve public performance — for example, by reducing the number of members of the Lviv City Council from 90 people to 30.


Confronting Corruption

Sadovy explained that his party is the only one that publishes where its money comes from, including the names of contributors, describing the lack of transparency in politics as one of the major sources of Ukraine’s ubiquitous corruption.

Regarding the control wealthy business interests, called oligarchs, are said to have on political parties, the mayor responded, “I would like to think that politics is possible without oligarchs. We had offers from many oligarchs to finance us, and we said, ‘No.’”

Mayor Sadovy said the main benefit of these elections is that “there will be new people in this parliament, although many old faces will hang on to power. I don’t think this parliament will live long, but it will advance the cause” of greater openness.

Some reformers have already tried and failed to achieve change within the system over the last eight months. Appointed minister of economic development and trade in February, economist Pavlo Sheremeta resigned six months later, frustrated at the difficulty of confronting a corrupt system with few allies inside.

“Corruption is so ingrained in Ukrainian culture,” he told the Register. “The solution: zero tolerance. The mentality of general corruption cannot be reconciled with the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in Maidan and Donbas.”   

If the government calls him back into service, he added, “I will put clear conditions — to step on the gas. There’s no time to waste in going there alone. Going there alone is a failure. We have to go into each office with a team.”


Diplomatic Perspectives

American ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt refers to the “moral dimension” of reforms under way in Ukraine as having roots in the Maidan experience, which demonstrated the resilience of Ukrainian society.

“No one could imagine people staying on the square through the coldest months of the year. People were just fed up. They wanted a more just society — an end to corruption and the concentration of power,” he told the Register via Skype.  

Ambassador Pyatt sees the parliamentary elections as the “next step in the process of building a new Ukraine.” “There is consensus that they have to build a different kind of governance, a different tradition of economic management, but it goes to the point that Rome was not built in a day. I don’t think you have to believe in miracles to imagine that Ukraine can be successful,” the ambassador observed.

The Vatican’s nuncio to Ukraine, American-born Archbishop Thomas Edward Gullickson, described why he watches Ukraine on behalf of the Holy See. Although cautious about the meaningfulness of this election — “There’s no guarantee that the next parliament will not be controlled by oligarchs” — he has faith in the importance of what is happening overall in Ukraine.

“There’s no more interesting, no better place to be in all of Eastern Europe, in terms of the life of the Church,” he reflected, discussing the relationship between different Christian professions. “People in St. Petersburg or Moscow don’t really understand the dynamics and relationships between the churches.”  

“It’s not just that Ukraine is special, and people have different ways of relating to each other. There’s more going on here. The Christian churches, of different extractions, are figuring out how they will live out the next years, decades and even centuries,” he said. “There’s a lot more at stake here than territory, in terms of God’s love and life.”

Victor Gaetan is an international correspondent

and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.