Presidential elections bring Ukraine closer to the West

Presidential elections bring Ukraine closer to the West

The success of the presidential elections and the clean victory of the pro-European candidate Petro Poroshenko will bring Ukraine closer to the West, but the conflict with Russia is likely to continue.

The Ukrainian presidential elections took place on 25 May amid the most difficult political situation since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union more than twenty years ago. In many respects, the elections are historical. The overwhelming first round electoral victor is Petro Poroshenko – the chocolate magnate and a strong supporter of Ukraine’s Western orientation. According to the OSCE’s observation mission in Ukraine, the elections “were characterized by high voter turnout and the clear resolve of the authorities to hold what was a genuine election largely in lines with international commitments and with a respect for fundamental freedoms in the vast majority of the country.”

In the face of the events that ravaged the country over the past six months, primarily the deposition of the former president Victor Yanukovich and the Russian annexation of the Crimea, the electoral success of the openly pro-European candidate in all parts of the country, short of two conflict-ridden regions in the East and the Crimea, has not only illustrated the prevailing sentiment in most parts of the country, but it has also given the Ukrainian leadership badly needed credibility.

Russia’s key argument for the annexation of Crimea, and subsequent support for the separatist movement in the Ukrainian Eastern provinces, was based on the presumption that the current leadership came to power through a coup and turned the country into a radical, pro-fascist, anti-Russian stronghold. This frequently repeated accusation against Ukrainian leaders is now untenable, and the Kremlin is running short on good explanations for its actions in Ukraine.

Elections spur next diplomatic spat with Russia

The success of the elections will also provide Kiev with a new incentive in its diplomatic war with Moscow. This will be reflected primarily through increased efforts to quell the separatist insurgency in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. At the same time, Moscow is continuing to pour fighters and weapons into Ukraine, with an almost certain goal of putting additional pressure on the Ukrainian leadership. Such actions influence the constitutional reform process and force federalization of the country, which would give more power to the regions and municipalities.

Apart from continuing to entice the separatist movement in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the Kremlin is using other levers to retain its grip over Ukraine, primarily through economic pressures. In early April, the company unilaterally imposed a price of $485 per thousand cubic meters to Ukraine, which is by far the highest price of natural gas in Europe.

However, Moscow must be careful not to provoke another round of Western sanctions, which will mostly depend on the course of events in Eastern Ukraine. According to the White House, sanctions are still on the table in case the Ukrainian crisis escalates further.

Additional moves into this direction will also depend on how persuasive Washington will be in convincing Europe to further isolate Russia’s economy. During his visit to Poland, president Obama confirmed that the US will ‘step up partnership’ with Ukraine and Moldova, which represents a direct challenge to Russia, and will certainly provoke a strong reaction from Moscow.

Common Russian threat stokes national solidarity

Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and self-determination has produced another unexpected effect. As the recent presidential elections have shown, Ukraine has never been more united in the regions unaffected by separatism, supporting one political option. The overwhelming victory of Petro Poroshenko in all Ukrainian regions apart from the Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where the elections could not be held, is a good sign that the events of the past six months have had a significant influence on the process of the Ukrainian nation-building.

This will have a far-reaching effect on the country’s future orientation and its relationship with Russia. The mistrust between the two countries is currently so high that it is hard to foresee any improvements in the near future.

Apart from preserving the country’s unity and steering the hard process of balancing between European aspirations and the pressures from Moscow, the newly elected president will have a hard task of rebuilding the economy ruined by months of political insecurity. Ukraine can expect short-term financial help from the IMF and the West, but pursuing the much-awaited reforms will prove to be a far more demanding task. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Ukraine’s GDP is expected to contract by 7% in 2014, and no growth can be expected in 2015.

At the same time, Russia is facing a sharp deterioration of its relations with the West, and a growing mistrust from its neighbours over its future moves, which will inevitably weaken Moscow’s international position in the long term.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Ante Batovic

Ante was previously a lecturer in International History at the University of Zadar where he specialised in Cold War and East European history. He was also a visiting fellow at the LSE IDEAS centre and the fellow of the Robert Schuman Foundation in the European Parliament. He holds a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and a PhD from the University of Zadar.