An update on key issues in Ukrainian politics by Brian Mefford
• The Peace Talks –Tomorrow in Minsk, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko hosts peace talks between the Ukrainian government and Russian government who represents the terrorists in the Donbass. Lukashenko, while largely towing the Kremlin’s line, understands that if Ukraine can be dismembered by Russia, then Belarus which is ¼ the size of Ukraine – can too (and under the same guise of protecting the ethnic Russian population). Long a pariah in the West, Lukashenko is banking on the peace talks being successful to give him instant new legitimacy and reopen doors to European financing. Even if they fail, Lukashenko has positioned himself as a peacemaker and broker between Russia and European interests. As the saying goes, ‘even a broken clock is right twice a day’ and this is Lukashenko’s day. As for the actual talks, the West is likely to ratchet up pressure on Ukraine for a new cease-fire. However by not listening to Western “advice”, Ukraine’s ATO has been successful in confining the terrorists to just five urban areas (Donetsk and Horlivka which are now essentially cut off from supply lines, Antrasyt, Stakhanov and Luhansk). The presumably “mistaken” downing of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by the terrorists is having major repercussions including new sanctions from the US and EU this week. Also the terrorist leaders Strelkov and Bezler are now in Moscow awaiting new marching orders following their disastrous mistake. The Malaysian Airlines Flight downing and the success of the ATO have eliminated the possibility of the Donbass becoming a new “frozen conflict” (like Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh) as even the often “wobbly” Europeans no longer accept this as a viable outcome. Now the real question is how much more does Putin want to invest in a losing cause? In the best case scenario, Putin would drop his support for the terrorists and Ukraine would offer them a peaceful exit back to Russia after surrendering their weapons. This gives Putin a chance to pretend to distance himself from the terrorists and start the long process of reversing the sanctions. However it also runs the risk of having battle trained terrorists (who now believe they were betrayed by Putin) returning to Russia (specifically the North Caucuses) with heavy weaponry and exacting their revenge. Thus, some believe that since the terrorists have no public support, Putin prefers to see the Ukrainian army destroy the remaining pockets of them and eliminate the paper trail back to Moscow. In this ironic way, the Ukrainians would actually do the dirty work for Putin while simultaneously eliminating the terrorist strongholds. While no one is holding their breath for the peace talks to be fully successful, it is a step in the right direction.
• Putin’s “Autumn Offensive” – there is increasing talk among former Party of Regions members about Putin making a strong play to take control of Ukraine this autumn. No one is exactly sure what the “autumn offensive” entails. However one scenario is an outright military one in which Russian forces occupy eastern and southern Ukraine (the so-called “Novorossiya”) either openly or under the guise of “peacekeeping”. Given the success of the Ukrainian Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO) this is not likely. The other, more likely scenario, is that Russian backed terrorists sabotage Ukraine’s infrastructure including bridges, government buildings, airports, subways, roads (although one could make a case that the roads are horribly damaged from neglect already), and strategic industries such as the Odesa Port, grain terminals, regional utility companies, the gas pipeline, and God forbid – Ukraine’s nuclear reactors. Industrial sabotage is common after an insurgency fails (Iraq for example) as the terrorists can no longer fight on the battle field and have to resort to a guerilla war. Given that Ukraine is already looking at close to an 8% GDP decline this year, successful sabotage of Ukraine’s infrastructure could further increase that decline and create harsh economic realities for ordinary Ukrainians. Given the uncertainty of gas supplies and austerity measures that are needed, industrial sabotage would be a brutal punishment for Ukraine’s already ailing economy. The purpose of the “autumn offensive” would be to accomplish what Russia has been trying to get for years: Ukraine to consent to Russia’s demands on “federalization” for the south and east as well as to thwart future EU and NATO memberships. Since Russia’s efforts to stir up separatist sentiment have failed in Ukraine, this strategy of infrastructure sabotage when combined with ongoing (and likely enhanced) embargoes on Ukrainian products (dairy, chocolates, meat, soybeans, corn, etc) and excessive energy prices represents the next phase of Russian onslaught. To the extent possible, Russia will also attempt to install some of its friends in the new parliament via independents and current/former Party of Regions members. Given events of the last few months including the deaths of more than 300 Ukrainian soldiers and 100,000 refugees being forced to flee the Donbass and Crimea, this will have to be done with precision rather than imprudence.
• “Poll of Polls” Returns: in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary election which looks likely on October 26th, we will resume our regular “poll of polls” feature. This gives the average of all polls conducted over the last 30 days weighted by sample size. Only polls of likely voters are used for tabulation and only the most recent poll by a firm is included. By averaging all published polls into a single composite, sampling error is reduced and one has a more accurate view of the opinion of the electorate. This is because Ukrainian polling firms, in spite of using solid sociology, sometimes still enhance poll numbers for certain clients. Thus by averaging several polls, one reduces the possibility of manipulation and/or outlying polls affecting the real numbers. For example, the “poll of polls” released in this blog on May 21 (4 days before the election) showed Poroshenko winning 52-11% which largely mirrored the actual results of 55-13%. As of July 30th there have been only two published polls to base our “average” on for the parliamentary election. The actual parties and candidates competing will vary between now and the registration period. However these are the numbers based on the parties likely to compete for seats in the election. Based on the polling data available as of the end of July, the new parliament is likely to be radically different from the current (see Graph 1 below).
Graph 1: Poll Ratings and Averages of Major Ukrainian Political Parties
Also note that the Kyiv Institute for Sociological Studies (KISS) conducted a poll that concluded on July 23 in which they tested different leaders as the head of Solidarity Party (Poroshenko’s party). When former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko was listed as the head of the party, the party received 11%. However when the party head was listed properly as Poroshenko, the rating jumps to 20%. Of course Ukrainian law doesn’t allow the President to be a member of a political party but clearly, Poroshenko’s team will let the public know over the next 90 days that a vote for Solidarity is a vote for Poroshenko. Thus, those polls numbers rather than the Lutsenko numbers for Solidarity are used for calculating the poll.
In the current “poll of polls”, Solidarity averages 25% with the Radical Party at 17%. Byut runs third with 14% and UDAR follows with 9%. Civic Position (Anatolyi Hritsenko) continues to build upon his decent performance in the presidential election to poll 7% followed by Svoboda at just over 5%. As for the electorate that traditionally was pro-Russian (although after the annexation and war the terminology is dated), Strong Ukraine (Tyhypko) is running at 4.4%, the Communists at 3.9% and Regions at 3.4%. While it is early and the election date has not officially been set, these poll numbers spell trouble for the once powerful Party of Regions and their junior coalition partner the Communists. Conversely, the new parliament would be led by six parties – all of which actively supported Euromaidan. No parties that were opponents of Euromaidan would clear the five percent barrier based on these averages. Of course, as the election takes shape the actual results are expected to vary from this preliminary snapshot.
• The “Pre-Game” Handicap of the Parliamentary Election – Poroshenko’s Solidarity party/bloc and Klitchko’s UDAR party still plan to run separately but form the majority in parliament after the election. Their goal is to get enough seats to form the government with as few junior coalition partners as possible. Specifically they want to form the new government without Svoboda and Lyashko’s Radical Party –both of whom invite unhelpful international scrutiny and criticism. However the Radical Party’s rise has cut into a quarter of UDAR’s support and as a result, Klitchko’s team is considering a joint election bloc with Poroshenko. Byut is the odd man out as the same Poroshenko-Klitchko alliance which proved successful in denying Tymoshenko the presidency is formidable once again in this election. Just as UDAR supports the government but doesn’t have members in the cabinet, the ideal scenario for the Poroshenko-Klitchko team would be to have Byut in the government coalition but with as few cabinet members as possible. This would be keeping with the pre-presidential election agreement that following the parliamentary election Solidarity and UDAR would split the cabinet seats evenly. Yatsenyuk’s resignation is evidence of the tension beneath the surface in the current governing coalition and with Poroshenko-Klitchko. It will be interesting to watch if the Party of Regions can rally to restore some of it’s old base vote (once around 30%+) and what will happen to the former Communist party electorate (assuming they are banned by the courts). In the meantime, Tyhypko’s “Strong Ukraine” party has been resurrected and is already close to the 5% barrier with solid upside potential. The Party of Development is at least initially well suited to make an appeal to these displaced voters. Suffice to say, the new parliament is likely to be much more pro-European than the current one. This will facilitate constitutional changes, decentralization and hopefully, Western reforms.