Ukraine's parliamentary elections of 28 October were all set to be yet another instrument for perpetuating president Viktor Yanukovych's stay in power.
The jailing of political opponents, selective justice and the persecution of non-conformist media meant that winning this election for Yanukovych's Party of the Regions was pre-programmed. The opposition, deprived of its charismatic leader Yulia Timoshenko and unable to fully overcome internal conflicts and cleavages, had little chance to beat the well-disciplined Party of Regions, which relied on solid financial and administrative resources in the run-up. Securing the majority of votes cast for the party lists, where half of all parliamentary seats are distributed, was not a life-or-death issue for the Party. It was expected to benefit strongly from a comfortable lead in single-mandate districts.
Results so far indicate that the Party of the Regions received 31% of the ballot, suggesting that together with potential allies from the Communist Party and a prospective number of independent deputies, it may try to form a constitutional majority in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. After that, the Party could usher in a new law on the election of the president so that next time, the leader could be elected by parliament instead of direct popular vote.
There is little doubt in the West that the regime’s political goal, like some of its regional neighbours, is consolidation of power. The EU's most senior authorities have stated many times that developments in Ukraine are not isolated incidents, but are systemic in character. The criticism of these elections by OSCE observers supports this conclusion. Relations between the West and Ukraine have noticeably worsened of late. The signing of the EU-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement and Association Agreement has been postponed. But Kyiv chose not to hear the signals and proceeded towards its objective.
However, while well under way, this process is not foregone.
First, the leader's legitimacy matters in Ukraine. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych became the country's first president without an absolute majority. He now has lower ratings and his party has just received less than one-third of the vote, so he cannot assume that his re-election in parliament will be silently accepted by the nation.
Second, Ukraine's economic situation is alarming. Prospects for growth are slim, external debt is high and gold and currency reserves are decreasing. An authoritarian system is easier to build when a ruler is in possession of abundant resources. Otherwise, it risks assuming not only the powers and privileges, but takes full responsibility, thus becoming the focal point of peoples' discontent.
Third, external pressure is acute. The Kremlin has made it clear that it would like to see Kyiv abandon its European project and join Russia in its attempts to economically and geopolitically reintegrate the post-Soviet space. Moscow is ready to pay for that with cheaper gas, but accepting the offer without caveats would be against the business interests of the president’s cronies. More importantly, Russia could then regain the role of the king-maker in Ukraine’s domestic politics - something it has lost in recent years.
The vicious circle can only be broken if Kyiv manages to maintain the balancing act it has been doing since independence. This keeps the window of opportunities for Western policy open. However, the approach has to be revised. Instead of being a passive observer and repeating the mantra of the 'ball being in Ukraine's court', Washington and the EU should again become active players. There is no need for new quid pro quo negotiations. The carrots have been on the table long enough. If the impression emerges that a normalization of relations today can be traded for the correction of regime's behaviour in future, the game is lost - there is no guarantee that the deal will be respected.
Only a position of principle that further deterioration of democracy in Ukraine will have direct implications for key regime figures – for their personal plans and interests in the West - might reverse the negative trends in Ukraine’s political development.