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End Of The Orange-Blue Divide: Ukraine Vote May Produce New Political Landscape

A staff member of a local community center, converted to a polling station, walks out of a voting booth in the Ukrainian village of Novotroits'ke, south of the pro-Russian rebels stronghold of Donetsk on October 23.
A staff member of a local community center, converted to a polling station, walks out of a voting booth in the Ukrainian village of Novotroits'ke, south of the pro-Russian rebels stronghold of Donetsk on October 23.

When Ukrainians go to the polls on October 26, they seem poised to introduce a new political configuration for the country. And, at the same time, to shatter the old paradigm of a country hopelessly divided between a pro-European west and a Russia-leaning east.

The end of the old Orange-Blue divide is largely the result of the violent separatist conflict raging in Ukraine's east.

"These divisions have been diminished by this war and by the perception among many Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who would have had a positive opinion of [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin a year ago, that this war is actually directed and supported by Russia," says Andreas Umland, a professor at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy. "Even many ethnic Russians who are Ukrainian citizens are now becoming Ukrainian patriots in the full sense of the word."

It is not that the elections will produce a dominant party, but they will produce a solid bloc in favor of European integration and wary of Moscow's intentions. And Moscow's old appeals for ethnic solidarity with Ukraine's Russophone population are increasingly ringing hollow.

"The issue of language and identity has been used and misused and abused in Ukraine for many, many years," says Natalya Churikova, senior editor of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "Ukrainians are much more united in issues of security -- and I think the security issue is No. 1 now."

Few voters in the traditionally pro-Russian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk will participate in the elections because of the separatist conflict in the region. Similarly, voters in the ethnic-Russian majority Black Sea region of Crimea -- which was annexed by Moscow in March -- will not cast ballots.

However, among voters in the parts of Ukraine that are under Kyiv's control and that will cast ballots, a consensus seems to be emerging, including among ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.

Major Shifts

Russia's Fund Against Corruption, headed by opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, conducted a poll in September among voters in the Odesa and Kharkiv regions, both of which are heavily Russian speaking -- and both of which were once considered candidates for joining the pro-Russian "Novorossia" project.

The poll found that 34 percent would like to see "Ukraine's future connected with Europe," compared to 17 percent who preferred closer ties with Russia and 17 percent who rejected both and said "Ukraine must be an independent country."

Eighty-seven percent said their regions should remain in Ukraine, while only 3 percent wanted to join Russia and only 2 percent wanted to become part of "Novorossia." Sixty-four percent expressed a negative attitude toward former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, although both regions voted for him solidly in 2010.

Fifty-six percent expressed a negative attitude toward Putin and 58 percent said their opinion of Russia had gotten worse in the last year.

And, perhaps most importantly, 75 percent said they plan to vote on October 26.

Vitaly Bala, head of the Agency for Situational Modeling, a think tank in Kyiv, agrees that the conflict in eastern Ukraine -- and the widely held perception that Russia is to blame for it -- have caused a major shift in Ukraine's political landscape.

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"As a result, in these elections the parties that are pro-European and parties connected with Maidan will get a majority -- this is a fundamental change," he told RFE/RL. "And most likely this situation will not change for the foreseeable future."

Parties and movements of those who supported Yanukovych's once-powerful Party of Regions are now struggling for mere political survival.

Analyst Umland stresses it is not that ethnic Russians in Ukraine no longer identify or sympathize with Russia. Rather, he says, they are rejecting Vladimir Putin.

"The problem here is actually Putin himself and the system he has created over the last 15 years," Umland says. "And young people, the active ones, they know about this difference. They may have been to Europe. They know what Poland and Slovakia and Bulgaria -- all these countries that are also ethno-linguistically close to the Ukrainians -- have gone through and they want to go this path, rather than the Russian-Eurasian path or whatever you want to call it."

Ukrainians, he says, see Putin's Russia as "an isolationist, bizarre country with an anachronistic political system."

Fractured Politics

According to a September poll by Democratic Initiatives, the party of President Petro Poroshenko has about 30 percent support. Other parties that seem poised to gain proportional seats in the new Verkhovna Rada include former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland party, the populist-nationalist Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko, former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko's Civic Position party, and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's Popular Front.

The radical nationalist and xenophobic Right Sector party, which Russia consistently vilifies as a sign of emerging "fascism" in Ukraine, is polling at less than 1 percent and has little or no prospects for proportional-representation seats.

Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says a low turnout in southern and eastern Ukraine would "carry enormous risks in encouraging Russia to risk further destabilization in areas that have hitherto been loyal to Kyiv."

Russian media have been energetically undermining the legitimacy of the process in Ukraine.

"Hurry! Prices reduced! The open sale of seats in the Verkhovna Rada! Among the candidates -- murderers, hooligans, thieves. What can war criminals, an army of clowns and Darth Vaders, and a naked model offer the Ukrainian people?" the weekly news roundup on St. Petersburg's state-funded Channel 5 proclaimed in a recent broadcast.

Despite the emerging pro-European consensus in Ukraine, the political system remains immature and fractured. The Orange-Blue divide between a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russophone east may be on the way out. But what kind of divisions and challenges will replace it remain unclear.

"The new configuration is only beginning to emerge," Bala says. "And most likely, it will continue to evolve. The system still has a strong connection to the popularity ratings of particular leaders, and so changes in their popularity could mean that their party will lose influence. Many observers think the new composition of parliament will not last its entire five-year term, that there might be new elections in a year or two."

With reporting from Kyiv by RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth

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