Thoughts on the elections in Ukraine and the European Union

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,Russia,Vladimir Putin,Europe,Ukraine

America's Memorial Day weekend has been quite a weekend for elections -- or at least the announcement of election results. In Ukraine, it appears that presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko on Sunday won about 57 percent of the vote and thus is elected without a runoff -- the first candidate to win without a runoff since Ukraine's initial election in 1991, as the Electoral Geography website shows. Poroshenko, a chocolate (!) billionaire, supported the Maidan demonstrations and is considered friendlier to the West than to Vladimir Putin's Russia; this is the view, at least, at Russia analyst Lily Shevtsova, who writes that 80 percent of the votes cast for candidates who favor “Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and the unitary state -- meaning they support the Western trajectory.”

But it's not quite a verdict of all Ukrainians. As this Wikipedia map shows, turnout varied sharply between the regions. More than 70 percent of those on the voting register apparently turned out in western Ukraine, around Lviv -- the pro-Western city which (as Lvov) was part of Poland between 1918 and 1939 and which (as Lemberg) was part of the Austrian part of Austria-Hungary, which got universal manhood suffrage in 1907. Turnout was of course zero in Crimea, effectively annexed by Russia, and below 40 percent around Donetsk. These are the areas that voted for the more pro-Russia candidates in previous presidential elections. My guess is that if turnout had been as high here, Poroshenko would have fallen short of 50 percent in this election and would have had to face another candidate (and probably win) in the runoff June 15.

Despite Poroshenko's win, I think it's unlikely that Ukraine is headed toward membership in the European Union and inconceivable that it is headed toward membership in NATO. NATO members are certainly not going to take on the obligation to defend a nation a part of which (Crimea) they were totally unwilling to protect against Russian annexation. As for the EU, this weekend saw the announcement of the results of elections held earlier in the week. The organization which many in the Ukraine would like to join has been stirring resentment in some of its member states, and the big news was the first-place finish of fringe parties -- or parties previously considered fringe parties: the United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain, the Front National in France and the Danish People's Party in Denmark. The shocked reaction of elites plus detailed coverage of the voting can be gauged in the coverage of major papers like the Telegraph and Le Monde; those who are interested should prowl around these and other websites.

There's a real irony here: Adherence to European Union standards would be a great step forward for Ukraine, but European Union diktats and its unaccountable bureaucracy are increasingly resented in many member nations. The dream of the EU's founders is that economic and “ever closer” political union was needed to prevent another disaster like World War I and World War II. But the possibility of war between any EU member countries today seems to be zero, no more likely than a civil war in the United States. But war -- or military conquest -- is a real threat in the states of the former Soviet Union, as events this year in Ukraine show. Even as the EU is arguably unneeded for its original purpose in most of Europe, it still has the potential of serving a useful purpose in the former Soviet Union (as it has in the former Yugoslavia, where Croatia had to adopt reforms to become a member and Serbia is under some pressure to do so).

I’ll have more to say about the EU (and other) elections in a later Washington Examiner column.

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Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner