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Due West: Ukraine Elections Hold Lesson for Russia

© Photo : KommersantKonstantin von Eggert
Konstantin von Eggert - Sputnik International
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Political life in Ukraine is sometimes burlesque and silly, sometimes tragic and dangerous, sometimes dramatic and uplifting. But it is never dull. Late October elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the country's parliament, proved this point yet again.

Political life in Ukraine is sometimes burlesque and silly, sometimes tragic and dangerous, sometimes dramatic and uplifting. But it is never dull. Late October elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the country's parliament, proved this point yet again.

As President Viktor Yanukovych desperately tries to eliminate any meaningful opposition to his rule and make his Party of Regions the dominant political force along the lines of Vladimir Putin's United Russia, the 46-million strong nation refuses to give up on democracy and pluralism.

Comparing general elections in Russia to those in Ukraine, one cannot but be struck by three major differences. Firstly, in contrast to their northern neighbors, Ukrainians are generally more responsible and dutiful voters across the entire geographical, age and educational spectra. Even the young and affluent, the category least inclined to go to the polling stations, is visibly - if not staggeringly - more active in Ukraine.

One could claim this is due to a mixed parliamentary-presidential constitutional system, in which the legislature plays a much more important role than in Russia, where governance is heavily tilted towards the executive.

Still, the level of electoral mobilization in Ukraine come election time shows that Ukrainians believe in their ability to change things in their own country much more than Russians do.

Archduchess Walburga Habsburg, a Swedish lawmaker who heads the OSCE observer mission, declared that the elections did not meet European standards of free and fair voting. She pointed to widespread vote rigging and what she termed “the excessive role of big money” - a clear reference to the numerous Ukrainian oligarchs who are heavily embroiled in politics, essentially bribing voters into casting their ballot the “right” way.

However - and this is the second difference with Russia - election results still generally reflect the country's main ideological currents. The ability of the central authority to impose its will is markedly weaker in Ukraine than in Russia. One explanation is probably the fact that Ukraine is much poorer than Vladimir Putin's Russia, which is flush with oil and gas export revenue. Consequently, Ukrainians feel less dependent on government largesse, which in any case is more modest than the Kremlin's handouts to Russian pensioners, civil servants and the poor.

Thirdly, more than 30 percent of Ukrainians consistently vote for parties that, at least on paper, stand for democracy, transparency and government accountability. Moreover, new parties, such as this year's wonder - world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko’s “Udar” (“Strike”) - are a constant feature on the country's liberal flank.

With remarkable consistency, a significant part of Ukrainians refuse to give up on their country's democratic future in the European family of nations. And even strangers feel it. Every time one comes to Ukraine, the carefree atmosphere feels different from the one in Moscow, where the Kremlin's heavy hand never seems too far away.

That is not to say that Ukraine doesn't have its share of troubles: corruption, media manipulation, and administrative pressure on journalists and civic society activists. In short, everything Walburga Habsburg and her colleagues observed, no doubt exists.

But there seem to be three major reasons why the differences with Russia I mentioned exist. One is pretty obvious – Ukraine is not burdened with the self image of a mighty empire that has to be great at all costs. This trait of Russian political life retains a heavy focus on the role of the state and the executive in the national life, to the detriment of civil society and freedom of citizens to choose.

Another is Ukraine's distinct regional diversity and decentralization. Russia, although geographically and ethnically more diverse than Ukraine, is much more centralized (actually, another imperial legacy). This gives the Russian presidency much greater leverage over what happens locally than Viktor Yanukovych or any other Ukrainian president could ever dream of.

Finally, until 1918 the three westernmost regions of Ukraine formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, over which Walburga Habsburg's ancestors ruled. Despite their small population, these areas have a strong influence in the national identity debate. People there consider themselves (sometimes naively, sometimes presciently) to be the keepers of the European flame. This is another factor that strongly impacts Ukraine's politics.

Democracy there is alive and kicking, to the bitter disappointment of many in Russia, who still think of Ukraine as a colony that has accidentally gone astray.

They could not be more wrong. And Russian democrats better take notice.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.

Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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