Voters in Eastern Ukraine Must Be Given a Choice

09_29_Ukraine_01
A pro-Russian rebel displays a captured Ukrainian flag at the destroyed airport in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on September 14, 2014. Insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk are demanding more autonomy, and local elections cannot be held in the areas they control, the author writes. Marko Djurica/Reuters

Some are quick to say that the war in my country is over and that Russia has won. But that has more to do with the virtual perception of the Ukrainian conflict than any facts on the ground.

As we prepare for our third wartime election next month, there is, however, a possibility that Ukraine still might lose. But that will happen only if our government adopts the tactics of our aggressor and denies the opposition the right to compete.

Whether or not Ukraine continues to be the diverse nation it once was is really at the heart of the debate over our future. Insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk are demanding more autonomy, and already the die is cast—local elections cannot be held in the areas they control.

But writing off the opinion of the rest of eastern Ukraine with the broad stroke of a pen would be a terrible mistake, and it is one the current government is in the midst of making.

The Opposition Bloc, of which I am a leader, won more than 10 percent of the nation’s parliament seats last October. Had voters in the self-declared autonomous zones been allowed to vote, and had people not been intimidated on election day, that figure would have been higher. Still, we are the largest group of representatives of those regions whose voice in Ukrainian public affairs is constantly diminished and in some cases silenced altogether.

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest city and a center of gravity for the badly shaken East. Acting on orders from Kiev, authorities there are refusing to register the Opposition Bloc in time for local elections.

In past years, nearly 1 in 2 Kharkiv voters cast their ballot for our candidates, which is why these tactics are particularly galling. It is like saying Republicans cannot be on the ballot in Iowa—technically it is only one state, but to many of your politicians it really seems to matter.

Regional authorities in Dnipropetrovsk, another key Eastern region, are following Kharkiv’s example and making moves to stop us from fielding candidates there.

In Ukraine, where governors are appointed by the president, not elected, it defies credibility to suggest that regional authorities are acting of their own free will. Real decentralization is part of the solution for our country, but today Kiev wields near total political control.

Finally, and of greater symbolic importance to a country that is struggling to hold together, local elections should be held in those areas of Donetsk and Luhansk that are not controlled by insurgents. Last October, our electoral authorities managed to do this, but this year they are saying that this is impossible in cities and regions where elections have been held in the recent past.

Again, political expediency is more to blame than practicality. If we are one country, we should vote together to the maximum extent possible. No less important, the example of holding local officials accountable at the polls in these regions will not be lost on those who, under insurgent control, are denied the same choices.

We value the efforts of all global leaders committed to finding peace in Ukraine. We hope for progress in the Minsk peace process, and my political force is prepared to take part in the upcoming elections—even in those territories that are under control of the separatists.

When a radical hurled a grenade at the parliament in Kiev late last month, it was a violent protest against the president’s proposal to grant more autonomy to the breakaway regions within Donetsk and Luhansk. Violence is always the wrong method for protest in a democratic society. But if more legitimate means of being heard—such as voting—are curtailed, I fear what might result.

By changing the constitution to allow for greater decision making at local levels in Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko is saying the right thing. When he talks about uniting Ukraine, he is saying the right thing.

But his actions—allowing those officials currently loyal to him to deny opposition parties from campaigning, and foreclosing the option of elections to those in the troubled areas of the East where people deserve a voice—tell a different story.

Our best chance at surviving the war that has been inflicted on us as a single nation lies in aligning words and actions. Any daylight between the two now will lead to a darker night for Ukraine when the elections are done.

Serhiy Lyovovchkin is a member of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, where he is a co-chairman of the Opposition Bloc. He has served as chief of staff to two Ukrainian presidents.