Election year in Australia, elections later this month in France, and now there’s an early election in Ukraine, set for May 27.

It may seem odd to put Ukraine on a par with France or Australia, but despite its almost total lack of media coverage here, it is potentially a major European power. If it joined the EU, it would be its largest member by area and fifth-largest by population.

Its problem is that it is a country pulled in different directions. The north and west of Ukraine, parts of which formerly belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire, look towards central Europe. The more industrialised east and south look towards Russia, and many people there speak Russian as their first language.

Given the increasing assertiveness and apparent authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, this is an uncomfortable position to be in. If people’s worst fears are realised and Europe enters a new cold war, then Ukraine will find that it straddles the dividing line.

A quick look at the electoral map shows how stark the division is. The Westernised regions vote overwhelmingly for the pro-Western parties of President Viktor Yushchenko and his sometime ally Yulia Tymoshenko. The more Russified areas vote just as strongly for the party of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, with very little in between.

A long period of deadlock between the two sides culminated yesterday in Yushchenko’s decision to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections. Clearly something had to be done, but it’s hard to see how elections will solve the fundamental problem. Yanukovych and his allies were outraged at the move, which they describe as unconstitutional, and used their majority in parliament to reject funding for the elections.

Public protests have been held on both sides, but they seem to have attracted little enthusiasm; most people apparently just want the politicians to stop bickering and get on with governing. The test, however, will be whether their voting encourages the emergence of some sort of consensus on the country’s future.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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