An interview with Ukrainian political scientist from Uzhgorod National University on the results of parliamentary elections and the political atmosphere in the ethnically mixed Ukrainian Transcarpathian region.
Is there any difference between the political behaviour of the inhabitants of Transcarpathia and other Ukrainian regions?
As the results of parliamentary elections in Transcarpathian region have proven, the region is among those ones in which the people’s political opinions vary. Yulyia Tymoshenko’s Bloc has ended some per cents behind the Our Ukraine – People’s Self-Defence Bloc. Party of Regions has achieved a good result in comparison to other Western Ukrainian regions and Volodymyr Lytvyn’s People’s Bloc has surpassed the three per cent threshold necessary to enter the parliament. Apart from the Communist party, four parties in all have climbed over the necessary threshold and thus copied the election results in the rest of Ukraine. It means that Transcarpathia is a peculiar “golden centre” of Ukraine. In my opinion this is a proof of the absence of stereotypes as to the political conscience among the region’s population as well as tolerance and the respect for divergent political opinions.
Why was the turnout in Transcarpathia the lowest one in the entire Ukraine?
In order to analyse this phenomenon it is necessary to conduct a more in-depth analysis of the public mood. I assume that objective factors played the central role, namely, a high rate of labour migration resulting in the absence of voters in Ukraine on polling day. Moreover, the poor attendance was underscored by unpremeditated and, in my opinion, illogical decision not to allow to vote those Ukrainian citizens who returned from abroad later than three days prior to the elections. It is well-known that cross-border links represent for many inhabitants of Transcarpathia the way of life… Obviously, the subjective factor plays also a part. Since the inhabitants of the region are very rational and pragmatic people they preferred the alternative of leisure activities in nature to the elections. They spent a beautiful shiny day working in the garden. To be perfectly frank with you, a lot of people are tired of politics.
Which Ukrainian top-level politician comes from Transcarpathia?
Nowadays, the Head of the Secretariat of the President Victor Baloga from Our Ukraine party is among the most important politicians influencing the party line as well as state-wide politics. We shouldn’t forget that Nestor Shufrich, who is in the top five on the Party of Regions candidate list, also comes from Transcarpathia and is at the same time the Minister of Emergency Situations.
Which regional politicians do the inhabitants of Transcarpathia perceive to be their real leaders?
Quite frankly, it is pretty hard to answer this question due to objective reasons. The heads of regional administrative are designated by Kyiv, regional councils only play second fiddle in terms of public administration. That’s why regional politicians do not have such a legitimacy that would enable them to become generally acknowledged leaders.
Transcarpathia is a region with a plentiful representation of ethnic minorities. Does this fact reflect somehow on the political situation within the region? How about the fact that there is also Hungarian flag beside the Ukrainian one in polling stations as well as in municipal government buildings, does it spark conflicts?
I’m proud that the level of tolerance towards ethnic minorities has reached such a degree in Transcarpathia that even Hungarian flag on the municipal government buildings outrages neither politicians nor the public. The acceptance of ethnic minorities’ rights has become a reality which nobody even dares to dispute in Transcarpathia. Sometimes, certain tensions appear, however, for instance, in connection with the discussion on the Tisza Hungarian Autonomous Province’s proposal. Anyway, everything is under way in the form of political discussion, not a conflict. Indisputably a vast amount of minority members influence the election results. Lots of them are interested in Ukrainian-wide politics only to small extent and vote for such a candidate that they were told of either by the leaders of ethnic and cultural organisations or local politicians. However, this is the case of more countries inhabited by ethnic minorities.
How did the representatives of ethnic minorities perceive the Orange Revolution in 2004? Do ethnic minorities have their political parties in the region and what political powers are they supportive of in the elections?
The members of minorities perceived the Orange Revolution similarly to the Ukrainians. The majority of them supported it, a part of them remained passive and the rest took a negative stance. In the course of the 2004 events, the leaders of ethnic minorities were expressing support of one of the presidential candidates. This was sure to affect the sympathies of the members of particular ethnic minority.
How has the most important regional minority, i.e. the Hungarian community, found its feet in the region from the political point of view?
Ukrainian legislation facilitates the establishment of parties on ethnic principle which was utilised by Hungarian minority as the best organised one. It has established two Hungarian parties which have their representatives in regional council. During nation-wide events like, for example, parliamentary elections, they publicly uphold big parties which are sometimes even rival ones from the viewpoint of political positions. The leader of Hungarian Democratic Federation in Transcarpathia is István Gajdos. He supports Yanukovych and is the Mayor of the town of Berehova which is the centre of Hungarian settlement in the region. The second party, established on the basis of Hungarian Cultural Federation in Transcarpathia, upholding the President Viktor Yuschenko is headed by Miklos Kovac.
Which of Ukrainian financial and industrial groups has the greatest influence in Transcarpathia?
Transcarpathia is not Kyiv. There is no industrial centre like, for instance, in Donetsk or Dnepropetrovsk and that’s the reason for the absence of influential financial and industrial groups. To push through entrepreneurial interests on the national level isn’t conceivable just owing to this fact. Nevertheless, we may observe a certain rivalry between two centres of public life in the region, namely, Uzhgorod and Mukachevo. However, one can hardly say that their business circles can obtain more significant preferences on the regional level, since they control only a small amount of financial sources in the region. I assume at the same time that none of the largest Ukrainian financial and industrial groupings has any striking advantages in Transcarpathia. The market competition holds sway here. The era of economic and political feudalism cannot return…
Why has the Party of Regions gathered such a high number of votes?
As I have already mentioned, there isn’t a mental pattern defining the categories “domestic – foreign”, therefore the people aren’t affected by stereotypes in terms of the perception of particular political forces. In many villages the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate enjoys a firm position. And it is the Party of Regions that they tacitly uphold and influence the political behaviour of believers in this way. Moreover, many inhabitants of the regions are used to vote for the “party of power”. From the point of view of the parliamentary and governmental structure this has applied to the Party of Regions.
Is the political as well as public life affected also by its affiliation to Czechoslovakia in the first half of the 20th century?
Definitely. Although there are no many eyewitnesses of this period left and those ones remaining are of very high age, particularly mental influence lingers within the regional society. The tradition of political pluralism and tolerance is the heritage from the Czechoslovak era and that is the reason why the inhabitants of Transcarpathia consider the diversity of opinions to be a normal phenomenon after the origin of independent Ukraine. Due to the fact that Transcarpathia was a part of several states in the course of its history, lots of inhabitants don’t rely very much on the state itself when dealing with their everyday problems. The state as a political institution is regarded by them an external attribute of public life.
What is the level of the support of Ukrainian integration into the EU and NATO like among the people of Transcarpathia and how do you evaluate the activity of Slovakia in the region?
I haven’t got the results of the latest sociological polls at my disposal, but from a long-running perspective they indicate that the inhabitants of the region are supportive of the idea of European and Euroatlantic integration of Ukraine irrespective of the relatively strong position of the Party of Regions which hasn’t taken a clear attitude to the Ukrainian NATO entry. In my opinion Slovakia should play the role of a state showing to its neighbours the way how to carry out radical social and economic reforms and also how to catch up with those countries which participated in the “West march” in a more determined way during the 1990’s. Simultaneously, Slovakia has to take advantage of the fact that there are numerous ethnic minorities living in its territory in order to demonstrate the possibility of the concentration of miscellaneous societies as regards the integration idea.
In what way could Slovakia contribute to the development of Transcarpathian region?
Slovakia should use the opportunities emerging from the EU programmes in order to enable Transcarpathian partners the participation in cross-border initiatives. By means of these initiatives it would be possible, at least from territorial point of view, to bring the region’s development in accord with the development patterns of neighbouring regions belonging to the EU. The main point is, however, that owing to their contacts with the inhabitants of Ukrainian border areas the Slovaks could convince people that the EU and NATO entry is accompanied by more chances rather than issues in everyday life.
How do you assess the prospect of regional collaboration in joint borders after the Slovak entry into the Schengen area?
The Slovak entry into the Schengen area will indisputably have effect on the opportunities of the Transcarpathian people to forge various links with Slovak neighbours, partners as well as relatives. We comprehend that this is an objective reality. The best thing, Slovakia could do for Ukraine, is on the one hand to sign an agreement on a limited cross-border contact and on the other hand to exert pressure on the EU institutions with the aim of achieving a larger liberalisation of the visa regime with Ukraine.