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In blow to Russia, pro-Europe parties sweep Ukraine elections

President Poroshenko cautiously optimistic that victory will grant him wide mandate for reforms, peace talks with rebels

Ukrainian voters handed the country’s pro-European leadership a resounding victory in the first parliamentary elections since the Euromaidan uprising cut ties with Moscow. The results further marginalize the country’s Russia-backed rebels and expand President Petro Poroshenko’s mandate to shrink the budget — a reform pro-Europe politicians say is needed to save the country from economic collapse.

With about half the votes from Sunday's poll tallied by Monday afternoon, Poroshenko had already begun to hold power-sharing talks with ex-interim President Arseny Yatsenyuk, whose People’s Front party surprised many by winning about 21 percent of the vote, just shy of the 23 percent claimed by Poroshenko’s bloc. 

In comments broadcast on national television, Poroshenko said the electorate had given a "strong and irreversible backing to Ukraine’s path to Europe" with Sunday's vote, and reiterated that he and Yatsenyuk would seek to swiftly build a coalition to steer their country toward greater integration with the European Union.

With the major caveat that voting was impossible for nearly 3 million people in separatist-held eastern regions, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is also mediating peace talks between Kiev and the pro-Russia rebels, said Sunday’s election was “amply contested” and “largely upheld democratic commitments.”

“As far as Russia is concerned, they have clearly been defeated in these elections,” said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German-Marshall Fund in Berlin. “If they were trying to destabilize the country so elections weren’t possible, they failed.”

Even Moscow indicated the election results in most of Ukraine were valid, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying Monday he thought Russia would recognize the results. This was despite a poor showing for pro-Russian factions, including a dismal performance by the Russian-allied Communist Party, which will be left out of parliament for the first time since Ukraine won independence in 1991.

Significantly, the far-right nationalist parties — including the Radical Party and Fatherland — were edged out by moderates, undercutting Russian President’s Vladimir Putin’s line that Kiev had been taken over by Nazis and fascists in the Euromaidan uprising.

But few were convinced that Sunday’s elections marked a step toward normality in Ukraine, which has been roiled in separatist turmoil ever since its pro-European uprising toppled Russian-allied former President Viktor Yanukovich in February. Russia responded by annexing the Crimean peninsula and has provided the rebels fluctuating support as the peace effort stumbles along.

Though the worst violence has subsided since a cease-fire agreement was signed in early September, there were fears that Sunday’s results could cause disenfranchised rebels in the east to renew fighting in their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The rebel authorities there plan to hold their own elections on Nov. 2, though it is unclear what implications the results would have on their observance of the cease-fire — or, for that matter, Russia’s.

While the vote on Sunday signaled Ukrainians had enough of Russia meddling in their affairs, Putin still has other levers to pull. He could prod the rebels to renew their offensive by shipping them weapons, as he did in August. “Russia has no choice but to accept these results, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be cooperative," Forbrig said.

Russian natural gas giant Gazprom has also halted deliveries to Ukraine over unpaid bills. With winter just around the corner, Kiev's energy deficit puts it in a squeeze as it prepares for this weekend's talks with Gazprom and Russian officials, which come amid peace negotiations in Minsk with Russia and its rebel proxies.

Poroshenko framed Sunday’s election results as a vote of confidence in his desire for a political solution to the separatist crisis, but few believe his Western backers are willing to provide the leverage he needs to pressure Putin toward compromise.

On Monday, Poland moved thousands of troops to its eastern border in an apparent move to face down Russian aggression in Ukraine, but no one in Europe or the U.S. seems willing to confront Russia directly. The rest of Europe also relies on Russian natural gas, most of which transits through the Gazprom pipeline in Ukraine, and leaders don't want to jeopardize that flow.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s economy is in shambles after a 6 percent contraction in 2014. Many analysts say unpopular belt-tightening measures will be required to remedy the downward spiral, which the World Bank projects to continue next year despite an International Monetary Fund bailout package and austerity measures that have already taken effect. Additional cost-cutting reforms will be made easier by the pro-European dominance of parliament, but they could also stoke simmering anti-government sentiment in the Russian-speaking east.

Even Poroshenko’s allies acknowledged the asterisks that came with Sunday's success. Yatsenyuk — a technocrat who declared he would be the least popular president in Ukrainian history when he took office on an interim basis after Yanukovich was forced out — tempered optimism once again by commenting that Ukraine had “tough times ahead” after the election.

Political infighting foiled Ukraine’s last pro-European movement, the Orange Revolution from 2004-2005, which ultimately saw Yanukovich ascend to power. Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk are on good terms — the two ranked among Euromaidan’s most visible leaders — but folding in ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party or the surging Self-Reliance party could still trip them up.

The election “was a vote of confidence in the current leadership,” Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Kiev-based Penta Center for Political Studies told Agence France-Presse. “But voters want to see their cooperation, not conflicts.”

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