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Ukraine holds parliamentary elections

Ukrainians headed to the polls eight months after uprising started across the country

Ukrainians are voting in parliamentary elections eight months after protests sparked an uprising across the country. Discontent began after President Viktor Yanukovich rejected a trade deal with the European Union. The move was widely seen as a shift away from Europe and a move toward deeper ties with Moscow. Eventually, it led to Yanukovich’s ouster.

Now the crisis has moved far beyond the question of who should be Ukraine’s next leader. Tensions were exacerbated after Russia annexed Crimea, creating the biggest conflict between Moscow and the West since the Cold War. The United States says it wants Russia to stop its military support for Russian separatists in Ukraine. Moscow wants Washington to cut off economic and military aid to Kiev.

During Al Jazeera America's Sunday night segment "The Week Ahead," Thomas Drayton spoke to Amy Knight, a widely published Russia expert, and to Nicolai Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island.

“The most pressing thing is this election was whether or not the government was going to continue to support the Minsk Peace Initiative,” Petro said, referring to a peace agreement signed last month by the Ukrainian and Russian governments and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. “That’s a little bit less certain now that Poroshenko’s party came out as the leading party, but it’s not clear what kind of coalition they will be joining to gain a majority.”  

“It’s probably bad news for the Kremlin,” said Knight. “There’s going to be more support for a stronger line taken against Moscow.”

Knight added that despite Ukraine’s economic problems, it’s important that a democratic process took place.

Given that Moscow has cut off most of the country’s gas supply, Ukraine faces another potential economic crisis as winter approaches. Russia says it acted because Ukraine failed to pay its energy debt. As a result, Kiev tried to buy Russian natural gas from European countries, but that prompted Russia to reduce its sales to those nations.

Petro went on to explain that there are now three main camps in Ukraine’s parliament that will have to determine which path the country should take. He says there’s a radical nationalist group of about 13 percent that includes the Freedom Party; a nationalist pragmatic group of about 40 percent with the largest party being the Popular Front; and a more pragmatic but nationalist bloc, led by President Petro Poroshenko and his party.

Knight says corruption is the biggest issue facing the new parliament.  

About 3 million people in the Luhansk and Donetsk region did not vote in the elections. The separatists plan to hold their own elections next month.

“We will have to see how these elections will be interpreted,” said Petro. “It is important for the peace process to continue to have some sort of popular mandate for the rebel-held areas, so that the people who claim to speak for the rebels can then engage in continued direct negotiations with the elected representatives of the Kiev government.”

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