KIEV, UKRAINE — The U.S. finished its presidential election in one round. Not so Ukraine, the former Soviet republic in which the two leading candidates, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, were forced into a run-off after both polled about 40 percent of the vote on October 31.
The vote was not without problems, but observers generally found it free of the sort of fraud feared by Yushchenko’s supporters. Attempts by incumbent President Leonid Kuchma to bolster Yanukovych’s campaign, much criticized in the West, did not prevent Ukrainians from voting freely for someone else.
The election has generated interest in the U.S. and Europe out of concern over Ukraine’s direction. Some see the poll determining whether the country will lean towards the West or fall into Russia’s orbit. Radek Sikorski of the American Enterprise Institute worries about Washington having to take up arms “to face a threat from a reconstituted empire.”
Yushchenko has portrayed himself as the Western-oriented candidate and earned a warm embrace from foreign interests far and wide, including in the U.S. In contrast, Yanukovych is seen as a Russophile, preferring the company of Ukraine’s Slavic neighbors.
Russians, if not Russia, are playing a role in the election. “The Kremlin is very actively involved in the campaign,” charges Yushchenko adviser Oleg Medvedev.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin has said nothing officially about Ukraine’s election, though his recent visits to the country have been perceived as intended to boost Yanukovych. Moreover, Russian television, seen by most Ukrainians, has promoted Yanukovych’s candidacy.
But Moscow’s direct involvement seems overstated. For instance, some allegedly “pro-Russian” initiatives are primarily matters of domestic politics.
Yanukovych has suggested raising the Russian language to quasi-official status, hardly unreasonable in a nation where many people speak only Russian, the language of the old Soviet Union. The idea angers Ukrainian nationalists, who have worked to push Russian out of schools and public life, but polls show Yanukovych’s proposal winning wide popular support.
Moreover, the policy differences between the two candidates, including relations towards the U.S. and Russia, seem much smaller than commonly presented. Economically, Kiev has little choice but to increase investment and trade ties with America and Europe; geographically, Ukraine’s security inevitably will be linked to Russia.
YUSHCHENKO HAS WON WESTERN plaudits from advocating membership in the European Union and NATO. In contrast, Yanukovych is advancing the so-called Single Economic Space, or free trade zone, with Russia and two other former Soviet republics.
Yet the contrast is more apparent than real. Yanukovych sees no conflict between the two strategies. Rather, he evokes caution, promising: “Ukraine will move into the EU slowly.”
Similarly, says Sergei Tigipko, Yanukovych’s campaign manager — and former governor of the National Bank — “We need to carefully negotiate favorable terms for Ukraine.” He emphasizes that ties with Russia “do not prevent Ukraine from getting integrated into the WTO and cementing an association with the EU.” Adds Tigipko: “The only pragmatic course is one that looks both east and west.”
Overall, the question of integration with the West seems to be largely one of timing. While Yushchenko hopes for membership in five years, Tigipko thinks twice that time is more realistic. Similar are the sentiments of Rostyslav Khotin, editor of the Ukrainian section of the BBC: “There is a consensus amongst the Ukrainian ruling elite that Ukraine must be in the EU and NATO. Ukraine may find itself in NATO in 2006 or 2007 if the opposition wins. If the other side wins, the delay may be three or four years.”
Several other journalists shared his sentiment. “Ukraine is not going to go away from Europe,” observes Petro Bilyan, a columnist in the weekly Economic News. Dimitro Ponamarchuk of the Union of Free Journalists worries that some in the West believe that “to be perceived as pro-NATO you must be anti- Russian.” Washington might inadvertently “push us into a large mouth that would swallow us in no time.”
THE ASSUMPTION THAT YUSHCHENKO would better serve American interests is common, but not necessarily accurate. For instance, Yushchenko has promised to immediately withdraw Ukrainian troops from Iraq. In contrast, the Yanukovych government ignored Ukrainian public opinion and put 1,600 troops into Iraq. Yanukovych also has indicated that Kiev is willing to help train and equip the Iraqi military.
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