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Both candidates also are likely to have similar policies towards Moscow. After all, most Ukrainians desire close ties with Russia. When asked whether they preferred life with their Slavic neighbors or Europe, 50 percent of Ukrainians chose the former and only 30 percent approved the latter.
Although a Yanukovych government probably would be friendlier to Moscow, Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies, says that “Russia will not lose anything, no matter who wins the Ukrainian elections.” This is certainly the impression being fostered by Yushchenko, who denounced as a myth the perception that he was anti-Russian: “Not a single political force which supports me is against developing normal relations with Russia.”
At the same time, no leading Ukrainian wants to submit to Moscow’s dictates. Dmytro Dobrovolsky, chief of Typa newspaper, observes: “When Kuchma was going for his elections, he played the Russia card. When he was elected, he realized that he had to be president of Ukraine and learned the Ukrainian language. To Moscow he threatened to go to the West, and he did the same thing to the West. As a result, everything stayed where it was.”
Konstantin Bondarenko, director of the Institute of National Strategy, puts it another way: “Even though there are a lot of simplistic assessments that Yushchenko is pro-West and Yanukovych is pro-Russia, everyone understands that they will have to take a center position that can go any way.” Indeed, Bondarenko suggests that “if Yushchenko becomes president, his first visit will be to Moscow. If Yanukovych wins, his first visit will be to Washington.”
U.S. diplomatic officials recognize that some of Kiev’s moves are simply “tactical” given Ukraine’s geographic position, but nevertheless worry about Moscow’s influence. One American who declined to speak for the record pointed to Kiev’s switch from America to Russia regarding the Odessa-Brodsky oil pipeline as something used by Yanukovych to “pay for” Russian support.
Yanukovych’s supporters respond that President Kuchma took control of the issue for Kuchma’s benefit — to use as “a bargaining chip,” an insurance policy for his own retirement, in the words of American businessman and Ukrainian expatriate Alex Kiselev. The latter also suggests that Washington didn’t press the issue strongly enough: “the U.S. should have been more forceful.” Contends Kiselev, “the Prime Minister was left hanging when he declared his support for the western direction.”
Anyway, Washington is ill-positioned to complain about Russian involvement in Ukraine’s election. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his preference for George W. Bush.
Finally, though the administration says it favors neither candidate in Ukraine, its unstated preference seems clear. Sergei Markov, a Russian political consultant active in the so-called Russian Club denounced by Yushchenko’s supporters for backing Yanukovych, observes: “Look at what the U.S. is doing here — supporting foundations, analytical centers, round tables. It’s how contemporary foreign policy is pursued. And it’s exactly what we’re doing.”
UNFORTUNATELY, THE U.S. HAS become an issue in the election. In early October opposition parliamentarians found tons of posters attacking Yushchenko for allegedly being a pawn of the U.S. at a government warehouse. The issue is politically potent: Oleg Medvedev blames antagonism against America as an “inheritance from Soviet times” which “is costing us several million votes.”
Whatever the election result, Washington will remain influential in Ukraine. A top American concerned with U.S.- Ukrainian relations admits that “We can live very comfortably with whoever wins.”
The run-off on November 21 is likely to be close. Yushchenko long was the country’s most popular politician, but even Oleg Medvedev acknowledged that through smart politics “Yanukovych was able to do what he couldn’t do for the last two years, equal the popularity ratings of Yushchenko.”
Washington should press for an honest, transparent poll. But American policymakers should accept the result with equanimity. The U.S. doesn’t have to worry about “losing” Ukraine. Whichever candidate wins, Kiev will want remain a friend of America.
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