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.
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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