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Ukraine: Presidential Race Poses Foreign Policy Challenge

  • Lily Hyde

As the Ukrainian presidential race gets underway, candidates are laying out programs for Ukraine's foreign policy. For many voters the question is a simple one; Should Ukraine ally itself more closely with the East or with the West? RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde looks at the role of foreign policy in the campaign.

Prague, 27 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine's presidential campaign officially opened last week with 15 candidates cleared to run by the Central Election Commission. The front-runner is incumbent Leonid Kuchma.

Kuchma's strongest challengers come from the left, and the announcement earlier this week of an alliance between four leftist candidates may signify a heightened threat to his chances. Former Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk, Socialist leader Oleksander Moroz, parliamentary speaker Oleksander Tkachenko and Cherkassy Mayor Volodymyr Oliynyk have all agreed to work together in advance of the October 31 election. An aide to Marchuk (Anatoly Murakhovsky) seemed to suggest that the four will choose a candidate from among them and that the others will then withdraw to support him.

Kuchma, meanwhile, used independence day celebrations this week to air some of his campaign themes. Amid criticism from opponents over the country's economic troubles, Kuchma chose to speak about Ukraine's relations with the rest of the world.

His remarks came at ceremonies highlighted by the country's greatest display of military strength since it declared independence in 1991. In his speech, Kuchma said "We have not yet learned to defend the individual or the citizen properly, but we have learned to defend the state."

Kuchma went on to restate the position which has marked his presidency -- namely, his belief in the need to balance between East and West. He said "Ukraine's European choice should not be interpreted simply as alignment with the West," and added that Ukraine's foreign policy should be "neither pro-Western nor pro-Eastern but pro-Ukrainian."

However, since NATO bombed Serbia over Kosovo, the attitude of many Ukrainian citizens towards the West has changed for the worse. That shift is reflected in the presidential campaign.

Parliament speaker Tkachenko as well as Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko advocate full political and economic union with Russia and Belarus. Socialist leader Natalia Vitrenko, second behind Kuchma in the polls, advocates cutting all links with international lending organizations.

The orientation of the Foreign Ministry toward NATO and European integration is increasingly isolated in the face of these main challengers, all leftist and eastward-leaning.

Kuchma himself is slated to meet with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at the beginning of September to discuss cooperation and integration issues.

Mykola Tomenko from the Kyiv Institute for Political Research tells RFE/RL that most of the electorate sees foreign policy in simple terms, as a question of favoring the East or the West. He says that few voters are calling for a sophisticated foreign policy from a future leader. He also argues that the role of foreign policy in the campaign should not be exaggerated. Tomenko spoke with RFE/RL by telephone from Kyiv.

"Speaking of today, I don't see any demand from the electorate for a serious, thought-out foreign policy from candidates. The main questions are relations with Russia, whether they will be friendly or not, and the question mostly from young voters is relations with European structures and international organizations. I want to stress again that I don't see any dominant social group in the elections basing their choice of candidate on this question."

Political analyst Vyacheslav Pikhovschek tells RFE/RL that foreign policy is less important in the campaigns of more moderate candidates. But he says it is a key to the appeal of the extreme left, especially Symonenko and Tkachenko. He says the balancing act between East and West adopted by more moderate candidates has less appeal because it is less clear and understandable. Pikhovschek also spoke with RFE/RL by telephone from Kyiv.

"The attitude of other candidates -- Kuchma, Marchuk, Moroz and others, I think among them is a similar understanding of what foreign policy should be, and some aspects of this are poorly understood by Ukrainian voters."

However, Tomenko says that most candidates will end up adopting a similar balance to please both pro-Eastern and pro-Western voters.

"I think most candidates will get out of this question with the banal phrase that we should build friendly relations with the West and with Russia, and such a banal phrase will please almost everyone."

Changes in Ukraine's foreign policy have implications beyond a single election. An end to IMF and World Bank loans has been called for by some candidates. Some have suggested further restrictions on foreign investment and a halt to privatization. And Russia is Ukraine's largest trading partner, as advocates of closer ties are quick to point out.

But Pikhovschek says the link between foreign affairs and economics is not clear in the minds of many voters. He says a closer union with Russia and Belarus is popular with a section of the population who yearn for the relative stability of the Soviet Union. And he says that Ukrainian fears of foreign aggression are boosting the appeal of such a union.

"It is the real fear of a small country that was a nuclear state, and now has no nuclear weapons, and of course the conflict in Kosovo greatly strengthened the position of the left in Ukraine, and [Communist Party leader] Symonenko participates in that. I think people in the street are less concerned over external affairs, they are more concerned over non-payment of pensions and wages, or payment on time. But all the same the fear of a little man from a little country plays a role, and the left and the communists play on that."

However, Pikhovschek adds, Russia's recent confrontation with militants in Dagestan is a propaganda coup for the right. He says many people remember well the lengthy Chechen and Afghan conflicts and would fear that any future union with Russia might mean the involvement of Ukrainian soldiers in future battles.