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Ukraine: Russian President Begins Three-Day Visit, Just Days Ahead Of Crucial Election

Russian President Vladimir Putin begins a three-day trip to Ukraine today, which is officially meant to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Kyiv from Nazi occupation. But Putin's visit, which comes just before the country's presidential election, is seen by many as heavily motivated by politics.

Prague, 26 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ordinarily, the residents of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv mark their liberation from Nazi occupation in World War II on 6 November. But this year, the schedule has been changed, and the celebrations will come early.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was due to arrive in the city tonight, at the start of a three-day visit that Moscow said will focus on war commemorations.

But many people in Ukraine are asking if the real purpose of Putin's trip -- and the rescheduling of the ceremonies -- is not, in fact, to ensure victory for Moscow's favored candidate in the country's presidential election on 31 October.

Putin was due to appear live on three major Ukrainian television stations simultaneously tonight, where he was expected answer questions from viewers -- giving him unprecedented access to Ukrainian voters.
Putin was due to appear live on three major Ukrainian television stations simultaneously tonight, where he was expected answer questions from viewers -- giving him unprecedented access to Ukrainian voters.

Putin has made no secret of the fact that he favors Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych over his main rival, Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the opposition Our Ukraine bloc. Yanukovych's campaign posters can be seen in Moscow -- appealing to Ukrainians in Russia to cast their ballots.

Yanukovych uses every opportunity to stress his desire for close ties with Russia, whereas Yushchenko emphasizes the need for tighter relations with NATO, the European Union, and the United States.

The race is considered to be neck and neck.

Putin's visit to Ukraine, therefore, is thought by many to be highly symbolic.

"We are talking about a certain symbolism, since Viktor Yanukovych has already stated that, if elected, he would be a president focused very much in one direction," said Volodymyr Polohalo, editor in chief of the Kyiv-based journal "Political Thought." "[He has said that] orienting Ukraine toward NATO and the European Union would only be for the very long term. Whereas today, relations with Russia are paramount, as is creating a single economic space [with Russia], etc. So in this context, in the context of Yanukovych's previous meetings with Putin, which occurred in Moscow, as well in Ukraine and the Crimea, this can be seen as a signal to voters that Putin directly supports Viktor Yanukovych."

Polohalo said Putin's open endorsement of Yanukovych could tip the scales for an important minority of undecided Russian-speaking voters in the south and east of the country. He also noted that Putin's presence and words in Kyiv are sure to be noticed by regional officials.

"We are talking about the 7 to 8 percent of voters who are still undecided and who live in these regions. These 7 to 8 percent of voters are an important electoral reserve for Yanukovych. Secondly, this is a signal for the political elites in Ukraine. It is a signal for the regional bureaucracy which, until the last minute, has been trying to put its eggs in both baskets -- so to speak. The fact that Putin is coming out on the side of the pro-Russian political elites is a very important development."

Supporters of Yushchenko are angry at the timing of Putin's visit and see it as blatant interference against their candidate in a campaign that has already been tainted by accusations of poisoning, voter intimidation, police brutality, and media manipulation.

Ukrainian media analyst Natalya Ligacheva, speaking from Kyiv, put it this way: "The leader of any country has the right to appear on any television station in any free country. There is no question about this. But on the other hand, when allegations are being made that America is trying to influence the Ukrainian elections while the actual fact of Russia's influence is being ignored in the most unconscionable way, I think the live appearance of the head of a foreign state on three television stations at once goes beyond all limits."

Russian television journalist Pavel Sheremet agreed. He said the Kremlin's overt support for Yanukovych is especially hard to understand, since many prominent Russian businessmen appear to favor Yushchenko and few expect any worsening in trade ties should he be elected.

"The problem is not the fact that the Kremlin backs Yanukovych and makes strong statements against Yushchenko," Sheremet said. "The problem is the fact that the Kremlin has become so involved in these elections, that it is so wrapped up in supporting Yanukovych that this goes against common sense. In terms of Russian-Ukrainian relations, there will not be any difference whether Yanukovych or Yushchenko wins."

For Polohalo of "Political Thought," the reasons behind the Kremlin's strident support for Yanukovych appear to be more rooted in politics than economics.

"The regime that is being formed in Russia is an authoritarian regime, and Putin hopes to strengthen the authoritarian potential of this regime by helping to set up an analogous regime in Ukraine," Polohalo said. "The regime in Kazakhstan suits him. The political regime in Belarus suits him. But he has a phobia that there could be genuine democratic changes in Ukraine if Yushchenko comes to power. In other words, Putin -- as the leader of an authoritarian regime -- is interested in having a similar regime in Ukraine."

Two Viktors head into the polls on 31 October, but only one ultimate victor can emerge. Only time will tell whether Putin's visit was a decisive factor in the election.

(RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky in Kyiv and RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)