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Analysis: Ukraine's Compromised Choice

A Yushchenko rally in October Ukraine is once again living through an exceptional period, much similar to that on the eve of its independence 13 years ago. Then, a new state was born out of political and social turmoil in the crumbling Soviet Union. Now we are witnessing the troubled, but definite, birth of a vibrant civil society in this state. All this is happening because of a presidential election in which Ukrainians for the first time since their independence seem to have a genuine political alternative to the ruling regime. This fact alone makes their situation very exceptional in Eastern Europe. In the short term, there is no possibility for such an alternative in Belarus or Moldova. And no apparent need for it in Russia.

On 21 November, Ukrainians will go to the presidential polls to choose between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, a candidate vowing to ensure the political continuity to the regime of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko, a politician promising to make a new start for the country. Yushchenko and Yanukovych competed in a neck-to-neck race in the first round on 31 October, obtaining 39.87 percent and 39.32 percent of the vote, respectively. It is widely expected that the runoff will be very close, too. It is also expected that turnout, which was 75 percent three weeks ago, will be distinctly higher on 21 November.

Both candidates seem to be sure of their victory, but it may happen that the fate of Ukraine's next presidency will depend on a handful of votes and, consequently, on a political verdict of the Central Election Commission (CEC). The commission was able to count nearly 98 percent of the 31 October vote within hours after the close of polling stations and subsequently spent 10 days tallying the remaining 2 percent, thus generating vehement charges of ballot manipulations. It may also happen that one of the contenders will not agree to a declared victory of his rival and will try to give vent to his frustration by inciting a "strong-arm scenario" to claim the power.
The common picture of the Ukrainian presidential race is that Yanukovych stands for Ukraine's pro-Eurasian (pro-Russian) "political vector" while Yushchenko represents the country's pro-European (pro-Western) option.

However, one thing is perfectly clear. Irrespective of who will emerge as a winner of the 21 November runoff, the country will not be the same as before the 2004 election. The "people's election campaign" conducted by Yushchenko has raised such a huge wave of spontaneous civic activism in his support that it is hardly conceivable that this activism will dissipate itself even if he loses the vote on 21 November. The 2004 presidential campaign has formed a civil society in Ukraine, the core of which consists of a vast community of Yushchenko backers who seem to have eventually woken up from the Soviet-era political and social lethargy for good. It would be close to impossible to ensure a semblance of Kuchma-like continuity in Ukraine's political and social life for Yanukovych or Yushchenko if they chose to do so.

The common picture of the Ukrainian presidential race, presented both for domestic and foreign audiences, is that Yanukovych stands for Ukraine's pro-Eurasian (pro-Russian) "political vector," while Yushchenko represents the country's pro-European (pro-Western) option. This may be fairly true as regards the election tactics used by both contenders to mobilize their electorates. Many voters in eastern Ukraine will vote for Yanukovych because he promises close cooperation with Russia as well as some concessions to the country's ethnic Russians in particular or Russian speakers in general. At the same time, they will vote against Yushchenko, because he is a "pro-Western Ukrainian nationalist" and his wife "is a CIA spy." As for Yushchenko, he is drawing his support primarily from the traditionally nationalist western part of the country, where voters "hate all things Russian" and "want Ukraine to be in NATO." By the same token, they will vote against Yanukovych because "he wants Ukraine to return into Russian bondage."

In the Kuchma era, Ukraine's delicate East-West political and cultural equilibrium has never been critically upset, and the country remained afloat in waters fairly remote from both Russian and Western shores. There is no grounds to suspect that this time the situation will be any different. It is nonsensical to fear that Yanukovych as president might like to become a governor of Ukraine administered from Moscow. The same can be said about the danger of Ukraine sliding into the "clutches" of the West under Yushchenko. First, no one is actually pushing Ukraine in that direction. Second, it is Russia, not the West, which is feeding Ukraine with oil and gas, and will continue to do so for many years to come. In other words, there is no peril of tectonic shifts in Europe's political equilibrium after 21 November.

This year's Ukrainian election, like several other ballots in the past, seems to be offering a clear-cut choice between Russia and the West. But, as in the past, Ukraine's future will turn out to be a compromise between the Russian and Western paths of development for the sake of an independent Ukraine. The true test will be the extent to which ordinary Ukrainians will influence the decisions made by the ruling elites in the postelection period. It will be hard for the future president, be it Yanukovych or Yushchenko, to ignore the will of the voters who have finally become citizens.

See also: Voters Brace For Presidential Runoff Amid Allegations Of Dirty Tricks