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Analysis: Avoiding A New East-West Rift Over Ukraine

The split goes far beyond Ukraine's citizens (file photo) For hundreds of thousands of people displaying orange ribbons and banners who have been protesting in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities against the officially announced results of the presidential runoff on 21 November, it is of little importance that opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko is "pro-Western" or that his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, is "pro-Russian." Most pro-Yushchenko demonstrators support him primarily because he has promised to oust "criminal clans" from power in Kyiv and improve the livelihood of ordinary Ukrainians, not because of his foreign-policy platform.

However, both Ukraine's "criminal clans" and Yushchenko's presidential rival come from the eastern part of the country, which traditionally has deep economic, historical, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic ties with Russia. Russia's financial and propagandistic support for Yanukovych in the presidential campaign thus unavoidably transformed the Ukrainian vote -- which was essentially a choice between the political continuity represented by the prime minister and the political change embodied by Yushchenko -- into a geopolitical choice between West and East.

The West, too, has considerably even if indirectly contributed to making the Ukrainian ballot a confrontation of external forces in addition to that of domestic ones. Many Western politicians and analysts have made no secret of the fact that they prefer "pro-Western" Yushchenko to "pro-Russian" Yanukovych, as if seeking to invite a Russian response. So it is no wonder that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally traveled to Ukraine before each of the election's two rounds to assure Ukrainian voters that Moscow's sympathies were unambiguously with Yanukovych. And Putin has already twice congratulated Yanukovych on winning the election. Putin's first congratulatory message came one day after the 21 November polling, when Ukraine's Central Election Commission was still tallying the vote. This fact alone is a good indicator of the Kremlin's eagerness to install Yanukovych as president in Kyiv.

A Western reaction to the Ukrainian presidential runoff came on 25 November. U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell rejected the officially announced results, according to which Yanukovych beat Yushchenko by nearly 3 percent of the vote, and warned Ukrainian authorities of "consequences" for U.S.-Ukrainian relations if they do not investigate "the numerous and credible reports of fraud and abuse." The Netherlands, which holds the rotating EU Presidency, said the same day that the official results do not reflect the will of the Ukrainian people and called on Ukrainian authorities "to redress election irregularities" reported by foreign observers. Thus Washington and Brussels have jointly confronted Moscow along what seems to be a new Cold War fault line opened in Ukraine.

Avoiding A New Fault Line

Can the threat of a new Cold War be averted? It can, provided that the Kremlin does not encourage incumbent Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to suppress the ongoing "orange revolution" by force. The decision by Ukraine's Supreme Court to suspend the certification of the official election results until it examines Yushchenko's complaints of massive electoral fraud has left room for political dialogue and compromise in Ukraine. But if the Ukrainian authorities use forceful means to instate Yanukovych, Ukraine will likely be transformed into a hotbed of new confrontation between Russia and the West. And this will be the worst possible scenario for Ukraine. Because Ukraine cannot choose Russia versus the West (or the West versus Russia, for that matter). In order to survive as a single state, Ukraine needs to choose Russia and the West simultaneously, however schizophrenic that might sound.
The West has considerably contributed to making the Ukrainian ballot a confrontation of external forces.

Theoretically, the Supreme Court may reject Yushchenko's complaints or support them. The latter might entail invalidation of the vote in some electoral constituencies and a subsequent vote recount. According to the opposition, a vote recount could award the election victory to Yushchenko. Yushchenko alleges that electoral authorities illegally added more than 3 million votes to Yanukovych's support, primarily in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts in the east and Mykolayiv Oblast in the south. The vote gap between Yanukovych and Yushchenko, as announced by the Central Election Commission, amounts to some 870,000 votes. There is also a possibility that, following a political deal between the Yushchenko and Yanukovych camps, the 21 November vote might be invalidated and a new election called. (The current presidential election law does not provide for such a possibility.)

Kuchma has ruled out the possibility of authorities being the first to use force in the current crisis. Such a possibility is becoming increasingly problematic as police and security-service officers join the protests and pledge allegiance to the "people's president," Yushchenko. However, a strong-arm scenario for resolving the Ukrainian postelection impasse cannot be excluded completely. Kuchma still seems to be in full control of riot-police units and special-task troops that are now guarding the presidential administration and government offices in Kyiv.

Moscow's Misjudgment

As for Russia's role in the Ukrainian standoff, it should be noted that President Putin has misjudged the situation on two important points. First, he obviously did not expect that Ukrainians would take to the streets to back Yushchenko on such a massive scale. While commenting on Ukraine at a Russia-EU summit in The Hague on 25 November, Putin seemed to back down on his previous assurance that the election was indisputably won by Yanukovych. Putin noted that the election is Ukraine's internal affair and added that any election disputes should be resolved by in a legal way. "And we know what the legal way is -- all claims should be sent to the court," he said.

Second, Putin appears to have overrated the threat to Russian interests posed by Yushchenko's potential presidency. This is a curious miscalculation, given Yushchenko's record in the post of Ukrainian prime minister in 1999-2001. In that period, Yushchenko halted the decline in Russian-Ukrainian trade and put an end to the main irritant in bilateral relations -- the theft of Russian gas pumped to Europe via Ukrainian pipelines. Yushchenko also opened the Ukrainian market for major Russian companies and made the privatization process in Ukraine a highly transparent business. For Yushchenko, Russia remains Ukraine's strategic partner. In other words, Yushchenko is far from a Ukrainian replica of Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power in Georgia thanks to a "Rose Revolution" one year ago. Saakashvili nearly provoked armed clashes with Russian troops while trying to subjugate Georgia's separatist regions to central rule. Yushchenko is a pragmatist who would be unlikely to resort to such adventurous policies in relations with Russia.
The Russian president has misjudged the situation in Ukraine on two important points.

So why has Putin put his stake on Yanukovych after all? The most plausible answer is that the Kremlin saw in Yanukovych a perfect candidate for running a client regime in Ukraine, which would be isolated from the West and dependent primarily on Mother Russia, as the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus. According to this line of reasoning, Putin's Russia has eventually recovered from the trauma inflicted by the breakup of the Soviet Union and is now seeking to restore some of its lost domain under the name of Single Economic Space. Thus, Yanukovych's election platform calling to abandon Ukraine's aspirations to seek NATO and EU membership as well as promising to make Russian the second official language and introduce dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship in Ukraine is fully consistent with such "neo-imperial" sentiments in Russia.

Remain Engaged

It is another matter whether Yanukovych, if declared president, can deliver on his promises. His proposals to give official status to Russia and introduce dual citizenship would require a change in the constitution, which is a difficult task under the best of circumstances, let alone after an inauguration following such a bitter postelection standoff. As for Yanukovych's pledge to take care of Russian businesses in Ukraine after his election, that should not be taken for granted, either. The "Donetsk clan" (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Report" 26 November and 10 December 2002), of which Yanukovych is a faithful representative and disciple, has its own peculiar way of doing business. Earlier this year Yanukovych's cabinet conducted the notorious privatization of Kryvorizhstal, the country's largest metallurgical plant, in which the company was sold to Yanukovych's political and economic partner, Rinat Akhmetov from Donetsk, and Viktor Pinchuk, President Kuchma's son-in-law, for a sum that was reportedly less than half the figures offered by Russian and Western bidders.

However, irrespective of who wins power in Ukraine, it is highly advisable that the West not give up its efforts to keep Ukraine from sliding totally into the post-Soviet Eurasia. An anticipated West-leaning government of Yushchenko would surely expect some financial and other support from the West to produce palpable results from its pro-Western policies. And Yushchenko should unreservedly obtain such assistance.

The same is equally, if not more, applicable to Yanukovych's presidency. The pro-Western electorate in Ukraine should in no way be allowed to feel abandoned or betrayed by Europe. As demonstrated in the case of Belarus, isolating an anti-Western regime does not guarantee that the country will become more democratic.

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