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Ukraine: Will The Country Now Orient Itself Toward The West?

Yushchenko is being listened to closely in Moscow, Brussels, Washington... Now that opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko appears to have clinched a majority in the Ukrainian presidential vote, what are the likely implications for Ukraine's foreign policy and its relations with Russia --> /featuresarticle/2004/12/a8bf5663-42c4-457d-8a36-f785d47b7a2c.html and the West?

Prague, 27 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout the electoral campaign and the demonstrations he led through the streets of Kyiv, Yushchenko promised his people big changes if they elected him president.

Speaking in the Ukrainian capital on 27 December, Yushchenko said the decisive moment had at last arrived in the form of "a new epoch of a new, great democracy" to replace a period of "disrespect for people, of lies, censorship, and violence."

Yushchenko is being listened to closely not only in Kyiv, but also in Moscow, Brussels, Washington, and other capitals. The leader of the "Orange Revolution" has said the changes he intends to bring to Ukraine are as much about internal reforms as they are about foreign policy.

Although he campaigned on a vow to undo the legacy of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, Yushchenko's foreign-policy platform is ironically a throwback to Kuchma's early program -- at least as it was presented to the world.

When he first came into office, Kuchma talked about closer EU integration. He signed a special partnership agreement with NATO and even raised the possibility of membership of the alliance.

An Evolving Foreign Policy

After Kuchma's popularity at home and abroad sank as he became mired in corruption scandals, he turned to Russia as his new ally, saying Ukraine needed a "multivector" foreign policy that balanced eastern and western interests.

In reality, analyst Taras Kuzio of George Washington University in the United States suggested, Kuchma had no real foreign policy -- just a lot of promises and temporary alliances designed to keep him and his clan in power.

Kuzio, interviewed by RFE/RL before the vote, said he expected Yushchenko to end this "pretend foreign policy" and follow through on the goals Kuchma originally set out.

"What we'll have is no longer a mismatch between domestic and foreign policies," Kuzio said. "We'll no longer just have empty rhetoric. We'll have more concrete substance to those foreign policy objectives, which have already been raised on the agenda, which are EU and NATO membership. It's not Yushchenko who's going to be raising the issue of NATO and EU membership. They have been Ukrainian objectives for a while but not serious objectives."

Alexander Rahr, an expert on the region at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin whom RFE/RL also interviewed before yesterday's election, said he would expect fundamental changes in Ukraine's foreign policy under Yushchenko.
"Yushchenko will say that the intention of Ukraine's foreign policy is directed towards integration with Western military, economic, and political structures and not so much in the future with Russia. I think this will bring fundamental change, and we can expect it."

"I think that what Yushchenko is going to take back are announcements, statements, made by President Kuchma concerning Ukraine's future foreign policy," Rahr said. "When Kuchma said he couldn't foresee Ukraine in NATO and the European Union within the next couple of years, he made a clear point about reorienting his foreign policy towards Russia. I think this will change under President Yushchenko. Yushchenko will say that the intention of Ukraine's foreign policy is directed towards integration with Western military, economic, and political structures and not so much in the future with Russia. I think this will bring fundamental change, and we can expect it."

Although Ukraine's geopolitical re-orientation, if it occurs, would affect relations with Russia, experts have said they believe economic ties are not likely to suffer. While prime minister, Yushchenko showed he was open to Russian business investment in Ukraine.

But as for the rest of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), that is another matter.

Kuchma pursued a free-trade zone linking Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan. But Kuzio said that if its economic value cannot be justified -- especially if Western investment starts to pour into Ukraine -- then it will become a casualty of the Yushchenko administration.

"There will be, I believe, a short period of coldness in relations with Russia. That's because of Vladimir Putin's overt intervention in the Ukrainian elections and also because of the strong suspicions that Russia is behind the attempted poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko," Kuzio said. "But the best way to understand the transformation would be: continued pragmatic economic cooperation with Russia, no longer any interest in the CIS joint-economic space together with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan."

EU Membership?

The big question is how the European Union, which played a leading role in mediating and end to the electoral crisis, might react to Ukraine's westward swing. Former European Commission President Romano Prodi once famously declared that Ukraine had as much chance of joining the EU as New Zealand.

Is Europe ready for Ukraine and its 47 million people? Rahr said he does not believe EU membership is a realistic prospect for Kyiv.

"For many Europeans, Ukraine is still too big, too difficult, too far away, with a too complicated economic system, too much corruption," Rahr said. "So I think there are a lot of arguments which will be made inside the European Union against giving Ukraine a full-fledged prospect for membership in the European Union."

But Rahr said he does see prospects for a special partnership with the EU. He said he believes countries like Poland and Germany are interested in such a relationship and will push for the EU to adopt a dynamic and pro-active policy toward Ukraine.

"I expect countries like Poland, probably even Germany but also the Baltic states and the new leadership in Romania, to try to force the other group members in the European Union to change the direction towards Ukraine," Rahr said.

As the United States' relations with Russia go through a rough patch, experts believe Washington will show renewed interest in upgrading its ties with Ukraine as well.

[For more RFE/RL coverage and analysis, see our dedicated "Ukraine's Disputed Election" website.]

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