Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ukraine: Kyiv Poised Between Russia And The West

Could Viktor Yanukovych have the last laugh? (epa) Just over a year ago, tens of thousands of Ukrainians led an extended public uprising that toppled the country's entrenched, pro-Russia regime. The powerful images of the Orange Revolution remain locked in the minds of many in the West. But time has not stood still in Ukraine. The losers of the Orange Revolution are now poised to be the winners of March 26 parliamentary and regional elections. Will Kyiv still look West after the polls close, or will Russia resume center stage?

PRAGUE, March 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- "A new political era has started in Ukraine. The era of Kuchma, Medvedchuk, and Yanukovych has come to an end." Viktor Yushchenko said in the final days of the country's 2004 Orange Revolution.

It was the historic culmination of an uprising that deposed the regime of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, his administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, and his anointed presidential successor, Viktor Yanukovych.

The revolution was not only a triumph for pro-democracy forces in Ukraine. It was also seen as a victory for the West, which had thrown its support behind the uprising.

For Russia -- which had been forced to retreat after the vote that brought its favored candidate, Yanukovych, to victory was annulled -- it was a humiliating defeat.

Return To The Past?

Now, however, Ukraine's fate appears once more to be in doubt. The country is heading into elections for a newly powerful parliament. And it is pro-Russia Yanukovych -- and not Yushchenko with his Western reforms -- whose party is in the lead.

Nadia McConnell, the president of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C., to promote democratic development and market reform in Ukraine, says that while the election outcome is uncertain, she is certain Ukraine will continue along the path laid by the 2004 events.

"Well, I think everyone is watching the election, because there was a great deal of excitement about what happened with the Orange Revolution," McConnell says. "But the impact of that time is not going to get watered down, no matter what happens with the elections. The Ukrainian people finally stood up and said that they had had enough of what was going on. And they've moved forward and civil society has grown stronger and stronger. And those of us who work with Ukraine, we don't see a reversal. Things may not move as quickly and as dramatically as what we saw during the Orange Revolution, but they are moving forward."

Polls, however, suggest that Yanukovych's Party of Regions has an edge on those of his two closest rivals, former Orange Revolution partners Yushchenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko.

Yushchenko's Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc may possibly have to combine forces in order to match or slightly exceed the Party of Regions' current 30 percent backing.

In order to enjoy a healthy parliamentary majority, Yushchenko would have to team up with Yanukovych. It would be a bizarre coda to the events of 2004, and one that might swing Ukraine back toward the Russian sphere of influence.

Dealing With Ukraine's 'Real Problems'

Vladimir Zharikhin, the deputy director of the Institute for the CIS states, a Moscow-based think tank focused on Russia's relations with its former Soviet republics, says a Yanukovych win does not automatically guarantee trouble-free relations between Russia and the United States. But, he says, it's a whole lot better than what he describes as Yushchenko's dreamy overtures to the West.

"If the Ukrainian government is going to be oriented not toward myths or entering the European Union in three months, but toward the real problems of Ukraine, then there's going to be a fairly complex discussion regarding the entire spectrum of Russian-Ukrainian relations -- economic questions first and foremost," Zharikhin says. "But that is significantly better for Russia than dealing with people who are caught up in mythologizing and ideas that are very far from reality in all aspects of their relations with Russia, Europe, the United States, and so on."

Yushchenko has been direct in his pursuit of EU and NATO membership, pushing through reforms that aim to weed out the corrupt vestiges of Ukraine's Soviet past.

Brussels and Washington have offered encouragement in return, most notably by giving Kyiv market-economy status and clearing other trade barriers blocking its path to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Thorn In Russia's Side

The notion of Kyiv beating it to WTO membership was just one of the many Ukrainian thorns in Moscow's side this year. The two countries also squabbled over the fate of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, currently based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol.

Most famously, they engaged in a bitter standoff over natural-gas prices that saw a New Year's Day shutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine.

That impasse was finally resolved, but only through a shadowy deal that did considerable damage to Yushchenko's domestic standing -- and leaves Ukraine vulnerable to more price hikes in the near future.

McConnell says she is optimistic the election will not return Ukraine to the Russian fold. But does she expect Russia to ratchet up the pressure against Kyiv?

"Yes. They have set upon a course to recapture what they believe they lost," she says. "And they're not subtle about it -- you can look at the statements that their top officials make, and they're cited in various reports. They will continue to try and meddle in Ukrainian politics. And they do. And there are countless examples of it."

East-West Divide

So will a postelection Ukraine be at the center of a battle for influence between Russia and the West? Brussels, which is highly dependent on Russian for its energy needs, may be unwilling to get involved.

As for Moscow and Washington, Zharikhin says the countries should strive to tread lightly in Ukraine, which he says is destabilized by its traditional philosophical east-west schism.

Yushchenko (left) with U.S. President Bush at the White House in April 2005 (AFP)

"In Ukraine there's truly an enormous contradiction between the global views in western and eastern Ukraine," he notes. "And if you adopt the policies of those who are profoundly Western-oriented or -- on the other hand -- profoundly Eastern-oriented, then the splitting up of the country is inevitable. We would simply pull it into pieces. We need to proceed on the notion that that's how Ukraine is."

Yanukovych, in the end, may have the best sense of how to manage the east-west divide. He has crossed the breach in recent days, making a strategic campaign stop in the western city of Chernoitsi, which in 2004 gave Yushchenko 80 percent of its votes. He switched easily between Ukrainian and Russian, and reportedly drew a crowd of some 10,000 people with promises to use his Kremlin connections to keep gas prices down.

Who was behind such a savvy campaign move? Not Yanukovych's Russian election advisers. The Party of Regions leader has replaced them -- with a team assembled by a campaign expert, Paul Manafort, from the U.S. Republican Party.

Expert Commentary

Expert Commentary

Robert Legvold (courtesy photo)

TWO GOOD THINGS ABOUT THE ELECTIONS: ROBERT LEGVOLD is the Marshall D. Shulman professor of political science at New York's Columbia University. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar ahead of Ukraine's parliamentary vote on March 26, Legvold discusses what effect the ballot may have on the country's working relations with Russia and the United States. (To read the complete interview, click here.)

RFE/RL: After the events of the Orange Revolution, many people may find the idea of a Yushchenko-Yanukovych partnership bizarre, if not disappointing. Is there a bright side to these elections?

Legvold: For all of the uncertainties -- and uncertainties are going to continue, even when we know what the election results are -- I think there are two very good things. One that's clearly so -- these will be the cleanest, the fairest, the most modern kind of elections that meet a democratic standard that we've seen in any post-Soviet state since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltic states. And that is not to be minimized, and I think it is a product of November-December 2004.

RFE/RL: And the other good thing?

Legvold: The other thing is that rather than the outside powers -- Russia, the United States, and Europe -- having developed strong agendas that are competitive, and that lead them then to directly involve themselves in the elections in competitive ways against one another, all sides are at a minimum ambivalent. They don't know which candidates they should really favor; they don't know which coalitions they really should favor. And instead, I think they're beginning to think more about what kinds of outcomes they want, and here there's a potential for convergence. Because I think both sides want a stable political environment in Ukraine -- despite what many Ukrainians would say about Russian desires -- and I think they want an environment where Ukraine can indeed begin to make some progress with its economic development, with its foreign policy. And I think that's also a good thing -- that we care more about the results and the process than we do about the horses we want to bet on....(more)

Click on the image for background and archived articles about Ukraine's March 26 elections.

Click on the image to see RFE/RL's coverage of the Ukrainian elections in Ukrainian.