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Ukraine: U.S., Russia Focused On The Race, Not The Horses

Robert Legvold (Courtesy Photo) PRAGUE, March 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- 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 discussed what effect the ballot may have on the country's working relations with Russia and the United States.

RFE/RL: There are 45 blocs vying for the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada. The top three appear to President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych. Do you have any predictions about a possible outcome?

Robert Legvold: If you ask me what was the most likely, I would think it's either Yushchenko and [current Prime Minister Yuriy] Yekhanurov in cooperation with the Party of the Regions -- probably not a Party of Regions prime minister; that is, not Yanukovych as prime minister, but someone else within the Party of Regions. Or, alternatively, a coalition among the three [main blocs].

RFE/RL: Yanukovych, of course, was the Kremlin's pick for president in 2004, and ended up as the big loser of the Orange Revolution. But now his party is leading in the polls. What's to keep him from becoming prime minister?

Legvold: I think that is really unacceptable politically for Yushchenko and his forces. I think that is seen as a straightforward betrayal of the Orange Revolution. But if they can identify somebody else within the Party of Regions -- and people are beginning to talk about this very wealthy oligarch who is funding the Party of Regions, [Rynat] Akhmetov, or maybe someone who may be a little less neuralgic or sensational within this context -- I think it's conceivable that Yushchenko and his people would work with it.

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.

RFE/RL: Some look at the Orange Revolution as a victory for the West and a defeat for Russia. This time around, would you say the stakes are different -- that this won't be a zero-sum game?

Legvold: Absolutely. And I think the Russians in fact see it in those terms. There are indications that they don't feel about Yanukovych the way they did in November-December 2004, as a kind of clone for the Kuchma regime that would be their man. On the contrary, a number of Russian commentators have noted that Yanukovych himself has changed considerably. He's approached this campaign very differently, beginning with the hiring of [U.S.] Republican Party political consultants from the United States to run the campaign. And then secondly, he has made it quite plain that he now supports Ukraine's integration into Europe, the EU. And so the Russians no longer see Yanukovych as clearly their man. On the contrary, they've begun to show a little more interest in someone like [parliament speaker Volodymyr] Lytvyn, whom they see as not only moderate, and basically constructive in his attitude toward Russia, but the kind of fellow who can broker settlements, and can work with all sides.

RFE/RL: Russia and Ukraine have had a rocky year, with disputes about gas prices, the Black Sea Fleet, and most recently over Kyiv's decision to impose new customs rules on Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, which is close to Moscow. Is there reason to expect ties will improve after the elections?

Legvold: My expectation is that the relationship will be an uneasy one, no matter how these elections turn out. But its underpinning will be a recognition by all Ukrainian parties that they have to have a civilized, constructive, potentially productive relationship with Russia. They can't turn their backs on Russia. I don't think things are going to go smoothly. But I don't expect dramatic changes -- not least because Ukraine is not going to suddenly have an enormous, immediate, Western option.

RFE/RL's Election Coverage

RFE/RL's Election Coverage

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.

Click on the image to view a photo gallery of some of the key players in the Ukrainian elections.