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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: December 1, 2004

1 December 2004, Volume 6, Number 44
WILL UKRAINE SPLIT IN WAKE OF DIVISIVE BALLOT? As hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating in Kyiv and many other Ukrainian cities for the seventh consecutive day against what they believe was massive electoral fraud that denied victory in the 21 November presidential runoff to opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's supporters counterattacked on 28 November by threatening to seek autonomy for Ukraine's eastern and southern regions if Yanukovych was not installed as president.

Ukraine's east-west economic, cultural, religious, ethnic, and linguistic division -- which was reflected in voter preferences in both the 31 October and 21 November rounds of the presidential election -- has become a major topic on the country's already-overheated political agenda.

The handling of this issue by both the authorities and the opposition will be of utmost importance to the country's political and social stability.

On 28 November, some 4,000 local councilors from 15 eastern and southern Ukrainian regions gathered in Severodonetsk in Donetsk Oblast to express their support for Yanukovych as the legally elected president and to condemn the pro-Yushchenko opposition for leading Ukraine toward a "territorial split and catastrophe." "If the [current] coup d'etat is being developed further and an illegitimate president comes to power, participants in the congress reserve themselves the right to 'adequate actions and self-defense,'" the congress said in a statement. The participants warned that they would hold a "referendum on a possible change of Ukraine's administrative-territorial system" on 12 December if the situation in Ukraine develops under "the worst-case scenario."

There was an apparent Russian hand behind this congress. The Severodonetsk gathering was attended by one of Russia's most influential politicians: Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov. It is unclear whether Luzhkov's visit to Severodonetsk was coordinated with the Kremlin, but his behavior and statements there were fully consistent with Yanukovych's Russian-inspired electoral platform, which calls on Ukrainians to abandon their aspirations for NATO and EU membership and promises to make Russian the second official language and introduce dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship. Luzhkov brought with him the unambiguous message that Russia continues to stand beside Yanukovych in the current crisis in Ukraine. "On one hand, we see the Sabbath of witches who have been fattened up with oranges and who pretend that they represent the whole of the nation," Luzhkov told the congress in an apparent reference to the pro-Yushchenko "orange revolution" in Ukraine. "On the other, we see the peaceful power of constructive forces that has gathered in this hall."

Also the same day, the Donetsk Oblast Council voted 155-1 to set a regional referendum for 5 December on introducing constitutional amendments that would ostensibly change Ukraine into a federal state and give Donetsk Oblast the status of a republic within that new federation. The Donetsk councilors justified their proposal by citing the postelection standoff, which, they said, "is threatening public security, the constitutional system [as well as] the life and heath of citizens." The Donetsk Oblast Council also affirmed that Yanukovych is the legally elected president and expressed its lack of confidence in the Verkhovna Rada, the national legislature that on 27 November passed a resolution declaring the presidential runoff flawed.

Yanukovych, who attended the congress in Severodonetsk, appeared to distance himself from the radical atmosphere during the gathering. "I appeal to you to avoid any radical measures," he told the gathering. "When the first drop of blood is spilled, we will not be able to stop it. And if this happens, it will be on the conscience of those people who provoked this situation." Yanukovych left the Severodonetsk meeting before the resolution on a possible referendum on regional autonomy was adopted. But his maneuvers did not convincingly erase the impression that he was personally embroiled in a scheme that threatened to undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine as a "unified state," as proclaimed by the country's constitution.

Even if the threat of "separatist" plebiscites in eastern regions is nothing more than the Yanukovych camp's political bluff intended to counterbalance the pro-Yushchenko demonstrations in Kyiv and the west of the country, this move could boomerang on the prime minister and deprive him of any realistic chance of not only becoming president but also of pursuing any other political career in Kyiv. After all, a politician aspiring to become a nationwide leader should presumably avoid association with actions that threaten to splinter the country territorially for the sole purpose of satisfying his or her political ambitions.

The pro-Yushchenko camp counterattacked immediately. The Committee of National Salvation (KNP), a body set up by Yushchenko's political backers and allies to coordinate the ongoing protest actions in Ukraine, delivered an ultimatum to incumbent President Leonid Kuchma on 28 November. The committee demanded that Kuchma take the following steps: sack Prime Minister Yanukovych for his alleged contributions to the falsification of the 21 November presidential ballot and participation in "separatist actions"; submit new candidates for Central Election Commission membership to the Verkhovna Rada; fire the governors of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv oblasts for initiating a "split of Ukraine"; and order the Prosecutor-General's Office to launch an immediate probe against "secessionists" in Ukraine. The Committee of National Salvation threatened to begin blocking Kuchma's travels in Ukraine if he failed to comply with the ultimatum within 24 hours.

Kuchma on 29 November condemned the calls for autonomy from Ukraine's eastern regions. But he also stressed that Ukraine's threatened split was initiated in the western part of the country, where local councilors have pledged allegiance to "people's president" Yushchenko and effectively refused to obey instructions and orders from the central government.

Thus, ironically, the standoff in Ukraine is strengthening the position of President Kuchma as a "father of the nation" and an "arbitrator" who is ostensibly uninvolved on either side of the postelection confrontation. This situation has already revived speculation that Kuchma might be considering another run for the post of president if the Supreme Court strikes down the results of the 2004 presidential election, presumably leading to a repeat ballot. Under such a scenario, Yushchenko and Yanukovych, as the candidates already "used up" in the previous campaign, would have little chance against Kuchma, posing as he would as the guarantor of stability for a society polarized by the Yushchenko-Yanukovych rivalry.

However, regardless of who eventually becomes Ukraine's president, it is already evident that a radical readjustment of the way the country has been governed is in order. The adventurous policy of playing up the country's east against its west needs to be abandoned once and for all if Ukraine is to survive as a single state. And there must be a daring political compromise on the formation of a coalition government that might assure people in both eastern and western Ukraine that their interests are truly represented in Kyiv.

These appear to be the two greatest challenges facing Ukraine's political class once the current turmoil is eased and people begin to think about how to proceed with their everyday lives. (Jan Maksymiuk)

AVOIDING A NEW COLD WAR OVER UKRAINE. 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.

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 which 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.

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," 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 feel itself 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. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"We are many! It's impossible to overpower us! [Nas bahato! Nas ne podolaty!]" -- A slogan of pro-Yushchenko demonstrators in Ukraine.

"It looks to me that we are witnessing a lot of poorly considered steps by Russia, steps also concerning the Ukrainian elections. I do not know why Russia took such decisions. But, for me, these are decisions that are not adding any dynamic to our bilateral relations. Quite often, it is just obvious political mistakes [by Russia]." -- Viktor Yushchenko in an interview with Reuters on 29 November.

"This power -- which has completely lost the elections and lost the contest with its own people -- today is trying to play a very politically dangerous card called 'separatism.' And it is them who, for the first time, put the posters around Kyiv displaying Ukraine divided into three parts, with people of the first, second and third sort. And now they are trying to develop the idea of creating south-east autonomy." -- Viktor Yushchenko on Independence Square in Kyiv on 28 November; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.

"We are sure that any deals about forming a government, any deal on sharing posts in government, any deals on political reform, will not resolve the political crisis which we face today. Because this crisis has come about through falsification of elections. That is why the answer has to come in the shape of a new vote. There is no other way.... My order, my request, my prayer to you is this: nobody must leave this square until victory." -- Viktor Yushchenko on Independence Square in Kyiv on 26 November; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.

"I will hold talks on your behalf with that international, European group which has come to Ukraine. Also today, I am challenging that mischievous cat Leopold, Yushchenko, to come to talks." -- Viktor Yanukovych to a crowd of his backers from Donetsk in Kyiv on 26 November; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.

"You have kindled a flame of hope for all CIS countries that do not have democratic systems yet. Today, hope rests on you, not only in Ukraine but in the whole world.... Today, we are beginning an organized, strong but nonviolent blockade of the government building, the Verkhovna Rada, and we are strengthening our blockade around the presidential administration building." -- Yuliya Tymoshenko to a pro-Yushchenko crowd in Independence Square in Kyiv on 25 November; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.

"All my life I fought for the same ideals. Our situation was difficult, or perhaps more difficult than yours. I am amazed with your emotions and your enthusiasm. It is my firm belief that it will lead to your victory." -- Lech Walesa to a pro-Yushchenko crowd in Independence Square in Kyiv on 25 November; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.

"The leadership of the country, security specialists, warned us that the provocative broadcasts of so-called objective news on Channel 5 prepared the ground for a coup d'etat, irrespective of the outcome of the election.... For considerations of democracy, the state did not take any sanctions against this television channel even though there were all legal grounds for that." -- Leonid Kuchma on 24 November; quoted by ITAR-TASS.

"Today, after the announcement of the so-called decision of the Central Election Commission, all of us, our whole team, believe that this is a coup d'etat, and we do not recognize Yanukovych as our president. We have a president -- Viktor Yushchenko -- and we will fight for him." -- Yuliya Tymoshenko on 24 November; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.

"People will not leave the square [Kyiv's Independence Square] until we receive honest results or have honest elections." -- Viktor Yushchenko on 24 November; quoted by an RFE/RL correspondent.

"The Central Election Commission declares that Viktor Fyodorovych Yanukovych, born in 1950, the prime minister of Ukraine, is elected president of Ukraine." -- Ukraine's Central Election Commission Serhiy Kivalov on 24 November; quoted by Ukrainian media.