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What Yanukovych's Victory Means For Georgia

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (right) greets his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Saakashvili in Kyiv last November. Will Viktor Yanukovuych greet him so warmly?
Viktor Yanukovych's victory in Ukraine's presidential election is an unpleasant result for Georgia.

The country's bond with Ukraine, growing out of the "colored revolutions" of 2003-04 and the personal friendship between President Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili had not merely symbolic, but real significance. During the halcyon days after the revolutions, people here joked that Saakashvili's presidential plane was set to autopilot and always headed of its own accord to Kyiv.

But that joke was forgotten long ago. After the Orange coalition collapsed and its two leaders came into open conflict, it was unclear whom one would fly to visit in Kyiv and what could be accomplished there. But a victory for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko would have allowed us to say that, despite difficulties and certain failures experienced by both countries, as a whole progress continues in the chosen direction, and Georgia and Ukraine remain strategic allies. Now it is clear that this is not the case.

In recent years, Ukraine served as Georgia's bridge to the West -- not the only one, but an important one. Ukraine has considerably more geopolitical and economic weight than Georgia and is geographically much closer to the heart of Europe. It is much harder for European countries to ignore Ukraine's ambitions of membership in NATO and the European Union than it is to brush Georgia off.

After the colored revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, despite all their differences, the two countries came to be viewed together as two countries that had made a distinct choice in favor of Western values. In both cases, this choice had to be viewed in the context of the open enmity of Russia, which actively tried to influence both countries and force them to change their political course. Now it is clear that this connection has been broken.

The loss is obvious. But exactly how significant, how dramatic, and how irrevocable it is remains to be seen. The scandalous trip of the extraordinarily large number of Georgian election monitors who were sent to Yanukovych's heartland during the first round of voting in order to prevent ballot-box stuffing in his favor turned out to be a last -- and very awkward -- manifestation of revolutionary solidarity with the Orange forces.

Pro-Russian, Or Pro-European?

But even before the second round of voting the lesson had been learned that we need to accept our losses and build relations with a Ukraine headed by President Viktor Yanukovych. Georgia is not in a position to just ignore Ukraine simply because we don't like its president.

Better relations with the EU will likely be a priority for President Yanukovych.
It would appear that Yanukovych's political orientation gives Georgia little cause for optimism. But maybe things aren't so simple. As a candidate, Yanukovych relied on the pro-Russian part of the electorate, but as president he cannot continue in the same spirit. Any president of Ukraine must strike some balance between the different parts of the country and the society. Tymoshenko would have faced the same task.

In addition, the Ukrainian president does not enjoy the kind of concentrated power that his colleagues in Russia and Georgia enjoy. Under Yushchenko, the Ukrainian model of divided executive power brought the state to the verge of paralysis more than once. Yanukovych will have to maneuver, make compromises, and cut deals. If he doesn't, he won't make it until the end of his term.

And, finally, Russia's rulers have a remarkable ability to alienate their allies -- take, for instance, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka or former Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin. Any president of Ukraine is going to develop ambitions to act like the head of not merely a formally sovereign state, but of a very influential country. And that almost inevitably means conflicts with Russia.

Unfortunately for Georgia, Yanukovych is unlikely to pursue closer relations with NATO, but conflicts with Moscow may well result from that fact that better ties with the European Union will likely be a priority for him.

The election in Ukraine has revealed a paradox: a pro-Russian candidate won, but he won as a result of genuine, competitive, democratic elections -- something that draws Ukraine toward Europe and away from Russia. In addition, the business community will push Kyiv toward a European direction (despite its not-very-European character). In this light, Ukraine has more common interests with Georgia than with Russia.

The feeling of solidarity between Georgia and Ukraine did not begin with the colored revolutions and the personal ties between Yushchenko and Saakashvili. And it will not disappear under President Yanukovych. The postrevolutionary period was a peak in relations between the two countries and that peak is undoubtedly behind us.

Georgia will have to assess its geopolitical losses, but it must also not fail to consider the opportunities for continuing to develop bilateral cooperation, even if it must be pursued in less glamorous forums.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia Chavchavadze State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL