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Respekt in English28. 11. 20049 minut

„Orange revolution” in Ukraine

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.

Jan Maksymiuk
Autor fotografie: Ivo Dokoupil • Autor: Respekt
Autor fotografie: Ivo Dokoupil • Autor: Respekt

For hundreds of thousand of people with orange banners and orange ribbons on lapels, who have been protesting in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities against the officially announced results of a 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 east of the country, which has traditionally deep economic, historical, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic ties with Russia. Therefore, Russia's financial and propagandistic support for Yanukovych in the presidential campaign had 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 that they prefer „pro-Western“ Yushchenko to „pro-Russian“ Yanukovych, thus inviting 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 congratulation came on Monday after the Sunday polls, when Ukrainians were taking to the streets to protest the dishonest ballot and Ukraine's Central Election Commission was still counting the vote. This fact alone is a good indicator of the Kremlin's eagerness to install Yanukovych as president in Kyiv.

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A Western reaction to the Ukrainian presidential runoff came on 25 November. U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell rejected the officially announced results of the Ukrainian election, according to which Yanukovych beat Yushchenko by nearly 3 percent of the vote, and warned Ukrainian authorities of „consequences“ for the U.S.-Ukrainian relations if they do not investigate „the numerous and credible reports of fraud and abuse.“ The Netherlands, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, 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 a dangerously opened faultline between the West and Russia in Ukraine. As matters stand now, on the fifth day of Ukrainian protests, the 21 November presidential election is threatening to become the beginning of a new Cold War in Europe.

Can such a threat 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 of Ukraine's Supreme Court to suspend the certification of the official election results until its examines on 29 November Yushchenko's complains of massive election fraud has opened some way for a political dialogue and compromise in Ukraine. But if the Ukrainian authorities use violent means to instate Yanukovych, Ukraine will most likely turn into a hotbed of a new West-Russia confrontation. And this will be the worst possible scenario for Ukraine. Because Ukraine, which is so bitterly divided along political, linguistic, and cultural lines, cannot choose Russia against the West (or the West against Russia, for that matter). In order to survive as one nation, Ukraine needs to choose Russia and the West simultaneously, however schizophrenically it may appear at first glimpse.

Theoretically, the Supreme Court may reject Yushchenko's complaints or support them. The latter option might entail invalidation of the vote in some election constituencies and a subsequent vote recount. According to the opposition, a vote recount could award the election victory to Yushchenko. Yushchenko alleges that election authorities illegally added more than 3 million votes to Yanukovych, primarily in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblast 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 can be invalidated and a new election called within the next six month or so. The current presidential election law does not provide 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 more and more problematic as many police and security-service officers join the protests and pledge allegiance to „people's president“ Yushchenko. However, a strong-arm scenario for resolving the Ukrainian post-election 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.

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 will 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.“

Second, Putin also seems to have overrated the threat to Russian interests posed by Yushchenko's potential presidency. Which 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 controversy in bilateral relations – the theft of Russian gas pumped to Europe via the Ukrainian pipelines. Yushchenko also opened the Ukrainian market for major Russian companies and made the privatization process in Ukraine a very transparent business. It is also noteworthy that Yushchenko has never voiced any anti-Russian opinions or played up to Ukrainian nationalists against Russia. For Yushchenko, Russia remains to be Ukraine's strategic partner. In other words, Yushchenko is far from being a Ukrainian replica of Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power in Georgia thanks to a „Rose Revolution“ one year ago.

So why has Putin put his stake on Yanukovych after all? The most plausible answer asserts 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 a part of its lost domain under the name of a 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.

It is another matter whether Yanukovych, if declared president, can deliver 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 his inauguration following such a bitter post-election standoff. As for Yanukovych's pledge to take care of Russian businesses in Ukraine after his election, it 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 a 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, Kuchma's son-in-law, for a sum that was more than two times lower than those offered by Russian and Western bidders.

Paradoxically, for the West in general and the EU in particular a victory of Yanukovych would most likely mean much less trouble than that of Yushchenko. An anticipated West-leaning government of Yushchenko would expect some financial support from the West as well as a more or less clear prospect of EU membership. While Brussels might found some funds in its treasury to support the nascent democracy in Ukraine, it would hardly offer Ukraine any membership perspective in the next 20 years, according to an estimate of former EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenther Verheughen. On the other hand, Brussels would feel no moral or other obligation to extend any such support or declarations to Yanukovych, leaving him and his problems to his political patron – Russia.

The author is a political analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague.


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