Why a Ukraine without Viktor Yushchenko might be in a better position to cooperate with the West.
Ukrainians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a president for the first time since the dramatic events of 2004-2005 that came to be known as the Orange Revolution. Early results indicate that Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister, lead the pack of 18 candidates, with Yanukovych in position to garner between 31 and 38 percent to Tymoshenko's 25 to 27 percent. The Central Election Commission is unlikely to issue the final tally for at least a week, but it is clear that neither candidate will end up with over 50 percent of the vote, triggering a runoff on Feb. 7. While this result might seem like a blow to Western interests, a closer look at both the last five years of Ukrainian politics under Yushchenko and the likely policies of his probable successors shows that the situation is far less dire than it has been portrayed.
Ukrainians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a president for the first time since the dramatic events of 2004-2005 that came to be known as the Orange Revolution. Early results indicate that Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister, lead the pack of 18 candidates, with Yanukovych in position to garner between 31 and 38 percent to Tymoshenko’s 25 to 27 percent. The Central Election Commission is unlikely to issue the final tally for at least a week, but it is clear that neither candidate will end up with over 50 percent of the vote, triggering a runoff on Feb. 7. While this result might seem like a blow to Western interests, a closer look at both the last five years of Ukrainian politics under Yushchenko and the likely policies of his probable successors shows that the situation is far less dire than it has been portrayed.
Coverage of the elections in the Western press has been marked by hand-wringing about the implications of a win for either of the two frontrunners, especially the allegedly "pro-Russian" Yanukovych. One headline read, "Orange sunset as Ukraine poll heralds turn to Russia." After all, Yanukovych was the "villain" in the Orange Revolution drama — the Kremlin-endorsed candidate who was vanquished by the purportedly "democratic," pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in a repeat vote after the second round of the presidential elections in 2005 that was marred by fraud. Although Tymoshenko — the Orange Revolution’s other international icon — was Yushchenko’s close ally during the uprising, and became his prime minister after he took office, she is now portrayed as nearly as hostile to NATO and the European Union as Yanukovych. Since the main goal of Yushchenko’s presidency was, according to the prevailing conventional wisdom, anchoring Ukraine in the West, the election, no matter which of the two emerges victorious on Feb. 7, represents the Ukrainian people’s repudiation of this goal — all the more so because Yushchenko appears to have garnered only 6 percent of the vote in his reelection bid.
Fortunately, these assertions are largely bogus. They rely on a superficial account of Yushchenko’s presidency, mischaracterizations of the two presidential frontrunners, and a misunderstanding of the role of the president in Ukraine’s political system. In fact, a Tymoshenko or a Yanukovych victory is unlikely to significantly impact the country’s relations with NATO, the European Union, or the United States, and its ramifications for Russia are mixed. However, a Tymoshenko victory might present the opportunity for an end to the political instability that has paralyzed Ukrainian policy-making for the past several years, and make it more likely that much-needed reforms will be implemented.
Yushchenko does appear to be genuinely committed to integrating his country into the Euro-Atlantic community. During his tenure several important steps were taken toward that end: Ukraine became a member of the World Trade Organization; it received a promise that it would eventually become a NATO member-state; it joined the EU Eastern Partnership – a forum for the alliance’s former Soviet neighbors; and negotiations began on a free trade agreement with Brussels.
But these achievements were relatively modest, and were outweighed by the damage to the country’s international reputation caused by the unfulfilled promises and political infighting that characterized his tenure. With commitments consistently broken (such the conditions attached to a $16.4 billion International Monetary Fund loan, largely due to Yushchenko’s failure to veto a massive budget-busting hike in social benefits) and a president who proved incapable of demonstrating competent leadership, Ukraine came to be seen as a basket case, and genuine progress toward integration with the West ground to a halt.
Yushchenko also discredited the Westernization project within Ukraine. He pushed too hard on divisive issues like NATO membership and exacerbated Ukraine’s regional fissures by forcing the country’s largely Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions to use the Ukrainian language and taking controversial stances on historical issues (earlier this month, for example, he issued a decree creating a holiday and ordering cultural events in honor of Ukrainian soldiers who fought with Austro-Hungarian forces against Russia in World War I). By the end of his tenure, more Ukrainians supported a union with Belarus and Russia than joining the EU, and less than 20 percent favored NATO accession.
So despite his positive rhetoric, Yushchenko leaves office with relations with the West in a sad state. And because of both the Kremlin’s visceral distaste for him and his own gratuitously provocative moves (such as not holding out on accepting the newly appointed Russian ambassador’s credentials last year), he will leave his successor a relationship with Russia at its lowest point in the post-Soviet period. As counterintuitive as it may seem, a fractious relationship between Kyiv and Moscow makes Ukraine’s Westward progression more difficult.
While neither Yanukovych nor Tymoshenko are likely to use the same pro-Western rhetoric as Yushchenko, their positions more accurately reflect Ukrainian public opinion. When asked what issues a new president should focus on after taking office, only 3 percent of the population put relations with the EU at the top of the list, and just 1 percent prioritized relations with NATO. Compare that to the 71 percent who thought the new president should focus on creating jobs.
But beyond the public speeches, the banal but crucial ongoing behind-the-scenes cooperation with the West is unlikely to change much. Negotiations on the trade agreement with the European Union will continue and Ukraine will not suddenly pull out of the Eastern Partnership. Neither candidate will cut off cooperation with NATO, which encompasses a wide range of joint activities with the Alliance, especially in the area of defense modernization.
Yanukovych and Tymoshenko will prioritize repairing Ukraine’s relationship with Moscow, but largely because its current state of disrepair is untenable, not in order to cede sovereignty to the Kremlin. Yanukovych is no pro-Russian stooge, and during his brief tenure as prime minister in 2006 and 2007 he did little to act on Moscow’s policy wish list. Indeed, the economic interest groups that back him would never allow him to sour relations with the West, where they send the majority of their exports, or open Ukraine’s markets to Russian oligarchs.
So despite what’s been claimed, this election will not mark a major geopolitical departure for Ukraine. There may no longer be an idealistic pro-Western dreamer at the helm in Kyiv, but a foreign policy pragmatist who moderates divisive rhetoric while continuing practical cooperation might well prove preferable.
That does not, however, make the election insignificant. The outcome will determine the balance of power in Ukraine’s complicated domestic politics, where, because of constitutional reforms implemented as part of the compromise that brought Yushchenko to power, Ukraine has a (highly convoluted) parliamentary-presidential political system, which severely limits the powers of the presidency and effectively means that a president who does not control parliament cannot govern.
If Tymoshenko wins, the parliamentary opposition is likely to splinter, with a number of MPs coming over to her side of the aisle, providing her with a solid majority. She could then install one of her loyalists as prime minister, which would give her control over all three centers of power in Ukraine and put an end to the endless confrontation among these institutions that has crippled governance. For the first time since the Orange Revolution, a Ukrainian president would be able to deliver on promises and perhaps even push ahead with unpopular, but desperately needed, reforms.
For the West, this might be a major boon, since one of the top priorities in both the Europe and the United States’ relations with Ukraine is energy reform. The country’s highly corrupt, backwards energy sector represents a major threat to Europe’s energy security, as the 2009 gas shut-off that left Eastern Europe shivering demonstrated. When Western leaders go to Kyiv, they inevitably demand action on this front, but their Ukrainian counterparts invariably fail to deliver. If elected, Tymoshenko could use her political authority to implement painful reforms such as cutting the massive gas subsidies for domestic consumers and tackling the problems in the opaque, graft-ridden energy monopoly, Naftohaz.
That said, an empowered Tymoshenko is not good news for her political enemies. She has never been known for a democratic governing style, and there is no guarantee that she will not abuse her authority to, for example, lock up some of her opponents.
A Yanukovych win would be quite different. He is unlikely to cobble together a solid majority in parliament, and might face the prospect of Tymoshenko remaining prime minister. Even if he dismisses parliament and calls early elections he is unlikely to gain control of the legislature. In short, the fractiousness that has been the hallmark of Ukrainian politics for the past five years would continue unabated.
Perhaps the best the West can hope for from these elections is a president who can govern. What is at stake is not geopolitics, in the sense of a tug of war with Russia over Ukraine, but something much more banal — a functioning state.
Samuel Charap is a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation.
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