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The East-West stakes over Ukraine

Russian and Western leaders are sharply at odds over the election crisis that's bringing huge crowds to the streets of Kiev.

By Fred Weir -, Howard LaFranchi - / November 26, 2004



MOSCOW AND WASHINGTON

As Ukraine's unresolved electoral contest spills into the streets of Kiev, the geopolitical stakes are being carefully counted in Moscow, Washington, and Brussels.

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Supporters of pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko - who allege the presidency was stolen through electoral fraud by the Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich - and the phalanx of riot police they confront may be, in a sense, proxies for much larger global forces.

On one side, the expanding European Union and the United States regard the eastward march of democracy and free markets to be necessary and unstoppable.

On the other, a reviving Russia, flush with oil profits and seeking to regain hegemony in its historic sphere of influence, believes it must draw the line in Ukraine after a decade that's seen NATO and the EU creep up to A poll conducted last week by the Levada Center, Russia's only independent public opinion agency, found that 68 per cent of Russians do not regard Ukraine as a "foreign country."

Each side may be primed to see the outcome of Ukraine's domestic tug of war as a global win or loss, rather than just a stage in a troubled post-Soviet country's development, experts say.

If Mr. Yushchenko's protests succeed in forcing a revision of election results, Russia is likely to suspect a Western-backed coup, similar to last year's "Rose Revolution" in Georgia, which yanked another post-Soviet country from its traditional Moscow-centered orbit.

"Ukraine is absolutely vital to Russia, and we know that Ukrainian voters are pro-Russian from long experience," says Sergei Markov, head of the Council on International Affairs, a coalition of Russian think tanks that often advises the Kremlin.

"If an anti-Russian politician [Yushchenko] manages to become president through street actions, it will be seen in Moscow as an attempt to steal the election."

But if Mr. Yanukovich - who was officially declared the winner by Ukraine's Central Election Commission Wednesday - refuses to launch an independent inquiry into fraud allegations, or employs force to disperse demonstrators, it will probably be interpreted in the West as a Kremlin-backed suppression of democracy.

The current chill in East-West relations could grow colder, but at the same time, US officials are playing down the prospects of a resurgent "East-West divide" over Ukraine. If anything, they say, it is Russia that is playing that game.

Election observers call for review

The US and EU have focussed on opposition claims of voter fraud and intimidation in Yanukovich's narrow win to demand an investigation.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned Wednesday that "there will be consequences if there is not a serious, objective review" including aid cuts, travel restrictions, and other punitive measures against Ukrainian leaders.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Wednesday that Ukraine's election must be reviewed to conform with democratic standards.

The US is mulling sharp cutbacks in financial assistance to Ukraine as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who allegedly channeled $300 million to Yanukovich's campaign and made two Ukraine visits to stump for him, was quick to pronounce the voting legitimate, while the Russian parliament issued an angry statement Wednesday denouncing the pro-Yushchenko street protests as "illegal actions."

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