MOSCOW — As Ukraine tries to find a workable balance between East and West in the wake of last week's elections, Russia is mulling its options in the tug-of-war for hegemony in the post-Soviet neighborhood.
"The Kremlin is interested in the failure of the Ukrainian model," contends Oleksandr Shushko, research director of the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev. "Russia will do whatever it can to end this example of openness, pluralism, and transparent governance on its frontier."
Over the past three years, the Kremlin has watched a succession of former Soviet states, including Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, stage pro-democracy revolts and leave Moscow's geopolitical orbit. As Russia works to bolster its influence in the region, Ukraine - where last month's vote suggested a deeply divided society - is likely to see a sharpening struggle for influence between Moscow and the West in months to come, Russian experts say.
"Now Moscow's strategy is about consolidating [regional states] around Russia, and integrating them with Russia's economy. We can expect to see fresh efforts to strengthen [pro-Russian politician Viktor] Yanukovich," says Dmitri Suslov, an analyst with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an independent Moscow think tank.
Ukraine's Party of Regions, headed by Mr. Yanukovich, won about 32 percent of the votes in the March 26 parliamentary polls, a showing that has been hailed by Russian media as a triumph for Kremlin policies. But the two pro-Western forces, President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine movement and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc, pulled down a combined vote of around 36 percent. Thorny coalition talks set to resume Tuesday could unite the two erstwhile democratic rivals in a government with Ms. Tymoshenko as prime minister - a position that has greatly expanded powers thanks to recent constitutional reforms.
Such an alliance, however, could prove unstable, Ukrainian experts say. The two are divided by a bitter personality conflict - Mr. Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko from her job as prime minister last September - as well as deep policy differences. Yushchenko is an orthodox liberal reformer, while Tymoshenko is a fiery populist who has pledged to reexamine thousands of 1990s-era privatizations.
Another danger to Ukraine's political stability, says Vira Nanivska, director of the independent Center for Policy Studies in Kiev, is leaving Yanukovich's huge parliamentary bloc in opposition. This, says Ms. Nanivska, could deepen Ukraine's social polarization between the Ukrainian-speaking west and Russified east, and create opportunities for Moscow to interfere.
"Believe it or not, a 'grand coalition' between Yushchenko and Yanukovich might be best," she says. "It's not acceptable to anyone at the moment, but may be in a few months. It would bring Yanukovich forces into the mainstream of Ukrainian politics and accelerate our national integration."
But Russia is concerned about the acceleration of a different sort - Ukraine's movement toward the West, particularly its insistence that it will apply for NATO membership as early as 2008.
"The feeling here is that Russia has given up enough to Western demands," says Sergei Markov, deputy head of the Russian Public Chamber, a Kremlin consultative body. Mr. Markov says that Ukrainian ascension to NATO could be a "red line" for Russia, which would see the Western military alliance push into its historic heartland.
Russian experts say the US decision to lift cold war-era trade restrictions on Ukraine on the eve of last month's elections is an example of American interference.
"As Ukraine embraces democracy and more open trade, our nations' friendship will grow," President Bush said at a March 30 ceremony abolishing the 1975 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked trade to Soviet human rights progress.
"People are asking: Why is the US so interested in Ukraine, a country that's far from America but so close to Russia?" says Markov. "Can Russia remain indifferent to this?"
Over the past six months, post-Soviet governments in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have deployed riot police and made mass arrests to abort street protests over allegedly falsified elections. Experts say such methods are increasingly seen in Moscow as an acceptable alternative to more Ukraine-style pro-democracy shifts. "The US model of democracy is losing credibility in Russia, and public pressure is growing on the governments to support regimes that resist, such as Uzbekistan and Belarus," says Markov. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who claims to have won a third presidential term with an 83 percent vote that many observers say was not free and fair, has so far jailed more than 500 opponents, including 21 foreigners.
In each case, Moscow has strongly backed the crackdown. "It's clear that the opposition provoked the government to take violent action and thereby created a wave of criticism in the West for the government in Minsk," said a Russian Foreign Ministry statement on the Belarussian events.
Last May, Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov put down a putative "Islamic rebellion" with bloody force that human rights groups say killed up to 1,000 people, mostly unarmed civilians. Since then, Mr. Karimov has been rewarded with economic, military, and diplomatic assistance from Russia.
"There were some in Russia's leadership who argued that association with Karimov is the kiss of death," says Suslov. "But other factions, such as the intelligence service, have won the argument. They see it as a classic cold war struggle for influence."