Elections in Ukraine signal important turn on the road to democracy
Yanukovich, who sparked the Orange Revolution by allegedly rigging the 2004 elections, is leading the polls, but the US can still support the nascent democracy there.
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Indeed, the political landscape looks a lot more complicated today than in 2004, when Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymochenko enjoyed overwhelming support from the country’s nationalist regions in the West and Yanukovich’s support base came primarily from the East.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet yesterday’s election was no longer about an East-West, or Russian- versus Ukrainian-speaking, or pro-EU/pro-Russia divide that has defined Ukrainian politics in the past. Mykola Riabchuk, a Ukrainian political analyst, credits the Orange Revolution with introducing a centrist political niche to Ukrainian politics, one that is best represented by the politics of Tymoshenko.
Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have been cunning in their maneuvering of the East-West divide. Both are from the country’s Eastern regions and are supported by powerful oligarchs.
Yanukovich enjoys the backing of Donetsk-native Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s wealthiest man. Tymoshenko, once a natural gas trading tycoon, was known as Ukraine’s “gas princess.” Her economic acumen has been challenged by both her simultaneous courtship of Western investors and the Medvedev/Putin camp in Moscow over gas-prices. And her opaque plans for economic reforms have raised public suspicion and resulted in the suspension of a $2 billion emergency IMF loan. Yanukovich has likewise played his electorate by juggling both Russia and the West, albeit to greater popular success.
Last week he announced that he would not seek NATO membership, a sticky issue that has angered Russia and received little support among Ukrainian voters. The Obama administration’s reassessment of the US missile defense program means that Ukrainian membership in NATO is also less salient to Western political elites.
Whoever takes on the presidency has a daunting task ahead. The country has been hit hard by the global financial crisis. Domestically, the president will have to pursue radical reforms to charm a disgruntled electorate.
On foreign policy, the new president will have to tactfully balance EU/US interests with those of Russia. Russia’s intentions are best summarized in Mr. Putin’s remarks at last year’s NATO summit meeting, “Ukraine is not a country but part Eastern Europe, part Russian lands.”
The explosion of new grass-roots organizations, from media watch groups and e-civic initiatives to rock-the-vote campaigns, promises at least some elements of a democratic society.
No matter who wins the runoff election, US and EU policy should vigorously support indigenous initiatives that represent the most promising agents of democracy in Ukraine. Such support will help Ukraine overcome the increasingly obsolete East-West zero-sum game. Should Ukraine’s new president manage to bridge the East-West divide, reconnect with the Ukrainian electorate, and delicately navigate foreign interests, the international community will witness the development of a new and powerful democratic model.
Laryssa Chomiak is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland.
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