Ukraine heads back into the arms of Mother Russia
Despite a dispute over fraud allegations in the wake of Sunday's presidential vote in Ukraine, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich is set to become the next president in what will be a dramatic shift back to pro-Kremlin policies.
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"Geopolitical reality has shifted very markedly in favor of Russia, and Yanukovich's comeback reflects that," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "There's going to be a very different tone in Kiev, and Russia will be much happier with us."Skip to next paragraph
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Tilting toward Moscow
"We know that Tymoshenko reached a wide-ranging deal with (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin when they held negotiations over Ukraine's gas debts," says Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the independent Center for European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev. "She is very pragmatic, and she isn't one who would pursue unpopular principles -- such as joining NATO -- the way Yushchenko did."
Though Ukraine appeared to lurch Westward following the Orange Revolution, public support for Yushchenko's policies remained tenuous. For example, opinion polls have consistently showed that around two-thirds of Ukrainians oppose joining NATO. Though he was defeated in the presidential contest in 2004, Yanukovich's pro-Russian Party of Regions continued to score high votes in subsequent parliamentary elections, particularly in the heavily russified eastern Ukraine.
Russia's more subtle approach
The Kremlin, which had overtly backed its favored son, Yanukovich, in the allegedly rigged 2004 elections, revamped its approach to influencing Ukraine. Outright political interference was replaced by "commercial" pressure, which meant no more cheap Russian gas to power Ukraine's energy-hungry steel and chemical industries, and tougher controls on millions of Ukrainian "guest workers" seeking employment in Russia.
In a series of "gas wars" over issues of price and transit conditions for Russian gas to European customers through Ukraine's pipeline system, Moscow consistently outmaneuvered Kiev diplomatically, making Ukraine look more like an unreliable partner than a victim of Russian strong-arming.
No puppet of Moscow
Even though the Kremlin is pleased with Yanukovich's victory, it doesn't expect him to roll over on bilateral disputes such as gas supply, trade, or Russia's bid to extend its naval lease in Crimea.
"We have no illusions that any Ukrainian leader will be pro-Russian on principle," says Vladimir Kornilov, director of the Kiev branch of the Russian government-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States. "It's clear that we simply weren't able to work with Yushchenko. But if Yanukovich becomes president, there will probably be all sorts of troubles with him too."