Ukraine election result -- a balancing act

The likely presidential winner, Viktor Yanukovich, was once the villain of the 'Orange Revolution.' He needs to bridge deep divisions at home and abroad -- and revive a badly beaten economy.

In Ukraine, presidential elections look to have brought the country full circle. Voters have apparently returned to support Viktor Yanukovich, the villain in the country’s democratic "Orange Revolution" of 2004.

It was after fraudulent elections just over five years ago, when Mr. Yanukovich was declared the presidential winner, that Ukrainians persistently protested the phony results and eventually saw them thrown out. Their peaceful demonstrations inspired other “color” revolutions and rattled Ukraine’s eastern neighbor, Russia.

Ukraine must now get its geometry right and move forward instead of chasing its tail. Yet since the revolution, its democratic leaders have been running in circles, fighting each other while doing little to advance needed political and economic reforms. Last year, Ukraine’s economy contracted by a breathtaking 15 percent.

On Sunday, voters appeared to stamp the revolution’s outcome a failure – rejecting, even if by a close margin, one of its founders, Yulia Tymoshenko with her fashion trademark, a golden braid. (International observers deemed this election to be an “impressive” display of democracy, though Ms. Tymoshenko claims fraud.)

Whether Yanukovich can get Ukraine going again is far from certain, but he must, because this country – the size of France – is simply too important to fail.

Sandwiched between Russia and Western Europe, Ukraine has the potential to act as a stabilizing economic and political bridge between Moscow and the West – somewhat like Turkey’s potential to join the Muslim and Christian worlds.

In recent years, Europe suffered when Moscow turned off the natural gas that runs through Ukraine’s network of pipelines. In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, capitals from London to Warsaw wondered whether Moscow might also grab back Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet – and many ethnic Russians.

Yet it will be difficult for Ukraine’s expected leader to build a geopolitical bridge while his country of 46 million people remains deeply split itself. Its eastern region, home to Yanukovich, speaks mostly Russian and is culturally and historically attached to Russia, while the western part of the country speaks Ukrainian and leans toward Europe. The East is industrial; the West, agricultural.

Yanukovich, a former prime minister of Ukraine, has gone for a makeover in this campaign. A politician with a criminal record for theft and assault in the Soviet era, he hired US political consultants and put forth centrist economic policies. He wants to move Ukraine’s foreign policy closer to Russia's, and opposes joining NATO (as do most Ukrainians). At the same time, he favors membership in the European Union.

In 2005, Ukraine and the EU signed an “action plan,” yet progress toward a possible association agreement is slow – no small thanks to the political circus of the last few years, a condition that will likely continue.

For Yanukovich, the job ahead will be a balancing act, at home and abroad. If he can revive the economy, he has at least a fighting chance.  

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