On October 31, Ukrainians will go to the polls. But coming during the final run-up to the U.S. elections, the proceedings are unlikely to draw the attention they deserve. Ukrainians will decide the fate of their nation and possibly that of Russo-European relations. The election results could lead to conditions that the United States cannot afford to ignore.
Few Americans are aware that in the early 1930s Soviet dictator Josef Stalin launched a forced famine that took the lives of five million Ukrainians. Though it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukraine still battles to maintain an identity apart from its former colonial oppressor. Not only does Russia continue its cultural, political, and economic influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union, but it also continues to do so in the light of a broader geopolitical strategy that, to some observers, looks like expansion. Although it hasn’t done so explicitly, Russia has been expanding its sphere of control by means of economic, political, and cultural influence, making former Eastern European countries dangerously dependent on it.
The question that needs to be answered is whether this dependence is being imposed, and, of course, who benefits. In relation to the Ukraine, the ties between current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be sealed by the Single Economic Space agreement, ratified this year by the Ukrainian parliament, the Verhovna Rada. The agreement includes a common tax code, customs union, foreign and trade policy, mutual financial regulations, and possibly a common currency down the road.
Putin’s suppression of press freedoms and harassment of political opponents, such as Mikhail Khodorovsky, have been amply covered in the Western press. Kuchma’s record on democracy and reform, less documented in the press, makes it difficult to remain optimistic.
On March 3, Serhiy Sholokh–the director of a radio station called Kontynent, in Kiev–fled the Ukraine, saying that he was threatened by members of the United Social Democratic party in parliament, headed by Victor Medvedchuk, presidential chief of staff. The reason for this threat, according to Sholokh, was his intention to broadcast Radio Liberty, a U.S. station.
Another controversy involving Kuchma stems from the death of a journalist, Gregoriy Gongadze, who frequently exposed corruption in the Ukraine uncovering the illegal activity of leading Ukrainian oligarchs and leaders of security services. He was killed in 2000. The family of the journalist and the opposition forces in the Ukraine alleged that the president and top security services were connected to Gongadze’s disappearance and murder. Subsequently, tapes of an alleged conversation among the president, his chief of staff, and the interior minister were discovered, which led to a parliamentary investigation.
The special parliamentary committee, designed to look into a variety of allegations against the president, concluded that Kuchma ought to be impeached. The list of the president’s misdeeds included the controversy over the sale of Kolchuga early-warning radar systems to Saddam Hussein in 2002, as well as attempts to alter the constitution to allow Kuchma to serve a third term.
The upcoming presidential election will determine if the Ukraine is pointed West or East. West means democratic reform and possible alliance with the European Union. East means a more autocratic state with serious leanings toward union with Russia. A centralized, autocratic Russia could also include Moldova, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, all members of the recently created Single Economic Space.
For the United States, the implications of the Ukraine going East are sizable. Recall the resources it took to dissolve the Soviet Union. Another empire with an autocratic leadership and expansionist tendencies could well require someone to oppose it down the road. That someone will not be France, Germany, Canada, or the United Nations. It would have to be the United States, already stretched to its limits.
Hope remains that current and former leaders of the United States and members of the European Union will exert pressure on Russian leaders, criticizing Putin’s administration and its encouragement of Russia’s leadership role in the region, particularly in the Ukraine. For their part, Ukrainians can choose between Kuchma and his ideological successor, Victor Yanukovych, or support Victor Yushchenko, whose platform includes democratic reforms and continued independence from Russia.
The Middle East is of obvious concern to U.S. policymakers. But history confirms that it is folly to ignore what happens in Europe. George W. Bush and John Kerry must understand that whoever is at the helm in Washington might soon be dealing with a different Europe, and quite possibly a more dangerous world, if Ukrainians don’t support Yushchenko.
–Nadiya Kravets, a Ukrainian national, is with the California-based Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy.