On October 31st, the people of the Ukraine–Europe’s second-largest country–will go to the polls in an election that will have a profound influence on European politics for years to come. In the most closely contested presidential race in Ukrainian history–one marred by numerous irregularities–many expect an unjust result. But if the Ukraine falls by the democratic wayside, will anyone notice?
The contest is between Viktor Yushchenko, an ostensibly pro-Western and democratically-minded candidate, and Viktor Yanukovych, the current prime minister and anointed successor of the infamously corrupt regime of President Leonid Kuchma. According to the most recent polling data, no candidate is likely to receive a simple majority on October 31st–an outcome that will necessitate a runoff election, to be held later in the year. If that runoff is similarly close, the final result will likely be decided in the courts–and quite possibly in the streets.
For Europe and the United States, these developments should be cause for concern. The mere presence of a strong opposition to the remnants of the old Soviet apparatchik regime in the Ukraine is a hopeful sign in a region where democracy appears to be withering. Earlier this month, Belarus–the Ukraine’s neighbor to the north, and Europe’s “last dictatorship”–installed a puppet parliament and cleared the way for a life term for its strongman, Aleksandr Lukashenka. Ukraine faces a similar danger; if recent months are any indication of future policy under a Yanukovych administration, Ukraine’s tenure as a fully sovereign and Western-oriented state could be rapidly drawing to a close.
Recently, Prime Minister Yanukovych has indicated that Ukraine should abandon the path of Euro-Atlantic integration and instead seek closer relations with Russia. Furthermore, this summer, the Ukrainian Energy Ministry, under direct pressure from Moscow, opted to let the country’s strategic Odessa-Brody pipeline be used in “reverse,” basically making it part of Russia’s greater pipeline network. This route, originally intended to serve as a conduit for Caspian oil to European markets, was the cornerstone of Ukraine’s relations with the West. Now, however, it will carry Russian oil to the Black Sea. These radical policy revisions reflect not only the Kremlin’s growing influence over Kiev, but also the resulting rollback in Ukrainian sovereignty.
An opposition victory in the coming presidential election could certainly reverse these trends. But the campaign can already be called un-free and unfair. In recent days, the Kremlin has stepped up its political involvement, trying to ensure there is no policy reversal. With the Russian capital awash in pro-Yanukovych campaign billboards and numerous polling stations set to open on Russian territory, away from the eyes of election observers, it is clear that Moscow is not indifferent to the outcome of the race. Indeed, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, traveled personally to the Ukraine this week, and has appeared on live TV there making the case for support of Yanukovych–a privilege that the opposition has certainly not been afforded.
For Washington, it remains a vital interest that Kiev continue its journey toward Western-style democracy, independent of Moscow. Having convinced the Ukraine’s leadership to give up its nuclear arsenal in 1996, the U.S. must now go further, and provide the Ukrainian people with a reasonable guarantee that foreign influences aiming to erode the country’s sovereignty will not succeed. Ensuring that the true voice of the Ukrainian people is heard in this Sunday’s pivotal election would be a major step in that direction.
–Kyle Parker and Artem Agoulnik are, respectively, vice president for programs and program associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.