Politics & Policy

“People Power” 2004?

Ukraine's post-election future.

Who is the next president of Ukraine? With over 99 percent of the vote counted, the country’s Central Election Commission announced that current prime minister Viktor Yanukovych had received 49.42 percent to 46.7 percent for his rival, former prime minister Viktor Yushchenko, in an election that the head of the joint OSCE-Council of Europe-European Parliament-NATO observer mission, Bruce George, characterized as failing to meet “a considerable number of international standards for democratic elections.”

Yushchenko supporters, buttressed by Western-funded exit poll results that showed him winning the election (one had him ahead of Yanukovych 49.4 to 45.9 percent, another leading by up to 11 points, for a 54 to 43 percent result), have vowed a campaign of public protests and civil disobedience to force a recount that will certify Yushchenko’s victory. On Monday up to 100,000 demonstrated in the capital Kyiv and many pledged to form a “tent city” to keep up the pressure. The municipal governments in Kyiv as well as in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk, two of western Ukraine’s principal metropolises, have declared they recognize Yushchenko as the rightful victor. The Yushchenko campaign has documented over 2,000 election violations, and has called into question both turnout figures in parts of eastern Ukraine (supposedly over 96 percent of voters turned out in Donetsk, the region where Yanukovych served as governor) and the count (the commission announced that Yanukovych received 96 percent of the vote).

The Yanukovych camp has countered with some 750 charges of fraud and intimidation, mainly in western Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Russian media has cited exit polls conducted by SOCIS/Social Monitoring pollsters giving Yanukovych 53 percent of the vote to Yushchenko’s 44 percent.

With memories fresh of “people power” successfully thwarting the efforts of ruling regimes to manipulate elections in Georgia in 2003 and Serbia in 2000, many believe that popular protests against the official results will ignite a “Chestnut Revolution” in Ukraine that will bring Yushchenko to power. And the enthusiasm of the crowds cannot be discounted. But a Serbia- or Georgia style solution to Ukraine’s disputed elections requires not only energetic street protests, but key elements of the business community to conclude that a Yanukovych presidency would irreparably damage its interests and for large numbers of the military and security services to refuse to put down civil disobedience. And in a country the size and complexity of Ukraine, whose political divisions tend to mirror America’s “red/blue state” divides more than the relative homogeneity of small countries like Serbia or Georgia, a successful “Chestnut Revolution” requires voters not only in the west but in many parts of central and eastern Ukraine to believe that they have been robbed of their free choice. Those who cite Serbia-2000 should remember that vocal protests against Slobodan Milosevic in 1996 and 1992 failed to unseat the Serbian leader; what may emerge now in Ukraine is an uneasy truce between opposition-dominated local governments in the west and a central government headed by Yanukovych.

And so Kyiv may end up becoming like Mexico City in 1988. In that year, reform candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas–like Yushchenko a former insider who had broken with the regime–was widely believed to be leading in the presidential polls when a mysterious computer malfunction prevented the tabulation of ballots. One week later, the candidate of the ruling PRI, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was certified as the winner with 50.75 percent of the vote. Despite protests and demonstrations, Salinas was inaugurated under heavy guard, even though the residents of the capital had voted by a 2-to-1 margin for Cárdenas.

Even if the Ukrainian government accedes to U.S. demands and investigates election fraud or conducts a recount, the results are unlikely to change. Bronwen Maddox, the foreign editor of the Times of London, observed earlier today: “As things stand, the outside world has little choice but to take the winner to be Viktor Yanukovych, the Prime Minister, although it is entirely understandable that Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, should contest the apparent result.” But what should the Bush Administration do if Yanukovych ascends to the presidency?

U.S. relations with Mexico during the late 1980s and 1990s may provide a template for American policy toward Ukraine. While not recognizing the 1988 and 1994 presidential elections as democratically legitimate, the United States encouraged closer Mexican economic integration with the United States, culminating in the North America Free Trade Area. America also laid out a number of benchmarks for political and economic reform. And progress was made. The 1994 elections, while flawed, represented a major step forward–and laid the basis for a truly free and fair poll in 2000, when Vicente Fox became the first opposition-party candidate in modern Mexican history to be elected to the presidency.

“For many voters, Ukraine’s presidential election was about bread-and-butter issues such as living standards and wages,” Simon Tisdall wrote in Tuesday’s Guardian. And it is clear that many voters who supported Yanukovych–no less than 43 percent even by the most pro-Yushchenko polls–attribute strong economic growth (13 percent) and increasing social spending (including payment of pensions and state salaries) to his policies. And for many in central and eastern Ukraine, increased links with Russia means greater prosperity–trade turnover in goods and services between the two countries is expected to reach $20 billion in 2004 (and Ukraine’s overall gross domestic product is $41 billion).

Many Western observers lament Ukraine’s continuing economic and political ties to Russia, but U.S. and European governments have done little to provide more concrete economic incentives for change. Economist Anders Aslund, writing in the fall 2003 issue of The National Interest, observed: “Only about 20 percent of Ukraine’s exports are directed to the EU, while it ought to be about two-thirds, given the proximity and size of the EU market. … Three quarters of Ukraine’s exports are so-called sensitive products, notably steel, textiles, food and chemicals–that are very difficult to export to the EU because of protectionist tariffs and regulations.” Russia remains Ukraine’s single trading partner. And millions of Ukrainians will continue to live and work in Russia (and one exit poll suggests that 75 percent of Ukrainian expatriates in Russia voted for Yanukovych)–even though, in the wake of the Van Gogh murder in the Netherlands, one would think that Europeans might see the advantages of having guest workers from former Soviet republics.

So, no matter who occupies the presidency, Ukraine’s economic integration with the West must be pursued. But there must be a sense of realism. As Maddox rightly points out, “As for Ukraine itself, it is also premature to talk of EU membership (as Poland does, for example), even if Yushchenko had won.” And it would help for the European Union to clarify its position as to whether Ukraine would ever be considered as a member; so far, only Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has unambiguously supported Ukraine’s eventual membership.

Finally, a note on the U.S. interest in the Ukrainian-Russian relationship. Maddox is correct to remind us that “it would be foolish to deny the depth of Ukraine’s links with Russia.” Yet there is no reason, even if Ukraine continues to have a democracy deficit, why the United States cannot encourage a multi-vector policy on the part of Kyiv, in much the same way as Kazakhstan, while not a paradigm of democratic virtue itself, balances its relationship with Russia by forging stronger links with the United States, Europe and China. There is no reason to write Ukraine off–”It is too big, too vibrant and potentially too much of a powerhouse, industrially and agriculturally, to be subsumed by Moscow.” Nor is it in anyone’s interests to turn Ukraine into a geo-political contest. Aslund advises, “Ukraine must be seen not as a zero-sum battlefield between Washington and Moscow but as a way of developing a real U.S. partnership with both Russia and Ukraine.” In the immediate aftermath of this election, that prospect seems quite distant–but it is useful to keep in mind.

Ukraine’s election may be a disappointment, but it highlights the work that still needs to be done. Now, more than ever, we need a comprehensive Ukraine policy that advances both our vital interests–and our values.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is executive editor of The National Interest.


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