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  • High Stakes in Ukraine’s Presidential Elections

    Much is at stake for Ukraine and the U.S. in Ukraine’s presidential elections, which are scheduled for January 17, 2010. Ukraine was a part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union for almost 350 years and the Red Army re-conquered it after an attempted independence in 1918-1919.

    Today, Ukraine is more democratic than its northern neighbor, but the population there is hit harder by the economic crisis. The showdown in the Ukrainian presidential election will define the country’s reorientation towards Moscow; affect the future of Ukraine’s gas pipeline system, which is strategic for Europe’s energy supply; and may seal the fate of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol (Crimea). All this is of great interest to the U.S.

    Until recently, most experts expected Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to win the elections. She still might. But the New York Times discloses that the opinion poll released Wednesday January 13 by Russian state-run polling agency VTsIOM put businessman Sergei Tigipko slightly ahead, with 14.4 percent support against Tymoshenko’s 13.9 percent. Yanukovych was far ahead with 30.5 percent. There are a total of 18 candidates in the race, including a Vasyl Protyvsikh, the person who has changed his last name to mean “Against Everybody.”

    The second round of voting will take place February 7. The economic meltdown and failed expectations of the Orange revolution are stacking the deck against Timoshenko. Pervasive corruption corrodes courts, education, health care, and police, to name just a few sectors. Civil society, including media freedom flourish, but mostly due to nourishment from foreign donors. The majority of the major media outlets are owned by politicians and businessmen and doing their bidding.

    Ukraine still has a lot of work to do before becoming a full working liberal democracy. In foreign policy, major gas wars with Russia resulted in the EU members’ mistrust of Ukraine’s role as a reliable energy transit country.

    Ukraine was not invited to join NATO Membership Action Plan due to Russia’s efforts and Western Europeans’ acquiescence. Brussels is turning a cold shoulder to Ukraine’s EU membership, while the EU Eastern Partnership may be too little, too late to prevent attempts by Russian to reintegrate Ukraine.

    The global financial crisis hit Ukraine particularly hard, as steel prices plummeted and access to credit dried up. IMF froze disbursement of the Stand-by Agreement due to Kyiv’s increasing budget deficit. Ukraine can hardly pay its monthly dues for Russian gas, due to corruption and mismanagement of its energy sector.

    The pre-election program of Tymoshenko says that “once we build Europe in Ukraine, Ukraine will become a member of the European Union. The potential of existing cooperation and mutually beneficial economic cooperation will serve as the foundation for friendly relations with Russia and other CIS countries…Ukraine’s joining any collective security system will be decided only by a referendum.”

    Yanukovych, on the other hand, thinks that preserving Ukraine’s neutral status is the main task of the national foreign policy. He promises to “renew friendships and mutually beneficial relations with the Russian Federation, CIS countries, secure a strategic partnership with USA, EU countries, G-20.” Tigipko also is in favor of better relations with Russia.

    Clearly, whoever wins plans to warm up relationship with Russia and will not hurry Ukraine into NATO. The assertive Russia will try to take over the Ukrainian gas pipeline system, which ships most of Gazprom’s gas to Europe. Russia as well expects to renew the agreement for the leasing its Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, Crimea, which is due to expire in 2017.

    Ukrainians want their relations with Russia to resemble those between Canada and the U.S. Yet, the history militates against it. At least, one hopes that the relationship of Russia and Ukraine will resemble a marriage of convenience, not a “sphere of exclusive interests”, as President Dmitry Medvedev called it.

    Ukraine has already switched to market determined gas prices, which were Moscow’s “strings attached” in their relationship with top decision makers in Ukraine: in the past, businesspeople close to President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovich allegedly pocketed massive “mark-ups” on behalf of their political patrons. The European Union and Ukraine are both not ready for Ukraine’s EU membership, but Ukraine can extract a lot of benefits from European Eastern Partnership in the areas of investment and visa-free travel. The Eastern Partnership could be regarded as a first step towards political integration.

    It is a dangerous time for Ukraine, as political apathy could result in diminished sovereignty and democracy under the pressure from Russia. While Ukraine has all the resources to succeed, the voters’ choice at the ballot box will be crucial.

    “Tough love” between the United States and Ukraine will continue after the presidential elections. While the Ukrainian elite is mostly pro-American, the Obama Administration’s engagement with Russia does appear to come at the expense of its relationship with Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. But if the US wants to see democracy in Russia, it has to support it in Ukraine.

    Co-authored by Kushnir, Khrystyna.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

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