Ukraine's voters do not need Moscow's advice

Publication date
Monday, 15.11.2004

Anders Aslund

Financial Times, November 12, 2004

The first round of Ukraine's presidential election was a close-run thing. According to the official returns - published 10 days after the October 31 poll - Viktor Yushchenko, the democratic opposition candidate, won 39.9 per cent of the vote, narrowly beating Viktor Yanukovich, the current prime minister, who won 39.3 per cent. On November 21, a run-off will determine the final outcome.

In spite of the slender margin, these elections were an outstanding victory for Mr Yushchenko and the democrats. The incumbent regime used all means against him. The national TV channels supported Mr Yanukovich. According to Mr Yushchenko’s campaign, Mr Yanukovich’s election budget amounted to $600m - that is, 1 per cent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product and as much as George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, although America’s GDP is 100 times greater than Ukraine’s. Mr Yushchenko even narrowly escaped an alleged poison attack that has left his face visibly scarred.

All credible international observers agree that fraud was rampant. Undoubtedly, some of the votes cast for Mr Yushchenko were illicitly reallocated to Mr Yanukovich. Yet the Ukrainians understood the stakes and stood up for their democratic choice with a participation of 75 per cent. Most of the votes for minor candidates are likely to go to Mr Yushchenko in the final round.

But why are Ukrainians dissatisfied with their current government? After all, Ukraine has currently one of the world’s most vibrant economies. For the past five years, Ukraine’s GDP has grown by an annual average of 9 per cent and so far this year it has surged by 13.4 per cent. Like Mr Yushchenko, Mr Yanukovich favours further market-orientated reforms.

What has brought so many to the polls is the contrast between the two candidates’ visions for Ukraine’s political system and geopolitical orientation. Mr Yushchenko stands for western-style democracy, against corruption and for a European orientation and membership of Nato; Mr Yanukovich represents the biggest oligarchic group in Donetsk in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and is seen as pro-Russian.

Rarely has any foreign country been as engaged in the elections of another as Russia has been in these. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin even came to Kiev to campaign for Mr Yanukovich on national television five days before the elections. Dozens of Moscow’s loud-mouthed political advisers have descended on Ukraine. On Ukrainian and Russian television, they have declared Mr Yushchenko a dreadful person and Mr Yanukovich wonderful (although he has served two prison sentences for violent crimes).

This heavy-handed interference appears to have backfired. Most Ukrainians have a positive view of Russia, but nobody likes this treatment. Contrary to expectations, Mr Yushchenko carried much of Russian-speaking Ukraine.

Not that a Yanukovich victory would necessarily benefit Russia. It is ironic that, after having defeated his own oligarchs, Mr Putin is supporting a much more oligarchic party in Ukraine. Mr Yanukovich is closely allied with Rinat Akhmetov, owner of System Capital Management, the Donetsk-based conglomerate that controls seven big steelworks. Mr Akhmetov seeks to keep Russian companies out of his Donetsk principality and his friend Mr Yanukovich might well take a similar line in the rest of Ukraine. By contrast, as prime minister in 2000, Mr Yushchenko settled the large arrears to Russia for gas imports and allowed big Russian companies to buy businesses.

The current Russian campaign seems to be motivated largely by a desire to keep Ukraine out of the arms of the west. But it is swimming against the economic tide. Regardless of who wins, Ukraine will sooner rather than later need to enter the World Trade Organisation because of its dependence on exports of sensitive commodities such as steel, chemicals and agricultural products. It must improve its poor relations with the European Union for similar reasons.

It is time for the Kremlin to wake up to the democratic facts. Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine, appeared to acknowledge that a Yanukovich victory was not vital for Russia when he remarked after the first-round election that "anybody who becomes Ukrainian president will be compelled to develop good-neighbourly relations with Russia".

A President Yushchenko could lead Ukraine to true democracy and western integration. Russia would be well advised to follow his lead.



The writer is director of the Russian and Eurasian Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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