Be charitable to the losing side

Publication date
Wednesday, 01.12.2004

Leon Aron

Series, 2004 11-30

If, as expected, the pro-Western candidate ultimately wins, he will need to pay careful attention to the Russian-leaning millions.

With the Supreme Court of Ukraine attempting to settle the country's disputed presidential election and a majority of parliament having voted to invalidate the results, the tide is turning in favor of the contender, Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western candidate who favors democracy and liberal capitalism over corruption and dependence on Russia.

This is good news for the United States, but as the Bush administration urges a peaceful resolution - most likely with a new election, which Yushchenko is expected to win - it needs to counsel the winner to act magnanimously and cautiously toward his opponents. Without this, the United States (and the West) could snatch the defeat of a deep political crisis, perhaps even a civil conflict and the country's break up, fr om the jaws of a democratic triumph.

The post-election stalemate is complex and not just the result of fraud and a Russian scheme to secure the victory of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. Rather, it dramatically underscores a political and social reality that many in post-Soviet Ukraine and in the West have closed their eyes to for the past 13 years: Ukraine is a deeply divided country, linguistically, culturally, religiously and ethnically.

The rift is between the Russified, Russian-speaking and Russia-leaning Orthodox East and South, on the one hand, and more homogeneously Ukrainian, Uniate Catholic, nationalist and Western-oriented North and West, which belonged to Poland until 1939, when it was occupied by the Soviet Union.

East Central Ukraine was one of very few parts of the multi-ethnic Russian empire that joined it voluntarily three-and-a-half centuries ago, when in 1654 a national assembly decided to accept the "sovereignty of the Orthodox tsar in the East." Much of what today is Southern Ukraine, especially the city of Odessa, historically has been Russian, as was the Crimea, which the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev "gave" to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the joining of Ukraine to Russia.

As anyone traveling in Ukraine during the Soviet days, as well as today, can testify, the two halves have never been genuinely integrated; at times they have seemed like two separate nations. This is one of those times, with the majority in the East and South voting for Yanukovich (he got between 70 and 96 percent of the vote in the eight largest regions of the area), and the North and West overwhelmingly supporting Yushchenko, who polled between 75 and 95 percent of the vote there and in Kiev.

There are few things in political science more certain than the probability of crisis when ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences inform, or are superimposed on, political preferences.

Of course, not all ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers support Yanukovich. Most of the intelligentsia, among whom Russian speakers are perhaps a majority, is pro-democracy and seems to be firmly in Yushchenko's camp. The capital, Kiev, wh ere ethnic Russians or Russian speakers are a heavy presence, is overwhelmingly for the opposition candidate. Yet these variations do not change the basic equation.

By the same token, those among Yushchenko's more radical supporters in Ukraine and the West who advocate the abrupt removal of Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence must face the facts. In addition to the cultural, linguistic and ethnic bonds (there are 8.3 million ethnic Russians among Ukraine's 48 million citizens), economic imperatives are straightforward.

In what amounts to perhaps the world's largest, albeit unheralded, bilateral assistance program, Russia supplies Ukraine with oil and gas at prices that are way below the world market's. The precise size of Ukraine's overall debt for oil and gas is anyone's guess, but conservatively it cannot be less than $2 billion to $3 billion. (By contrast, the U.S. annual assistance to Ukraine is $150 million.)

Millions of Ukrainians work in Russia (often illegally) and their remittances provide a significant although largely uncounted portion of the Ukrainian gross domestic product.

To his credit, as an underdog Yushchenko has been very considerate of the feelings and preferences of his Russian-speaking compatriots. As a favorite going into the new election and, especially, as the victor, he must redouble the effort of projecting moderation, restraining his more radical supporters and proffering the olive branch to those who voted for his opponent. He might, for example, try to assuage fears of "de-Russification" by saying that regions themselves ought to decide if Russian should be their second official language.

In the end, only courage, imagination and hard work will stave an upheaval.



Dr. Leon Aron, 
A resident scholar, specializing in Russia, at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

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