Ukraine’s Central Election Commission certified Viktor Yanukovych as the winner in last week’s presidential runoff election (7 February), and Parliament has set his inauguration for 25 February. However, his rival – Yulia Tymoshenko, the current Prime Minister – is challenging the election results in court, claiming that fraud on the part of the Yanukovych camp has robbed her of more than a million votes. On Wednesday, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled to put the election results on hold, pending a review of Ms. Tymoshenko’s appeal.
Economic and Political Woes
The Ukrainian economy is in shambles while the two leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution – President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko – have engaged in political bickering. It’s a situation that helped pave the way for Mr. Yanukovych’s comeback in a tight election that centered on domestic concerns. Foreign affairs and issues such as the rivalry between Russia and the West took a back seat, according to Eurasia expert Paul Goble.
“I think the first thing to understand is that he’s not going to succeed at all unless he is able to unite Ukraine,” Goble said. And that means reaching out both to those people who look east to Russia and to those people who look west, he explained.
Regarding Ukraine’s economic problems, the new president will need to look to Russia, Goble said. “I think one of the big questions is whether Moscow will offer concessionary prices and payment programs on oil and gas that might allow him to jumpstart the Ukrainian economy.”
Many analysts say last week’s election demonstrated that Ukraine is still a functioning democracy, although the 2004 Orange Revolution and its leaders were widely discredited. “Compared with other countries in the region, like Belarus to the north or Russia to the east, when there is an election, we don’t necessarily know who is going to win,” Goble observed.
Prime Minister Tymoshenko has challenged the results of the election in court, despite the fact that European election monitors described the voting as honest and fair. But independent Ukrainian journalist Yevhen Hlibovitsky in Kyiv says he thinks Ms. Tymoshenko is unlikely to prevail in her challenge of the elections results and sooner or later she will be forced out of the Prime Minister’s seat. “Something that is quite revealing about her latest actions is that the value of democracy, which was at the core of the Orange Revolution, seems to be diminishing when she loses, so it’s actually a question as to whether she believes in the choice of the voters when she loses,” Hlibovitsky observed. “Many Ukrainians are quite disappointed in the election process, even those who were voting for Yanukovych,” he said. “But at the same time, this is a functioning democracy.”
Russian journalist Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center agrees. “Even though Yulia Tymoshenko tried to challenge the results, she will do so in the court, not in the streets,” Lipman said.
Daunting Job Ahead
Just after the election, Mr. Yanukovych was quoted in the Russian media as saying that his government would need to convince people that it could improve their lives. Now he is likely to have that chance, Lipman said. “The economy is in terrible shape. The poor performance of the government, torn by all sorts of disputes, led to a terrible crisis in Ukraine. And Ukraine is hit by this world crisis worse than most countries,” she observed.
Furthermore, Mr. Yanukovych won the election with only a small margin, about 3.5 percentage points, Lipman noted. “And he already made it clear that he doesn’t want Yulia Tymoshenko to be his prime minister, but it’s not clear what is worse – to have her as a very tough political opponent or to have her as a nominal ally if she stays as prime minister – but an ally who wants to take your job,” Lipman said.
Balancing Act between Russia and Europe
With Mr. Yanukovych likely to withstand Ms. Tymoshenko’s court challenge, Hlibovitsky suggests, he will have to perform a delicate balancing act between Russia and Europe. “But the clear loser in this situation is the United States because it will have decreasing influence in the area.” Ukraine will remain a leader among the post-Soviet states, Hlibovitsky said. “It has the best democracy, if we exclude the Baltics, and for the first time it showed that the scenario is really unpredictable. Ukraine is basically providing an alternative that is quite inspiring for the former Soviet republics,” he added.
Many analysts suggest that a Yanukovych presidency would signal a movement away from the West and towards Moscow. But Lipman says that view is a bit simplistic. “If we take Yushchenko as a point of reference, anybody would look pro-Moscow. Yushchenko was a terrible irritant for Moscow. And his victory back in the days of the Orange Revolution was associated with the utter humiliation of Russia and of Vladimir Putin in particular.”
President Yushchenko’s policies were totally unacceptable to Russia, especially his determination that Ukraine would become a member of NATO, Lipman emphasized. “This being said, I don’t think there is a chance for Moscow to have at the top of the Ukrainian administration somebody who is totally pro-Moscow and not pro-Europe. The very situation of Ukraine – geographic, political, economic, cultural, and historical – puts it in between these two poles, Russia on the one hand and Europe on the other hand.” According to Lipman, there is “no way” for any President of Ukraine to pick one and not the other.