Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ukrainian Presidential Election and the Russo-Western Clash

The presidential election in Ukraine on January 17 is a critical test for Euro-Atlantic security. As expected, no candidates won majority vote, and the second round election will be held on February 7 between Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich. It is quite important to understand that people are disillusioned with the Orange Revolution 5 years ago, but no candidates can capture the heart of the whole nation. In addition, as I comment repeatedly on this blog, the clash between Russia and the West is a vital issue. The Orange Revolution is a brilliant victory of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Also, Senator John McCain played a substantial role to help Ukrainian civic quest for democracy. A failure to deal with Ukraine can lower currently dropping approval rate for the Obama administration furthermore.

Before talking about the election, let me present an overview of Ukrainian politics and the Russo-Western power game. Prior to the election, Mark Medish, Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, talks of complicated ethnic and regional backgrounds in Ukrainian politics. Quoting Vladimir Putin’s remark to George W. Bush, Medish points out that Ukraine is a kind of manmade state without national integrity. While some western parts were Hapsburg territories, south eastern part including Crimea was ceded from the Russian Republic of the Soviet Union (“The Difficulty of Being Ukraine”; International Herald Tribune; December 22, 2009). Those ethno-regional gaps are reflected in the map below.

The Economist narrates post-Soviet history of Ukraine to explore poor governance and failures of this country since the Orange Revolution. Ukrainian people were infuriated with ambiguous power transition from Leonid Kuchuma to Viktor Yanukovich, when the revolution broke out. The outrage was not directly against Yanukovich himself. The Yushchenko administration failed to live up to people’s expectation. Unlike Russia and Poland, Ukraine had no liberal economists in charge, which led the Ukrainian economy to be dominated by corruptional oligarchs. Yushchenko did not smash wide spread kleptocracy. His nationalist policy to promote Ukrainian language and revise history annoyed ethnic Russians in the east (“Five years on in Kiev”; Economist; January 21, 2010). The Orange government failed to meet high expectation among Ukrainian citizens.

Ukrainians are not the only ones responsible for the above problems. Thomas Valasek, Director of Foreign Policy and Defence at the Centre for European Reform, comments that Ukrainian politicians are beginning to downplay relations with Brussels because some EU nations are reluctant to accept Ukrainian membership. Valasek argues that the EU should encourage reforms in Ukraine rather than complain poor governance. He says this election is a chance to reconsider EU-Ukrainian relations (“Ukraine and the EU: A vicious circle?”; CER Bulletin; December 2009/January 2010).

Professor David Marples at the University of Alberta in Canada, says Ukrainians are fed up with infighting between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Also, continual corruption despite the Orange Revolution lowers the approval rate for the current administration (“Ukrainians Disillusioned with President Yushchenko”; VOA News; 13 January 2010).

While President Yushchenko drove Ukrainianization of language and culture to remove Russian and old Soviet influences, ethnic Russians resisted his policy. The United States was unenthusiastic to support Yushchenko because of his lack of leadership (“Where did Ukraine's Yushchenko go wrong?”; Reuters; January 11, 2010). President Obama did not show any will to stop Kremlin expansionism in the gas dispute last year, while enjoying the razzle-dazzle with show biz stars.

The relationship with Russia is a key issue in post-election Ukrainian politics. Russian expectation for improved relations is quite high. James Sherr, Head of Russia and Eurasia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, points out that Russians regard Ukraine as a part of their historical identity, as Russian history began from Russ settlement in Kiev. This is no less important than geopolitical rivalry against NATO, he says (“Will Moscow-Kiyv Ties Improve After Ukrainian Election?”; VOA News; 15 January 2010). As if courting Russia, Yanukovich criticized Ukrainian nationalists for blaming Russia regarding the 1932-1933 Holodomor famine (“Ukraine must not blame neighbors for famine – Yanukovych”; RIA Novosti; 16 January 2010).

On the other hand, presidential candidates employ election advisors from the United States to keep ties with this country. Even pro-Russian Yanukovich hires a campaign strategist worked for John McCain (“Ukraine candidates relying on US advisers”; Washington Post; January 15, 2010).

Whichever wins, Ukraine will face compelling domestic and foreign policy problems. Gwynne Dyer, an independent journalist in London, contributes an article to a Ukrainian medium to discuss post-election Ukrainian politics. He points out that neither NATO nor the EU is willing to confront Russia. In addition, Ukrainian steel, chemical, and aviation industries need Russian oil and gas. Dependent on IMF loans, Ukraine cannot make key decisions in economic policy by itself (“Whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko, next president left with little room to maneuver”; Kyiv Post; January 21, 2010).

Certainly, the next administration will soften Russian policy, even if Tymoshenko wins. However, it does not mean that the West abstain from exerting influence on Ukraine. As I mentioned in this post, even pro-Russian Yanukovich hopes to maintain ties with the United States. I agree with Thomas Valasek that the European Union be more helpful for nation building of Ukraine. The Obama administration is too conciliatory to Russia, and this is one of the reasons why Ukrainian people feel disillusioned with the Orange Revolution and the West. Watch what happens on the second round vote on February 7. The result of this election will have significant effects on clashes between free nations and the Russo-Chinese illiberal axis. Things are beyond Euro-Atlantic, and they are global.

References for basic understanding on Ukraine:
“TIMELINE-Ukrainian politics since the 2004 Orange Revolution”; Reuters; January 17, 2010

“Q&A: Ukraine presidential election”; BBC News; 15 January 2010