Europe, Headlines | Analysis

UKRAINE: Facing Hard Choices Again

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Jan 15 2010 (IPS) - Neither the voters nor the West hold great illusions about genuine change in crisis-ridden Ukraine through the elections this weekend.

Once again all candidates are accusing each other of planning vote-rigging and of aspiring to monopolise power ahead of the Jan. 17 presidential vote, which will go to a second round if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

The only certainty in the upcoming presidential vote seems to be the political death of the leader of the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’, President Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko is trailing behind in opinion polls, with around 5 percent support, and will most likely be succeeded by his former ally and current Prime Minister Yuliya Timoshenko (15 percent) or his long-time rival and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, the favourite to win the election with an expected 30 percent of the vote.

The President has warned that his defeat in the election would mean “the surrender of Ukraine’s independence” and economic slavery to “a pro-Moscow project”, but voters seem to have more immediate concerns.

Candidates’ promises of integration with the West and democratisation, constantly delivered since the 2004 mass protests that brought Yushchenko to the presidency, contrast with the harsh reality of a post-Soviet republic suffering from grave economic and political ills.

Ever since the 2004 elections, repeated due to allegations of vote-rigging confirmed by international organisations, Ukraine’s political elite has been engaged in harsh infighting that has resulted in the falling out of the two main symbols of the ‘revolution’, Timoshenko and Yushchenko.

Yushchenko has consistently advocated a more free-market approach, while openly criticising Russia and advocating accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), whereas Timoshenko has moved towards a more conciliatory stance towards Moscow while promising to maintain social benefits.

But the man that seems set to take the presidency of the country of 50 million country is Viktor Yanukovich, the defeated candidate in 2004 and the man who claims he can take Ukraine closer to the EU while maintaining good ties with Russia.

But long gone are the times when the EU seemed to encourage Ukraine to seek candidate status: “There is a ‘Ukraine fatigue’ both in European capitals and Washington, but Ukraine is still a too big and important country to fail, so they are not watching indifferently,” Natalia Shapovalova, Ukrainian analyst at the Madrid-based Foundation for Foreign Relations and International Dialogue (FRIDE) tells IPS.

“Whoever wins, he or she will not radically change Ukraine’s policy towards the EU. The most important is who of the two frontrunners will be willing and capable of consolidating the political elite’s support for democratisation and reform. This achievement will be the most important indicator of the future president’s European credentials.”

However, there are few reasons for optimism. “Unfortunately, there are no signs that post-election Ukraine will emerge from its political and economic crisis. Both Yanukovich and Timoshenko will be more interested in cementing their powers than in undertaking democratising political reforms.”

Many suspect the election winner will attempt a snap parliamentary poll to solidify power. Even Timoshenko may not rule this out, as she currently relies on a water-thin majority.

Candidates have launched grave accusations against each other: All candidates have accused Prime Minister Timoshenko of using administrative resources to win votes, and Yushchenko has gone as far as claiming that “Timoshenko will pose threat number one” to a fair election.

Ukrainian journalists have criticised both the President and the Prime Minister for engaging in campaign actions during official working time.

Timoshenko is pointing the finger at Yanukovich, accusing him of planning to falsify votes in eastern Ukraine, the opposition candidate’s main stronghold.

Yanukovich still suffers from a legitimacy deficit in the eyes of part of the electorate and international actors; he has been connected to the 2004 electoral fraud and has not recognised democratic achievements in the Orange Revolution.

“However, this is also an issue for Yushchenko and Timoshenko, neither of whom ever ordered a fully-fledged investigation into the electoral fraud,” Shapovalova tells IPS.

In Russia the election is regarded more optimistically. While only Yanukovich openly uses pro-Russian slogans to lure its electorate, a Timoshenko victory will also please the Kremlin, “especially in comparison with outgoing Victor Yushchenko who is viewed as extremely anti-Russian by Moscow,” Shapovalova says.

Average Ukrainians above all fear another disruption in gas deliveries from Russia, which usually followed payment disputes with Ukraine, and wish to emerge from the economic crisis.

Ukraine bordered state bankruptcy last year, and has been receiving loans from the International Monetary Fund, which continuously criticises Ukraine’s government for its handling of the budget.

Ensuring gas deliveries and favourable economic deals has become a crucial issue for Timoshenko, who reached a new agreement on gas trade with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last November in Yalta, southern Ukraine.

“It’s comfortable for us to work with the Timoshenko government,” Putin said after the meeting, in which agreements were also reached to cooperate in the aviation, construction, machine-building and nuclear industries.

The validity of the agreements, severely criticised by President Yushchenko, will have to be confirmed by the next President.

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