Ukrainians went to the polls Sunday to vote for a new president for the first time since the Orange Revolution of 2004. As expected, none of the eighteen candidates on the ballot won an outright majority in the first round, and a runoff will be held on February 7 between the top two finishers, opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Current President Viktor Yushchenko was among those finishing far behind the front runners; disillusionment with his management of the economy and foreign policy long ago scuttled a reelection bid. Businessman Serhiy Tyhypko came in third with 13 percent, and has the opportunity to play the role of second-round kingmaker. Though Yanukovych received more votes in the first round, it appears most of the defeated candidates will throw their support behind Tymoshenko, who has cast herself as the standard-bearer for liberalization and Westernization (even while working pragmatically with the Kremlin) in the second round.
The elections have in many ways played out as a referendum on the Orange Revolution that ended with the election of the pro-Western Yushchenko. For most Ukrainians, the promises of a better life that sparked the revolution have not been fulfilled, and a backlash has long been building. Infighting within the victorious Orange coalition, especially between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko has paralyzed decision-making as Ukraine has struggled to cope with a disastrous economic downturn. The main beneficiary has been Yanukovych, the man whose fraudulent victory in the 2004 runoff precipitated the Orange Revolution.
The elections have in many ways played out as a referendum on the Orange Revolution that ended with the election of the pro-Western Yushchenko. For most Ukrainians, the promises of a better life that sparked the revolution have not been fulfilled, and a backlash has long been building.
While the protagonists in the current election are almost the same as in 2004, the central issue of that campaign--how to balance Ukraine's relationship with Russia and the West--has receded somewhat. Yanukovych, who in 2004 benefited from direct intervention by the Kremlin on his behalf and whose foes denounced him as a Russian stooge, has been careful this time to speak of Ukraine's need to maintain a balance in its relations with neighbors to the east and west. Shedding her earlier image of nationalist firebrand, Tymoshenko has likewise been muted in her statements about foreign policy. Yushchenko continued to denounce Russia's imperial ambitions, but his low polling numbers indicate that such claims are no longer so appealing. It helps that the Kremlin also appears to have learned its lesson from the fiasco in 2004. With the exception of an open letter and video posted on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's blog in August 2009 excoriating Yushchenko, the Kremlin has not taken sides, hinting that it is prepared to work with either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko. Moscow has also avoided stoking conflict over energy, even though Ukraine continues to struggle to pay its gas bills on time (an IMF loan to help Ukraine make its payments was for a time imperiled by the deadlock between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko).
The question of Ukrainian membership in NATO has been less central this time as well; eventual NATO membership was a central plank of Yushchenko's platform in 2004, and was roundly opposed by Yanukovych. Yanukovych continues to say that Ukraine should not join NATO, while Tymoshenko has offered guarded support for membership--but only if a majority of voters approve it in a referendum (polls show that no more than a quarter of the population favors NATO membership).
Both candidates support closer relations with the European Union, including a free-trade agreement and visa-free travel, even as they call for undoing the damage they blame Yushchenko for inflicting on relations with Moscow. Both have also said that Ukraine should ultimately aspire to full membership in the EU. That prospect now appears distant, in part due to enlargement fatigue inside the EU, but more importantly because of Ukraine's own dysfunctional politics.
This dysfunction--which includes constant squabbles between onetime allies Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, large-scale corruption, disputes over energy trading with its neighbors, and an economy that shrank by 15 percent in the context of the global economic crisis--has soured many Ukrainians on the Orange Revolution and contributed to Yanukovych's resurrection. Support for the Orange Revolution fizzled in large part because the change of government did little to improve living standards for most Ukrainians, while the climate of openness that the revolution fostered has helped publicize the competing ambitions of various oligarchic clans that have continued to prosper under the new regime. These oligarchic groups remain deeply enmeshed in the political system and are a major source of electoral funds on all sides. Heavy industrial barons from eastern Ukraine form the nucleus of Yanukovych's support, while Tymoshenko, a former gas industry executive, has ties to energy traders and a diverse smattering of oligarchs from across the country.
Corruption, polarized politics, and a government teetering on the edge of bankruptcy have given even Ukraine's staunchest backers in Europe pause. In December, the IMF had to suspend until after the election payment of a $16.8 billion loan to help Kiev plug a hole in the budget when Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, and Yanukovych began competing to offer subsidies, wage hikes, and other handouts from the state treasury to voters even as Ukraine again struggled to pay for the gas it imports from Russia. Kiev's finances are consequently a disaster, and inflation is rising rapidly in the face of the government's largesse.
While offering few concrete proposals for fixing Ukraine's economy, the domestic policy priorities of the two leading candidates appear to reflect the regional split in Ukrainian society as well as the economic profiles of their respective backers. Yanukovych's supporters are mostly from the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine. Tymoshenko's backers are concentrated in the Western part of the country, where Ukrainian is the dominant language (as are third-place finisher Tyhypko's, which is one reason his supporters will mostly back Tymoshenko in the runoff).
The West should focus on making the process as transparent as possible. … The prize is not a Ukraine that will turn its back on Russia for the West, but a Ukraine governed by and for its own people.
Yanukovych's Party of the Regions favors greater decentralization of power to protect the rights of Russian speakers, by devolving power over sensitive questions of language and culture to the regional level. For this reason, he has also drawn support in areas with heavy concentrations of ethnic minorities, such as the Hungarians and Rusyns (Ruthenians) in the far-Western provinces of Zakarpattia and Chernivitsi. Tymoshenko's bloc supports greater centralization of power in Kiev, a stronger presidency, and a leading role for the Ukrainian language in all levels of government and the media.
On economic issues, Tymoshenko's platform has been inclined to populism, calling for higher taxes on business and more social spending. Yanukovych, in line with his oligarchic backers, favors lowering business taxes. Each candidate charges the other with being complicit in corruption; both are probably right.
In contrast to 2004, the United States and its allies do not have a clear interest in the victory of any one candidate. In part, that is because this election is not being fought primarily over whether Ukraine will in the future tilt East or West. What matters most is that the election itself is relatively free and that the results are accepted by both sides. Once the election is over, what will matter is the ability of the new president to clean up the country's economic and political mess; sadly, neither candidate appears particularly inspiring on that score.
Ukraine remains a deeply polarized society, where much of the population is resentful of the corruption and declining living standards of the past few years--and of the Orange Revolution's broken promises of a better future. On the other hand, it has a vigorous, if flawed, democracy that offers hope of one day turning into something better. The West needs to do what it can to ensure that democracy endures, including ensuring that this election is more legitimate than the last time Ukraine voted for a president. Already, both main candidates have charged that their opponent may seize the election through fraud. The perception of an illegitimate election could prove even more destabilizing now than in 2004. The West should therefore focus on making the process as transparent as possible, publicizing violations, and ensuring that allegations of fraud are adjudicated fairly. The prize is not a Ukraine that will turn its back on Russia for the West, but a Ukraine governed by and for its own people.