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Understanding Ukraine's Presidential Shift

Interviewee: Steven Pifer, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 8, 2010

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Viktor F. Yanukovych appears to have won a narrow victory over Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko in the February 7 run-off presidential election, giving him a comeback from his resounding defeat in the 2004 Orange Revolution. But Yanukovych's win doesn't mean that all the democratic gains of 2004 have been lost, says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Pifer says these latest polls indicate Ukraine is "the model in the post-Soviet era in terms of doing elections that are free, fair, and competitive." It is an exaggeration to call Yanukovych pro-Russian, Pifer says, noting that when Yanukovych was prime minister he cooperated with NATO. He notes, though, that outgoing President Viktor A. Yushchenko's hopes for Ukraine joining NATO are now gone and that Ukraine's ongoing economic problems probably contributed to Tymoshenko's apparent defeat.

The shorthand in some press reports is that Viktor Yanukovych's apparent victory marks the obituary of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Is that off the mark?

It is. The election probably marks the end of outgoing President Viktor A. Yushchenko as a major political force within Ukraine. He certainly in the future will not play the same political role that he has played over the past ten years.

He was a leader of the Orange Revolution who became president.

He was the president and still is the president for the next couple of weeks until the inauguration. And he was a leader of the Orange Revolution. But the more important point is the Orange Revolution was first and foremost about Ukrainians wanting to protect their right to have their votes counted fairly, and this latest election showed that. It got very high marks from both Ukrainian and international observers. And it does show that Ukraine has now learned how to conduct a democratic election. And Ukraine is now by far the model in the post-Soviet era in terms of doing elections that are free, fair and, competitive.

Ukraine is now by far the model in the post-Soviet era in terms of doing elections that are free, fair and competitive.

What was outgoing President Yushchenko's feud with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was his co-leader in the Orange Revolution and served as his prime minister? She's still the prime minister. Does she have to resign?

When Yushchenko became president in January of 2005, he appointed Tymoshenko as his prime minister. It didn't work out. They couldn't work together and within eight months, he fired her. In December of 2007, he again appointed her as prime minister, but the relationship just didn't work. There was a lot of political infighting, and most analysts would say that most of the problem was caused by the Yushchenko side. That obviously undercut her ability as prime minister to function successfully. Yanukovych is calling on her to resign, but she may wait until new elections for the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament).

What were the big issues?

There were relatively minor differences on policy questions, but a lot of it seemed to be just a political clash, and also differences among their teams. For example in December 2007, within a couple of weeks after Yushchenko had appointed Tymoshenko as prime minister, Yushchenko's chief of staff, Viktor Bologa, was going out and criticizing Tymoshenko. I had heard from people on Yushchenko's staff that one of the reasons that they were going after Tymoshenko was they saw her as a threat to him in the next presidential election. And indeed, when you look at the first round in the election that was held in January of this year, she polled about 25 percent and Yushchenko polled a little over 5 percent.

What led to Yushchenko's political demise?

There was a high level of expectations after the Orange Revolution, and it would have been difficult for anybody to fulfill those. I would give Yushchenko big points in 2005 for preserving democratic space. Even though Viktor Yanukovych, who appears to have won yesterday's election, was the one who lost in the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko still gave Yanukovych the democratic opportunity to come back, so that already in March of 2006 Yanukovych's party was the largest party in the Ukrainian parliament. That is a credit to Yushchenko. But on a lot of other issues that were key--in terms of fighting corruption, reforming the economy, and issues like that--Yushchenko just missed opportunities. He didn't get a lot of things done. Voters held him responsible in the first round of election for that, and that's why he did so poorly.

Most countries are suffering economic problems. It's particularly acute in Ukraine right?

Yes, the Ukrainian economy fell probably about 14 to 15 percent in gross domestic product [GDP] terms in 2009, and that undoubtedly was one of the reasons why Tymoshenko lost the election yesterday. She was the prime minister, and certainly when voters go to the polls, it's not a good time to be an incumbent when you're having that kind of economic decline.

Yanukovych in the past has been labeled in the West as a Russian ally, not very pro-Western. The implication has been that if he won, Ukraine would go back to being a close ally of Russia. Is that correct?

When the press uses the shorthand of the "pro-Russian Yanukovych," they perhaps get it a bit off. Yanukovych will pursue policies that will be more welcome in Moscow, certainly in comparison to some of the policies that Viktor Yushchenko pursued as president.

Such policies as?

Such as, on the NATO question. Viktor Yushchenko wanted to see Ukraine in NATO; he wanted a Membership Action Plan (MAP) [a preliminary step to membership, which NATO did not provide]. In the case of Yanukovych, he doesn't want to see Ukraine in NATO, he doesn't want a MAP. But when Yanukovych was prime minister from 2006 to 2007, Ukraine had a very cooperative relationship with NATO in practical terms. I remember a conversation with a senior member of the ministry of defense, and of course at that time the minister of defense was appointed not by the prime minister but by Yushchenko. What that senior official told me was that during the prime ministership of Yanukovych, the Ukrainian ministry of defense had accomplished much more in terms of practical cooperation with NATO than it had in the two years before Yanukovych became prime minister. They had done an exercise plan; they had concluded an agreement on providing strategic airlift to NATO. My expectation is Yanukovych is not going to be pushing in the same way rhetorically for NATO, but you're still going to have a cooperative relationship that may not be so welcome in Russia.

{I}n terms of fighting corruption, reforming the economy and issues like that--Yushchenko just missed opportunities. He didn't get a lot of things done.

Another area where I suspect that Yanukovych will continue a policy that won't be that different from Yushchenko's is in terms of engagement with the European Union. Whereas polls show that both the Ukrainian elite and the population don't support the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, there is widespread support for Ukraine drawing closer to the European Union. In part that's understandable; it's a reflection that when Ukrainians look toward the European Union, they want to have the higher European standards of living. My expectation is that Yanukovych will continually look for ways to tighten relations between Ukraine and the European Union. They're now negotiating an association agreement, and as part of such an agreement there would be a free trade arrangement, so that would integrate Ukraine more closely into the European economy. I would be very surprised if Yanukovych were to reverse course on that.

What is likely to be Tymoshenko's fate as prime minister?

She had a very thin coalition under Yushchenko within the Rada. There were people already last night {Sunday} in the Yanukovych camp, after they believed they had won the election, saying that they would look to form a coalition that would replace Tymoshenko as prime minister. Yanukovych has also said in the last couple of weeks that if he were elected president, he also might seek earlier Rada elections. Whether or not he pursues those elections will depend upon whether or not he can form a coalition in the Rada that would support his choice for prime minister and oust Tymoshenko.

Was there a geographic breakdown in the voting?

Yanukovych's strength tends to be in the east and the south; Tymoshenko's strength tends to be in the west and the center. There are twenty-seven major electoral districts within Ukraine; that's twenty-four oblasts, the autonomous region of Crimea, and then Sevastopol and Kiev count separately. Tymoshenko appears to have won in seventeen of them, and Yanukovych in ten. Yanukovych's ten, though, included the most populated districts--Lugansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv--all of them in the east and south. If you take a look at the map, you'll see a pretty clear picture that the center and the west went for Tymoshenko. And that's pretty much the divide that we've seen in Ukraine. That division has eroded somewhat over the last fifteen or sixteen years, but it's certainly the sort we saw in the 2004 election and also in the 2006 and 2007 parliamentary elections.

Assuming that Yanukovych's victory is confirmed, does Washington need to take a new look at Ukraine?

My sense is that what happened yesterday met Washington's first requirement. Within the U.S. government, there may have been preferences, but I don't think that this time the difference was seen in such stark terms as it was in 2004, where if you had taken a private poll within the U.S. government, Viktor Yushchenko would have won hands down over Viktor Yanukovych. I don't think the differences or the preferences were that stark, and what you hear consistently from the U.S. government was that the important thing was that it needs to be a democratic election and then we work with whomever the Ukrainians choose. And again, by all the reports that we are seeing, it seems to have been a very democratic election. What Washington hopes is that if there is some legal challenge, it does not drag on and on. What they would like to do is see the election come to a close, be recognized, and have it accepted by all. Then the new president will have a chance to get on and hopefully be able to put together some coherent policies with which Washington could work.

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