President Vladimir Putin has ordered to finalise a package of documents on the creation of the Common Economic Space (CES) of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan by autumn. It is one of his foreign policy priorities.
The reason for this haste is the coming presidential elections in Ukraine. The creation of the CES promises major economic benefits and will strengthen the positions of presidential candidate Premier Viktor Yanukovich. The election battle has become fierce in Ukraine. The pro-presidential forces agreed to nominate a common candidate - Premier Viktor Yanukovich. His main rival is former premier Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the Our Ukraine bloc.
Yushchenko is leading in the ratings (20-25% of the electorate is ready to vote for him), but Yanukovich's ratings have grown by 6-7% to about 16%. The growing popularity of the current premier is largely due to the economic achievements of his government. Ukraine's GDP is growing faster than in any European country and is expected to reach 10% this year. At the same time, living standards are rising, pensions are increasing and the tax burden is dwindling.
Although nobody can predict the outcome of the presidential elections in Ukraine, the West seems to have made its choice in favour of the pro-Western "political heavyweight" Yushchenko, who says the future of the country will be decided at the 2004 elections. He promises to lead Ukraine "from [being] Byzantians to Europeans." But if his rival wins, warns Yushchenko, Ukraine may fall victim to "the imperial ambitions" of the Kremlin, which will formalise its geopolitical and economic domination in the Western outskirts of the post-Soviet territory.
Yushchenko's reliance on such promises, combined with hair-raising warnings that have been made to fit the current realities, has succeeded. But maybe the West is engaging in wishful thinking? There are reasons to assume that the victory of neither candidate will ensure Ukraine's final determination in favour of Russia or the West.
The point is that Yushchenko's pro-Western promises are timeserving and do not reflect the genuine state of affairs in the Our Ukraine bloc, which is a mix of all kinds. Take the oligarchs, who will hardly welcome the severance of economic ties with Russia. Besides, relations between Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine are growing stronger. Likewise, the oligarchs will not be happy with the appearance of Western transnationals on the Ukrainian market, as they can gradually push the Ukrainian economic elite to the roadside. In general, Ukraine's involvement in integration will depend not only, and possibly not so much, on the country's political leader as on the desires of the political and economic elite and the majority of the population.
The West's desire to see its man elected in Ukraine is logical and there are many reasons for it. One of the key reasons was made public by the well-known billionaire George Soros, head of the Open Society institute, who said that a comprehensive security system could not be created in Europe without Ukraine. The importance of Ukraine hinges on its geopolitical situation. It stands on the Black Sea and has direct access to the Caucasus. But its genuine pearl is the Crimea, which has been a vital naval bridgehead since the Crimean War of 1853-1856.
An explosion of household gas occurred in a nine-storeyed apartment building in the city of Shakhty, the Rostov region of Russia. The blast destroyed two storeys of the building