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Charting a new geopolitical reality: Ukraine in 2005

Following a tumultuous and passionate election, Viktor Yushchenko became president of Ukraine to the jubilation of hundreds of thousands of his supporters, who braved cold temperatures and massive political storms in the second popular revolution in two years to sweep the Former Soviet Union (F.S.U.). While Yushchenko's victory is considered an enormous boost to the democratic movement across former Soviet states, the political, economic and social realities in Ukraine present formidable challenges to the new leadership.

A Divided Country

No other former Soviet country before has been so divided across ethnic, religious and political lines. While millions of ethnic Russians living in the eastern regions of the country overwhelmingly supported Viktor Yanukovych -- Yushchenko's rival presidential candidate -- millions of Ukrainians throughout the country supported the pro-Russia platform of Yanukovych for a variety of reasons. The often-discussed split between Ukrainian "pro-Western" and "pro-Russian" camps does not run along Russian and Ukrainian lines. Voters put their hopes in the hands of not just two men, but the larger forces behind them. While Yanukovych's prior criminal record was widely known in the country, that fact alone did not stop millions of people to cast their vote for him three times in a row.

Those voting against Yushchenko voted for better economic and political relations with the Russian Federation, and for the larger role of Russian culture in Ukraine. The issue of the Russian language -- the former lingua franca and the unofficial main language of Ukraine -- was one of the hottest-debated topics in this election. Those backing the pro-Russian stand voted for the continuation of the Kremlin's endorsements and the strengthening of the Moscow-Kiev alliance as the driving force in the F.S.U.

Those Ukrainians who cast their vote for Yushchenko supported their country's moves away from the former Soviet sphere, and more towards the European Union and the West in general. Their vote was a no-confidence decision to the largely Soviet-style practices of the Ukrainian government in the last decade. The desire for political freedoms, social justice, transparency in the political processes and the betterment of people's living standards drove Yushchenko's supporters into the streets for more than a month. As is always the case, the euphoria of victory will quickly give way to the realities on the ground. While the Ukrainian justice system was able to wrench itself free of old habits by declaring the second presidential election of November 21 invalid, the divided national parliament will be just one of the areas where the young government will be waging its first battles.

Yushchenko's government inherits a bitterly divided country. The differences among his supporters and Yanukovych's backers mimic the differences in elections in other states of the F.S.U. Many of Yanukovych's backers were pensioners who rely on the state for basic support, as well as both the young and the elder voters from the predominantly industrial eastern regions of the country. It is in the east where pro-Russian sentiment is felt most strongly. Yushchenko's supporters included people of all ages as well, but his most vocal spokespeople were younger on average than their eastern compatriots.

The younger Ukrainian generation desires greater freedom and opportunity for themselves and their country in general -- opportunities which they thought would be denied to them by the Yanukovych-led Ukraine. While the world media showed people of all ages wearing either orange or blue colors -- the colors of Yushchenko's and Yanukovych's camps, respectively -- it is the predominantly younger generation which was most outspoken in its support of Yushchenko.

Ukraine has changed its borders frequently in its millennium-old history, and the latest, pre-WWII divisions unified two very distinct areas as one country. That is why for the first time since Ukraine became independent in 1991, there were voices arguing the greater autonomy and even a secession of certain eastern regions of the country that are strongly pro-Russian. These regions, such as coal-mining Donetsk, saw Yushchenko's victory as a "sell-out" to the West in general, and as a threat to their cultural, social and linguistic autonomy. Since Yanukovych claimed that he would now lead strong opposition to the newly-elected government, he will draw most of his support from the east.

Likewise, western Ukrainian regions exercised a fairly high degree of civil disobedience when several towns, including Lviv, one of Ukraine's largest, opted not to recognize the November 21 elections in which Yanukovych claimed victory. The threat of separation of the country into two regions was a possibility for the duration of the elections, though it was not clear if either Ukraine's east or west would actually opt out of the Ukrainian "union."

Today, it is the eastern portion of the country that is trying to assert more independence from Kiev. Yushchenko faces an uphill battle in trying to win the hearts and minds of the people in these regions. During the election, he diverged from his one-language position to state that the Russian language will be recognized as one of the official languages in the country -- long a Yanukovych claim. He also has to overcome deep personal distrust of millions of his fellow countrymen who voted against him time and time again in the past several months.  

There is no threat of the division of the county at present, but the possibility that the east stays intransigent towards the new government remains. Yushchenko could be faced with the Russian-style scenario where in order to keep disparate regions as part of one country, a certain degree of official political autonomy is granted. For example, certain Russian South Caucasus regions have their own parliamentary bodies and presidents, while Moscow exercises overall political and military control. If Ukraine's certain eastern regions continue to advocate a greater autonomy in their affairs, then perhaps affording wider freedoms to specific geographical areas can be a peaceful solution of keeping the country together.

Yushchenko's Geopolitical Maneuverings

While Yushchenko will have to face a divided country, his greatest challenge will come from patching up the relations with Russia. Moscow considers itself a loser in the Ukrainian elections, and President Vladimir Putin's continuous and public backing of the losing side was an enormous embarrassment to Moscow. Since Georgia sought to escape Russian influence with its own popular revolution in the fall of 2003, the "loss" of a country that Russia has long considered to be inside its primary sphere of influence is a tremendous blow to its interests. While the Russian political establishment is trying to figure out what went "wrong," Yushchenko will have to convince the Kremlin that while his country now attempts to chart a new direction, Russia will continue to be one of its main geopolitical partners. While the new government can publicly state that it will be closer to the West, walking away from its eastern-oriented commitments is not possible.

Russia is Ukraine's main trading partner, and is one of its chief investors. The presence of millions of Russians in eastern Ukraine helps to solidify the bonds between the two states. These reasons help explain why Moscow was so quick to recognize Yanukovych as the rightful president of Ukraine. Yushchenko faces a cold reception in Moscow, but while he is in power, the two countries will have to continue their close relationship. Other former Soviet states now have to contend with yet another country with pro-Western orientation. This will be most felt in the neighboring Belorussia, where the dictatorial government of President Alexander Lukashenko is least receptive to the idea of massive popular support driving the reform-minded Ukrainian government into power.

Other former Soviet republics will have to accept the new regime, since they are also bound to Ukraine by a series of bilateral economic and political commitments. It is possible that in states where the executive power is most influential -- as in certain Central Asian countries -- there can be a further clamp-down on political freedoms and opposition movements in order to avert Ukrainian-style unrest. Therefore, the Yushchenko government will have to use skillful diplomacy to show goodwill to numerous states that might assume a potentially hostile stand towards the newly elected Ukrainian leadership.

It is the new Europe and the West in general where Yushchenko will be most welcomed. Many European countries, as well as the United States, openly supported Yushchenko in open political contest with Moscow. The Western states feel a sense of pride at assisting another democracy to come into being in the former Soviet space. Yushchenko's final election is considered a foreign policy victory to a number of governments, including Washington. Thus, Yushchenko can capitalize on his victory by obtaining assistance and benefits from a number of Western states. While his promised countrywide reforms will take awhile to materialize -- and not without some strong disagreement from a large number of his constituents -- he can rely on the West's pledges to support his new, democratic state.

Conclusion

Yushchenko assumes the Ukrainian presidency in a largely-polarized country with deep political, social and economic divisions. He faces an intransigent Russia that feels it has lost a major public relations battle; a number of former Soviet states that see Ukraine as a threat to their regimes; and a largely supportive West. Having emerged as a winner in the new, fast "Great Game" that just unfolded in Eastern Europe, Ukraine has to chart a careful course between its prior economic and political commitments and a new, democratic future. As one of the key states that separates the new West from the former Soviet space, Ukraine stands to benefit greatly if Yushchenko can capitalize on his democratic victory and avoid further dissent to the new government.

Yevgeny Bendersky

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