Friday, December 03, 2004

# Posted 8:43 AM by Patrick Belton  

A FATEFUL YEAR FOR UKRAINE: We're grateful to have a piece today on the Ukrainian elections from the Carnegie Endowment's Anders Åslund, who directs Carnegie's Russia and Eurasia programme. Dr. Åslund, a former Swedish diplomat who has advised the Ukrainian government on economic matters, writes this to us from Kiev.
“I am looking at the next year with fear. Everybody agrees that the [October 2004 presidential] elections will be the scariest and dirtiest ever,” said Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma recently, and he should know, because he is widely perceived as the main threat to democracy in the country.

These elections are truly fateful. They can bring about a definitive democratic breakthrough or lead to its collapse. Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation is also up for grabs.

The latest opinion poll gave Kuchma 6 percent support to compare with 29 percent for Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the democratic opposition and a respected former Prime Minister and Chairman of the Central Bank. Even so, Kuchma appears to be considering running for a third term. The current Constitution does not permit that, but, since Kuchma controls the Constitutional Court, he is likely to overturn that provision.

At the same time, Kuchma is trying to swiftly amend the constitution by hook and crook to reduce the presidential powers, showing that he is truly worried that Yushchenko may win.

Behind Kuchma stands a few big business clans, or oligarchs, who dominate government, parliament, media and security services. Their concern is that a new regime will undertake a redistribution of the considerable property they have amassed and prosecute them for crimes committed. The Ukrainian communists are marginalized but still form a third force.

The outcome of this struggle is no foregone conclusion. The prospects for democracy appear much more promising in Ukraine than in Russia. Power has not been consolidated in the security services, and competition prevails among the leading business groups. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian democratic opposition is much stronger and better organized than in Russia, primarily in Our Ukraine, a moderate center-right bloc.

Unlike Russians, Ukrainians are neither passive nor resigned. In the March 2002 parliamentary elections 70 percent of the voters participated, and 70 percent voted for parties opposing President Kuchma. Even so, the elections resulted in a hung parliament because half the seats are allocated in one-man constituencies, often purchased by rich businessmen. The joke is that two-thirds of the Ukrainian parliamentarians are millionaires, and that is probably not far from the truth.

Accidentally, the Ukrainian elections are scheduled for October 31, just two days prior to the US presidential elections. If anything goes awry in the Ukrainian elections, it will haunt the US administration. As heavy Russian interference is expected, Ukraine is set to be a major bone of contention between the US and Russia in 2004.

The US and Russia are bound to disagree upon most things in Ukraine. Russia will support Kuchma or whatever candidate he puts up, while the US will favor Yushchenko. While the US advocates democracy, the Russian leadership prefers a more authoritarian regime.

Aggressive nationalism is reasserting itself in Russia. Many nationalists entering the new Russian Duma do not conceal their contempt for Ukrainian independence. They advocate Ukraine’s union with Russia, ultimately eliminating Ukrainian sovereignty. The Russian government offers Ukraine with a “Common Economic Space” with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in place of the World Trade Organization. The democratic opposition, by contrast, favors closer ties with the West, including Ukraine’s entry into NATO and the European Union.

With the roaring revival of the Russian economy, Russian corporations are swiftly expanding abroad, notably in Ukraine. The most contentious Russian economic interests involve energy, notably the ownership of pipelines and power utilities in Ukraine.

The US has a big presence in Ukraine, and it can play a major role. The Ukrainian opposition’s desire is to have election observers at all of Ukraine’s 33,000 polling stations. The Ukrainian diaspora in North America could mobilize that many volunteers, needing only the seal of approval from the Organization of Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE).

The opposition also hopes for more media support. Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe and Voice of America are as important as in the past. They need more, not less, resources. The opposition’s dream is a daily election newspaper. Foreign financing of such an undertaking is both legal and desirable.

Semi-democratic Ukraine can turn truly democratic or authoritarian, and the US can influence its fate. President George W. Bush will be either praised or blamed for the fortune of Ukraine, and rightly so.

The writer is Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie for International Peace. He served as an economic advisor to the Ukrainian government from 1994 to 1997.
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