The Ukraine takes the strain

This is less a civil war, than a tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics World

According to news reports, there has been a spontaneous uprising of the Ukrainian people against the election fixing of a corrupt political regime. Cameras show young crowds with orange banners, the colour of the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, while journalists talk about the ‘will of the people’.

We can admire the verve of the crowd, demonstrating in Kiev’s central square for four freezing nights. But they are little more than a stage army playing a part written for them by Western governments.

The fraught standoff in the Ukraine is less the result of an internal dispute, than of a geopolitical tussle between East and West. The country shares a border with Russia on one side and the European Union (EU) on the other. Viktor Yanukovich, judged by the Ukraine electoral commission to have won Sunday’s second round of the presidential election, supports building closer links with Moscow. Yushchenko, who claims to be the victim of electoral fraud, supports reforming the economy and joining the EU and NATO.

It is likely that there was fraud, but things are more complicated than Western coverage suggests. We have only seen the opposition supporters protesting in Kiev, while pro-government demonstrations in the Russian-speaking east of the country, where Yanukovich has his powerbase, go largely unreported.

Much has been made of Yanukovich’s improbably high turnouts in the east, but others point out that Yushchenko scored a similarly improbable 90 per cent of votes in parts of the west. They also note that on the eve of the poll, pop stars were shown on TV in Yushchenko’s colours – hardly the staunch Yanukovich media bias that some have alleged (1).

It is the backstage machinations of international powers that have taken Ukraine to the brink. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine twice to offer his support to Yanukovich. With America building army bases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and the Baltic states going over to the EU, Russia is keen to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence.

The Americans and Europeans had other ideas. ‘Russia supports Mr Yanukovich both overtly and covertly. Europe and America should kick and scream about electoral irregularities and encourage Ukrainians to defend their own democracy’, commented The Economist on 28 October, three days before the first round of presidential elections (2). Kick and scream they did. The US mission to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned of bias in favour of Yanukovich, and threatened that if the elections failed to meet international standards a ‘a variety of measures to hold officials responsible for electoral misconduct accountable will be considered, and bilateral relations and integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions will suffer’ (3).

By the time the preliminary results for Sunday’s second round were announced, Western observers were wound up for a dispute. President Bush’s emissary to the elections denounced them as ‘egregious assaults on democracy’, judging that a ‘corrupted and forceful programme of election day abuse was conducted with the leadership or consent of the government authorities’ (4). Observers from the EU, NATO and OSCE said the elections ‘did not meet international standards’. These comments bolstered the opposition, encouraging them to take to the streets.

US secretary of state Colin Powell last night upped the ante, saying that the USA couldn’t accept the election results; the EU president warned of ‘consequences’ for its trade relations with the Ukraine if the results were not reviewed (5). Buoyed up by these hardline statements, Yushchenko called an ‘all-Ukrainian political strike’. Putin then responded by congratulating Yanukovich on his victory for a second time, further stoking the crisis.

It seems that the whole world has sought to dive into Ukraine’s elections. Australia voiced its concerns; Canada said that it ‘cannot accept’ the results, and ‘will have no choice but to examine its relations with Ukraine’. Even BBC News has a section inviting readers to give their views on whether the elections were fair.

Events are being pushed by decisions taken in the backrooms of Washington and Moscow, rather than by events on the streets of Ukraine. The NATO secretary general called in the Ukrainian ambassador to say how disappointed he was with the result, and Washington summoned the Russian ambassador to put the pressure on. German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has called Putin about the standoff, and the EU plans to discuss the elections at an upcoming meeting with Russia (at which no Ukrainian officials will be present).

Ukraine has become what one observer described as a ‘bone of contention in a geopolitical power struggle’ (6). Tensions between the USA and Russia are being played out in the proxy field of Ukraine, with both sides moving toy soldiers around the field. It is not surprising, then, that opposition supporters are protesting outside Russian official buildings, and pro-government supporters brandished banners saying ‘Don’t sell Ukraine to America’.

Neither candidate could be described as the ‘people’s choice’. Both are political hacks and have served as prime ministers under the outgoing president. The high passions aren’t down to the two candidates’ inspiring visions for the country. The battle is essentially about whether the Ukraine subordinates itself to one foreign power or another – hardly a great political choice.

With both men ordaining themselves president, we have a picture of a divided state. For all the rhetoric about defending the ‘will of the Ukrainian people’, they will be the last ones to benefit from this crisis.

(1) See the Ukraine report on the British Helsinki Human Rights Group website

(2) Watch Ukraine, The Economist, 28 October 2004

(3) Statement by the US representative to the ASCE on the Ukrainian presidential election, US Embassy, Kiev, 28 October 2004

(4) Ukraine in turmoil after vote, Guardian, 23 November 2004

(5) EU Threatens Consequences for Ukraine, AP, 24 November 2004

(6) Schroeder Tells Putin He’s `Concerned’ Over Ukraine, Bloomberg, 24 November 2004

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Topics Politics World


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