BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
When sitting president Viktor Yushchenko, was eliminated from the first round of the Ukraine’s recent elections, garnering less than six percent of the vote, he urged voters in the run-off election to vote against both candidates. That six percent proved to be more than enough to block Yushchenko’s former ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from achieving victory.
One might have expected Yushchenko to be dead set against his long-time rival Viktor Yanukovych, whom the former had implicated in the falsification of the 2004 presidential election which was reversed after the colorful street protests that marked the country’s “Orange Revolution”. And outsiders might be surprised to see President Yushchenko refuse to endorse Tymoshenko, with whom he stood on stages decrying the fraud of the last election, and whose assistance led to Yushchenko’s ultimate victory in the re-vote. But the last five years have pitted these two former allies against each other in a bitter fight for control of Ukraine’s national government, with a result of deadlock and division.
Now, with the votes counted in the run-off election, it appears that the pro-Russian candidate for Party of Regions, Victor Yanukovych, will become the next president. Although neither candidate took an absolute majority of the votes, Yanukovych held on to a margin of victory of 3.4%, slightly less than the 4.4% who voted against both candidates. International observers from the OSCE praised the election as “an impressive display of democratic elections” and dismissed the argument that the Orange Revolution had failed. Rather, European observers hailed the election as a transparent example of fully functioning democracy. The official tally of votes was ultimately less than one percent off the results of national exit polls.
Despite the praise from international observers, Tymoshenko refuses to concede to her opponent. Press releases from her party indicate that a legal challenge to the results will be forthcoming and decry the manipulation of results from the southeastern stronghold of her opponent’s party. But despite these accusations, no street protests have erupted. There has been no general rejection of the election. And her opponent has calmly begun issuing press releases urging her to concede and announcing his plans for the national government.
Tymoshenko, for her part, is probably scrambling not only to assemble a case in court but also to build a parliamentary coalition that will allow her to retain her control of the country’s Verkhovna Rada and national government. Yanukovych is seeking to form a new cabinet of ministers and unite the national government in a coalition behind his party, and he is urging Tymoshenko to accept her fate and go into opposition. Tymoshenko’s own website reported both the official results of the election, 48.95% for Yanukovych, 45.47% for Tymoshenko, as well as the exit poll results of 48.5% and 45.7% respectively. With a national absolute margin of over 800,000 votes, it is unlikely that any challenge could be more than a stalling maneuver as Tymoshenko works feverishly to try to prevent the new president from forming a coalition government.
Even if the results of this election are ultimately accepted with grace and dignity, the future of the nation remains uncertain. The specter of a severe fiscal crisis is overshadowing all aspects of the national economy, and the first priority of any government will likely be cooperation with the International Monetary Fund to put in place financing and a long-term restructuring plan for the nation’s debt. The longer it takes to form a government, the greater the possibility of the country defaulting on its national debts and being unable to pay pensions, benefits, and salaries.
In the long term, the election of Yanukovych appears to be set to bring closer ties with Russia and a renewed emphasis on economic growth through industrial production. In a press release issued on February 10, Yanukovych said that the nation needs to execute a strategy for stimulating innovation in growth sectors like, “steel-making, aircraft engineering, rocket engineering, the nuclear power industry, the military industrial complex and agriculture.”
Although the Soviet-era overtones of such statements are clear, Yanukovych has adopted a relatively centrist stance on many issues since his defeat in the 2004 elections. He now expresses openness to closer integration with Europe while at the same time welcoming renewed ties to Russia. “We are the bridge between the West and East…We are choosing a democratic path and our economy is closely integrated with the economies of Russia and CIS countries, and it is becoming more so with the West. It is important that all these ties grow so that we can exploit these advantages for the good of the country and our people.”
While the rhetoric may appear to embrace an open attitude toward international relations, the reality is that Russia’s relationship with Ukraine has been characterized by ultimata and divide-and-conquer tactics. Whether or not Yanukovych really desires open relations with Europe, he may be forced by dire economic necessity to turn toward the Kremlin for help. As the Ukrainian economy wheezes, straining under crumbling infrastructure and crippled by its dependency on Russian gas, the lack of alternatives will make it difficult to reject any course that does not involve plunging headlong into a deep, dark abyss.