Act Locally » December 3, 2004
Ukraine’s contested election reflects Russia’s push to reunify
Moscow—Another street revolt rocks an eastern European capital, and the world stops to watch a now-familiar televised scenario: an election allegedly stolen, energized but peaceful crowds battle for democracy with staunch Western backing and, in the final act, frightened Soviet-style bureaucrats make a clumsy exit from power.
As In These Times went to press, it wasn’t clear whether Ukraine’s “Chestnut Revolution” will turn out as neatly as its recent predecessors in Serbia and Georgia, but there are grounds to hope that it might. A compromise, which would result in new elections, appeared to be taking shape, but whatever the short-term outcome, Ukrainian society has likely been changed forever. Thousands of protesters surging through the streets of Kiev and other cities were confronting the semi-authoritarian, oligarch-backed regime of President Leonid Kuchma, which almost certainly tried to falsify the results of November’s presidential election in favor of Kuchma’s annointed successor, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. They were also defying the Kremlin, which invested huge sums of cash and the personal prestige of President Vladimir Putin in a brazen effort to manipulate Ukraine’s voters into choosing Yanukovych over his liberal, westernizing challenger, former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Yushchenko.
But there are reasons to worry that Ukraine’s fragile post-Soviet stability has already been undermined by the bitter dispute, which has deeply aggravated the longstanding divisions between the country’s heavily Russified, industrial east and the largely agricultural, nationalistic west. Since leaving the USSR in 1991, Ukraine has managed to maintain a vibrant—if muddled—democratic political culture, with relatively independent parliament, media and courts, while neighboring Russia and Belarus have become aggressively recentralized states run by super-presidential figures. Though nationalists have made desultory efforts to compel schools, media and public organizations to use only Ukrainian, these have had virtually no impact on those Ukrainians, roughly half the population, who describe Russian as their “first language.”
In foreign policy, Ukraine has walked a careful line between Moscow and the West, gladly accepting subsidized Russian oil and gas and favorable terms for its otherwise unmarketable agricultural products, while taking aid from the West and making polite noises about eventually joining NATO.
In the past few years, however, the world has become more interested in Ukraine. An expanding European Union has moved right to Ukraine’s borders, taking in Poland, which has strong historical links with western Ukraine. Putin’s Russia, flush with oil profits and seeking to reassert hegemony in the former Soviet space, has designed a four-nation common market for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan as a springboard for Russian economic modernization.
“We would like to restore what was lost with the Soviet Union’s disintegration, albeit in line with different concepts,” Putin told a meeting of post-Soviet leaders last June. “We must steer toward integration … concerted action is the only way to survive in conditions of [global] competition.”
Ukraine’s election, featuring two moderate members of the country’s traditional elite, thus became a proxy battle between larger global forces. Inevitably, and dangerously, Yushchenko and Yanukovych spun their messages to appeal to the country’s two very different constituencies.
Ukraine, Europe’s second-largest state by territory, is split down the middle between eastern and western populations whose historical, linguistic, religious and cultural differences make them almost foreigners to one another. Western Ukrainians, who have spent much of their history honing a strong sense of national identity under Polish and Austro-Hungarian rule, strongly favor Yushchenko’s plans to steer Ukraine into NATO and the European Union as rapidly as possible.
But half the country’s 48 million people live in the industrial eastern zones, which were part of Russia and the USSR for more than 300 years. Many of them speak no Ukrainian and identify most closely with the Russian population just across the recently established border. Yanukovych’s pledges to make Russian the country’s second official language, to allow dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship and to join the Kremlin-sponsored free-trade union with Russia resonate strongly in Ukraine’s eastern reaches.
No matter which Viktor emerges victorious in Ukraine’s power struggle, he is likely to adopt radical measures to satisfy his loyal constituents. In either case, the breakup of Ukraine looms as a real possibility. Several western regions rejected official election results that labeled Yanukovych the winner and recognized Yushchenko as president. The eastern regions, where most of Ukraine’s industry is concentrated, are already planning referenda on “autonomy”—read rejoining Russia—if Yushchenko becomes president. And with Moscow and the West facing off over Ukraine, with sharply divergent agendas, the possibility of a new Cold War looks more likely than at any time since the USSR’s demise.
Fred Weir is a Moscow correspondent for In These Times and regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, the London Independent, Canadian Press and the South China Morning Post. He is the co-author of Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System.