EASTERN EUROPE: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Ukraine turns to the West?
, December 18, 2004
The future of Ukraine, for 70 years part of the Soviet Union, is in the balance, following a disputed presidential election, which was overturned by Ukraine's Supreme Court. The court found evidence of widespread ballot-rigging by the pro-Russian ruling party.
There are 48 million people of Ukraine, and the election was regarded as a test of whether Ukraine would turn towards the West, or back to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin had thrown the resources of Russia behind the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.
Until the recent elections, Ukraine, with its crucial geostrategic position between Europe and Russia, was considered one of the most implacably hard-line post-communist states, ruled by the iron-fisted ex-communist, Leonid Kuchma.
Viktor Yanukovych rose to prominence as governor of the eastern Donetsk coal-mining and industrial region before President Kuchma appointed him Prime Minister in 2002.
After becoming PM, Yanukovych - a native Russian-speaker - had to struggle to improve his command of Ukrainian, a language deliberately neglected by former Soviet authorities.Economy
To his supporters, Yanukovych brought Ukraine economic growth, while maintaining the country's relations with both Russia and the West. To his detractors, Yanukovych is a Soviet-style throwback who led the country further into corruption and nepotism.
His power is based on ex-communist bureaucrats who run privatised coal and steel corporations from the eastern region, and critics accuse him of turning a blind eye to the corrupt privatisation of the country's largest steel producer, Kryvorizhstal, after it was sold earlier this year to a company controlled by Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk.
To win the elections, Kuchma and Yanukovych, with Putin's backing, rigged the ballot, which was denounced as fraudulent by many international observers.
The country's Supreme Court called for a new presidential election within three weeks. Most observers think it will be very difficult for the old guard to rig another election with the world now watching.
Kiev's central Independence Square - where tens of thousands of people had virtually camped out for nearly two weeks - was filled with orange-clad supporters who cheered excitedly as the Supreme Court's verdict was announced.
Two weeks earlier, Viktor Yushchenko - the pro-democracy opposition candidate - said he believed up to three million false ballots had been cast, and declared, "People will not leave the square until we receive honest results or have honest elections."
Today, there is every indication that in the follow-up election, Viktor Yushchenko will win, with the support of the students, the intelligentsia, the Catholics and Orthodox of the western "breadbasket", the new small business-people and many parliamentarians.
Russian commentator, Pavel Felgenhauer, wrote in the Moscow Times
that Russian President Putin wanted to bring Ukraine decisively back into the Russian sphere of influence, particularly as America became bogged down in Iraq.
Ironically, what has so far defeated both Putin and Kuchma in Ukraine is not military might nor economic power, but transparency. The whole world now knows what they have done, and it would be nearly impossible to keep their doings secret again.
Viktor Yushchenko steered his country away from the Russian ruble to an independent currency as head of the Central Bank from 1993 to 1999.
But he is not anti-Russian. During his period as Prime Minister, (1999-2001), he halted the decline in Russian-Ukrainian trade and put an end to the main irritant in bilateral relations - the theft of Russian gas pumped to Europe via Ukrainian pipelines. Yushchenko also opened the Ukrainian market for major Russian companies and made the privatisation process in Ukraine more transparent, a process since reversed. For Yushchenko, Russia remains Ukraine's strategic partner.
His supporters call him the only politician who can lead Ukraine out of its fractious and sometimes violent political rut, combat endemic corruption and resist neighboring Russia's desire to reabsorb Ukraine into the Kremlin's sphere of influence.
In his election program, Yushchenko said he intends to boost employment through development of the domestic market and an elaborate system of government contracts and public works, and to improve the lot of small- and medium-sized businesses. He also has pledged to reform Ukraine's decrepit military and fight corruption.
After his removal from the prime minister's post in 2001 - which was staged by pro-communist parliamentary groups - Yushchenko created Our Ukraine, a broad pro-democratic alliance.