The battle for Ukraine

By winning over Ukraine the West hopes to provoke a domino effect of regime change in other ex-Soviet states.

THE POLITICAL crisis in Ukraine has pitted Russia against the West in the fiercest battle yet for influence in the former Soviet Union. In a crucial presidential poll in Ukraine this month Moscow threw its weight behind the Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, who favours closer ties with Russia, while the United States and the European Union backed the pro-Western Opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko. The pro-Russian candidate was declared winner in the November 21 runoff with a three per cent margin, but the Opposition refused to concede defeat alleging mass vote rigging, and organised large-scale student protests in the capital Kiev that paralysed the government machine. After a week of rallies by supporters of the two presidential contenders, Ukraine's Parliament intervened to condemn election violations and to call for cancelling the poll result to pave the way to a new election. The dispute has now moved to the Supreme Court, which on Monday began to look into charges of election fraud.

The stakes for Russia in the standoff are enormous. The Opposition candidate is committed to taking Ukraine into NATO and the European Union. If Ukraine is pulled into the Western orbit, Russia may soon find American nuclear submarines moored next to its southern fleet base in Ukraine's Sevastopol in the Black Sea. Its plan to build a viable free-trade union among the former Soviet republics will also suffer a setback.

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, travelled six times to Ukraine in recent months to demonstrate his support for the Government candidate. In the run-up to the crucial vote, he ordered an easing of travel rules for millions of Ukrainian workers in Russia and promised to push for dual citizenship between the two countries. Mr. Putin was the first foreign leader to congratulate Mr. Yanukovich on his election victory. It is Russia's new assertiveness and resurgent power in the former Soviet Union that the West is trying to stop in Ukraine.

"Ukraine is a crucial test of the changing geopolitics in Eurasia," Ariel Cohen of the U.S. Heritage Foundation, a think-tank of neo-Conservatives in the Republican Administration in Washington, wrote last week. "It is a large-scale trial run — of Russia re-establishing control in the former empire and expanding its access to the Black Sea and South-Eastern Europe."

By winning over Ukraine the West hopes to redraw the political map of the former Soviet Union, provoke a domino effect of regime change in other ex-Soviet states and wrest neighbouring Moldova and Belarus, as well as the Caucasus and Central Asia from the Russian orbit. Experts warn that Russia itself may become the next target.

"The West has turned Ukraine into a giant test ground for technologies of toppling the Government in Russia," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin-linked political consultant who worked for the pro-Moscow candidate in Ukraine's election.

The U.S. hand in Ukraine's election was all too obvious. The money and expertise provided by the U.S. Freedom House, Soros Foundation, and other consultancies went to prepare a "chestnut revolution" in Ukraine. It was modelled after the "rose revolution" in Georgia that brought a pro-U.S. leader to power a year ago, and a student revolt in Serbia that toppled the President, Slobodan Milosevic, in 2000. Student movements were the driving force in all these regime change campaigns — Otpor in Serbia, Khmara in Georgia and Pora in Ukraine. Exit polls paid for from American and other Western funds sparked off mass protests by showing an improbably big lead for the Opposition candidate.

The Opposition has succeeded in projecting the election as a choice between democracy and corrupt oligarchic rule. This struck an enthusiastic cord with millions of Ukrainians, above all students and intellectuals, and obscured the fact that the Ukrainian vote was more a fight between rival business clans who earned their fortunes during the crime-ridden post-Soviet privatisation. The "democratic" contender, Mr. Yushchenko, served as Prime Minister in 2001-2002, and both he and the current Premier, Mr.Yanukovich, were appointed by one and the same President, Leonid Kuchma. The Opposition team also includes another former Prime Minister, Anatoly Kinakh, and half a dozen former Deputy Premiers.

The U.S. attempt to tear Ukraine from Russia has aggravated a deep split that has always existed in Ukraine between the industrialised southeast and agricultural west. The southeast voted heavily for Mr. Yanukovich, who hails from Donetsk, Ukraine's industrial powerhouse, and central and western Ukraine backed Mr. Yushchenko. While the southeastern provinces of Ukraine have been part of Russia and later the Soviet Union for 350 years, western Ukrainians were under Polish and Austro-Hungarian rule for long stretches of history. Half of Ukraine's 48-million population lives in the east, speaks Russian and has Russian cultural and religious roots, while in the west many do not know a word of Russian and have a deeply ingrained suspicion of "imperial" Russia.

After several western regions said they would only recognise Mr. Yushchenko as their President, eastern provinces threatened to set up an "autonomy," fanning fears of a partition of Ukraine. Delegates from 17 Russian-speaking regions, which generate 80 per cent of the country's GDP, met in emergency congress on Sunday to form a coordination council to prepare "adequate action" if Mr. Yushchenko is declared President.

Russian analysts think that Ukraine may indeed break up.

"Ukraine as a sovereign state has existed for the past 13 years only," says Mr. Roy Medvedev, a historian. "The process of nation-building only started when Ukraine became a constituent republic within the Soviet Union and it was far from complete when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991."

For all Western interference, it is Mr. Kuchma who bears the main responsibility for the election crisis in Ukraine. While an Opposition victory could spell disaster for the Kuchma clan (his son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, is one of the wealthiest Ukrainian oligarchs), the President did precious little to promote a credible alternative to Mr. Yushchenko. Even though Mr. Kuchma could choose from half a dozen popular and loyal politicians as his successor he picked Mr. Yanukovich whose two convictions for theft and assault as a teenager made him an easy target for the Opposition.

Mr. Kuchma's plan was to undertake a constitutional reform that would give Parliament, instead of the President, the authority to appoint the Prime Minister. He hoped a weak government challenger to the charismatic Opposition candidate in the presidential race would persuade undecided deputies among Yushchenko opponents to support his power reform bill. However, the plan was stalled as many legislators suspected Mr. Kuchma of trying to prolong his 10-year rule by moving from the President's to the Prime Minister's office.

The political crisis in Ukraine has made constitutional reform inevitable. An emergency session of Parliament called at the weekend to discuss the crisis decided to reopen the reform debate next month. The election has revealed so deep a split between Ukraine's east and west that a President backed by one part of the country can hardly be acceptable to the other. However, a compromise will be easier to strike if Ukraine becomes a parliamentary, rather than a presidential, republic.

Today in Ukraine, as in Russia, the President is omnipotent. He can appoint and sack the Prime Minister and other Ministers and has direct control over the so-called "power ministries" — Defence, Interior, Foreign, and the security service. If the power is redistributed from the President to Parliament, where each region has a fair share of votes, conflicting interests of different territories and pressure groups can be better articulated and reconciled.

However, this may not be enough to preserve the territorial integrity of the country and douse the separatist fires set off by the election controversy. It may be necessary to reconstitute Ukraine from a unitary to a federative state, giving more economic and legislative rights to regions.

Whatever the outcome of the current standoff, the next President will have far less room for manoeuvre and in any case will not be able to drastically change the tack of Ukraine's foreign policy from the East to the West. Ukraine will continue to depend on Russian energy supplies and on the Russian market for its industrial and agricultural produce. And no Ukrainian leader can afford to ignore the interests of the Russian-speaking half of the population.

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