President Viktor Yanukovych: What to Expect? What Does Ukraine Need?

February 17, 2010

Despite some predictions to the contrary, the Second Round of Ukraine’s presidential vote held on February 7 was conducted as smoothly as the First Round on January 17. Observers from both East and West gave high marks to the peaceful and orderly conduct of the vote, which was without exception described as free and fair. With the congratulations of leaders from Europe, Russia, the United States, and even from NATO, Viktor Yanukovych now faces the formidable task of forming a new government to address the massive problems Ukraine now faces.

What does Mr. Yanukovych’s election mean for Ukraine? AIU asked the following experts:

Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute (Washington)

Five years ago, Western governments and NGOs did their best to support the so-called Orange Revolution, which propelled Viktor Yushchenko into the Ukrainian presidency. But Yushchenko’s performance in office was widely viewed as a disaster. One of his former supporters said simply: “He did not live up to our expectations.”

Yushchenko’s failure serves as a stark reminder of the risks when Washington intervenes in foreign politics. Though Yushchenko was more obviously pro-Western than his 2004 rival (and 2010 winner) Viktor Yanukovych, in practice the differences were smaller than advertised. Even the latter advocates membership in the European Union, for instance, and Yushchenko never found public or political support for his plan to join NATO.

Even worse, Yushchenko proved to be one of the least competent politicians ever elected head of state. Despite the euphoria of more liberal and Western-leaning elites at Yushchenko’s victory, Ukrainian politics quickly turned into a national soap opera. Yushchenko and his erstwhile ally Yulia Tymoshenko periodically broke up and reunited; Yushchenko switched dance partners, making Yanukovych prime minister. In the meantime the economy stagnated, reform halted, relations with Russia deteriorated, and the Ukrainian people grew frustrated. Yanukovych headed the opposition with the largest party in parliament as Yushchenko’s party imploded. Tymoshenko’s reputation also took a hit in the resulting political and economic imbroglio.

Now, any way you look at it, the Orange Revolution is dead. In the 2010 contest, even Tymoshenko indicated her interest in maintaining good relations with Moscow and temporized on the question of joining NATO, which is opposed by a majority of Ukrainians. For those outside Ukraine, at least, it doesn’t matter much who becomes Ukraine’s next president. It especially does not matter to America. Kiev’s status, policies, and orientation aren’t of significant interest to Washington. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Russia won’t be able to pick up the pieces, irrespective of its relationship with Ukraine. Creating an alliance with an independent Kiev would strengthen America against Moscow, but for what purpose? The idea of a Russian attack on the United States is a paranoid fantasy. Russia, with or without Ukraine, would lose overwhelmingly. The Putin government wants to be treated with respect internationally; it takes Russian security very seriously, but has only limited ambitions. Whatever Moscow’s attitude toward the states neighboring its border which had been part of the Soviet Union, there is no realistic chance of a Russian attack on the other nations of Europe or beyond. In fact, expanding NATO to Russia’s border has made Moscow more paranoid and confrontational. Georgia’s hope for Western protection from Russian military action proved stillborn: no sane American policy maker would risk Washington to protect Tbilisi. There is no more enthusiasm for promising to go to war over Ukraine.

U.S. meddling in other nations also can spark national and regional instability. America is not alone in attempting to influence events in other countries, of course. But even if Washington’s objectives are more laudable-supporting (sometimes) more democratic forces, for instance-the consequences still often are counterproductive. There are many reasons U.S. relations with Russia soured; promoting a pro-Western revolution in Moscow’s big southern neighbor exacerbated Moscow’s existing paranoia.

Washington has a long history of intervening in other countries. While the consequences have not always been disastrous, the results most often have been disappointing. Even when the United States got the foreign governments it desired, Washington rarely enjoyed the geopolitical benefits it expected. Such has been the case in Ukraine.

James George Jatras, Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Ukraine should be congratulated on having conducted a free and fair vote in an overall orderly process. International observers, including from the OSCE, gave high marks on the conduct of the vote, as was true of the first round as well. This is an important positive step in building Ukraine’s image as a normal, democratic European country, which Ukraine desperately needs right now. What Ukraine also needs is a prompt and orderly installation of the new president and formation of a new government with the broadest possible base.

No one should envy Mr. Yanukovych taking the presidency at such a time. He faces an extremely formidable task, especially regarding the economy, but also in financial, security, cultural-linguistic, moral-spiritual, and demographic sectors. I expect him to reach out to a broad spectrum of opinion in Ukraine, including to his former rivals, to pursue a balananced and moderate path. This is the only way if he is to reconcile the deep divisions that have arisen in Ukraine, and to balance the country’s interests with respect to Europe, Russia, the United States, and other partners. Ukraine needs to “find its place” in this part of Europe, including on the security front, where Ukraine needs to pursue a moderate policy of neutrality. Mr. Yanukovych has a lot of work to do. All citizens of Ukraine, and all foreign friends of Ukraine, should wish him well.

Anthony T. Salvia, Executive Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Western press commentary on the Ukrainian election picked up on two major themes: (1) the final result was too close to allow the victor to claim a mandate; (2) the victor is pro-Moscow. Some commentators have conflated the two points to suggest that Viktor Yanukovych lacks a mandate to carry out significant reforms, including in the areas of foreign and national security policy. This may represent wishful thinking on the parts of commentators who have no desire to see Kiev mend fences with Moscow.

The fact is that more than 75% of the vote in the first round went to candidates who advocated burying the hatchet with Moscow: Yanukovych called for neutrality, Tymoshenko wanted any prospect of Ukraine joining NATO membership relegated to the back burner, and Yatseniuk, of all people, called for a revived “Kievan Rus’” that gathers Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics into a new customs union. Tigipko, like Yanukovych, called for neutrality. He objected to Yushchenko's policy of ensnaring Russia in what he called a cordon sanitaire, pointing out, correctly, that this policy did more harm to Ukraine than to Russia.

In addition to conducting one of the freest and fairest elections ever held on post-Soviet soil, Ukrainians voters impressed the world with their realism and sound judgment. It never did make sense for Ukraine, with per capita GDP half of Kazakhstan’s, to participate in the encirclement of a nuclear armed superpower, one that is also its largest trading partner and the key to its economic success. Can one imagine Canada attempting such a maneuver against the United States? Can one imagine how the U.S. would react if it did?

And it made even less sense for America to turn its back on the legacy of Reagan and Gorbachev, who laid the groundwork for an entente between the western and eastern parts of Europe that was the logical outcome of the end of the Cold War. Is it too much to hope that, with the demolition of the ill-starred Orange Revolution, the states of pan-Europe—the U.S., the EU and its member states, and Ukraine and Russia—can begin working towards a common Northern Hemispheric security zone? This objective is the moral imperative of our time. It’s also the only sensible way of staving off challenges from Islamist extremism and a dynamically rising China.

The Yanukovych victory comes in the context of on-going global financial uncertainties, and the serial failure of misconceived U.S. policies in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Neither the Rose nor the Orange Revolution worked out as planned, and efforts to dismember Serbia led directly to the dismemberment of Georgia. Washington must give serious consideration as to the wisdom and practicality of its efforts to re-engineer the world. This augurs well for President-elect Yanukovych to realize what he recently referred to as his goal of making Ukraine into a bridge between the eastern and western parts of Europe, between Russia and the EU. This is a highly worthy goal. What pan-Europe needs is bridges, not walls.

Vlad Sobell, Emerging Markets Economist for Economic Research, Daiwa Securities Capital Markets (London)

Mr. Yanukovych’s win means, above all, the end of the sterile Orange policies of confrontation with Russia - Ukraine's key “natural” partner - and of internal (intra-Orange) fights. The Orange regime placed priority of geo-political issues, such as membership in NATO, while ignoring Ukraine’s real needs, namely economic reforms and the maintenance of constructive relations with both Russia and the European Union. In this respect, it abandoned the principle of equidistance between Russia and the West established by President Kuchma, which is the natural position of Ukraine. In any case, placing a priority on geopolitics in a desperately poor country amounted to “putting the cart before the horse” - genuine independence comes from economic strength, not from external military alliances; and vice versa, the loss of independence is rooted in economic weakness and chronic political chaos.

From a Yanukovych Administration I expect the restoration of the principle of equidistance (i.e., the correction of the points made above) and the focus on the economy. This will necessitate swift passing of the budget for 2010 acceptable to the IMF - which will mean the abandonment of the plans to increase public sector wages and pensions and a program of domestic gas price rises. Yanukovych will seek to create a workable coalition in the present parliament and the removal of PM Tymoshenko as soon as possible. Failing that, he would have to call fresh parliamentary elections, which Ukraine can ill afford given the scale of the crisis.

As far as advice goes, I would say: stick to equidistance - this is the position from which Ukraine can benefit the most. Ditch NATO, but push for EU membership. Implement EU-relevant reforms without waiting for instructions from Brussels. Participation in the Russia-led customs union (Eurasec - which includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) need not necessarily preclude moves towards the EU. On domestic political front, push for a constitutional settlement to do away with the present competition between the parliament, the presidency and the cabinet. Ukraine needs a clear line of executive power (essentially the same as what happened in Russia with the creation of the presidential system after the conflicts in 1992-1993). D o not confuse democracy with chronic chaos, and if need be reach for a strong rule a la Putin. Democracy does not mean license for all and for anything; above all it is the rule of law. N o Western country (that is, no developed democracy) would put up with chronic chaos and instability such as that we have seen in Ukraine in the past five years.

Srdja Trifkovic, Executive Director of The Lord Byron Foundation for Global Studies, and Director, Center for International Affairs, Rockford Institute.

The main result of the end of the Orange regime and the accession of Yanukovych is that Ukraine will become a more normal country. Russophobic Orangism has always been a minority obsession, but after Yushchenko it is thoroughly discredited as a practical project and will be confined (for some years to come, at least) to the Galician region in the west of the country. The rest of Ukraine can finally get on with focusing on pragmatic solutions to real problems. That means: NATO is off the agenda, Russia will step in with soft loans, there will be no gas disputes, the Black Sea Fleet’s home base lease will be extended, lip service will be paid to the EU membership in the knowledge that it will not happen. As for advice, I think Yanukovych should publically invite Tymoshenko to join his team “in the spirit of unity,” for the good of the country, and so forth. It would be a lose-lose proposition for her either way.