Party of Regions Confounds US and European Ukraine Experts

September 25, 2012
Anthony Salvia, Director,
American Institute in Ukraine

Judging by opinion polls and in view of the United Opposition's weakness, the PoR appears to be on track to remain the largest parliamentary party after the October 28th election.

By and large, Western commentators are not pleased by this prospect. They continue to view Ukraine and Eastern Europe through the prism of the Cold War (and, for that matter, the Orange revolution): Yanukovich and the PoR, in their view, are pro-Russian and therefore bad, and the opposition coalition (Fatherland/Front for Change) is pro-Western and therefore good.

Hence, the recent US Senate's passage of a resolution condemning the incarceration of Julia Timoshenko reflects a prevalent US misperception of what is happening in Ukraine. The Senate action is less a matter of humanitarian concern for the plight of Mrs. Timoshenko than an effort to embarrass a Kiev administration some senators deem unacceptably pro-Moscow.

The reality is more complex: the PoR has shown itself as capable of saying no to Moscow as was the current opposition when it ruled prior to 2010; indeed, one could argue that nothing the PoR has done has been more pro-Russian than the gas pricing deal Timoshenko negotiated with Moscow, and which is still in force.

In many respects, the PoR has emerged as a Ukrainian national party, no less so than Fatherland. Under Yanukovich and Azarov, Kiev has made some gestures towards Moscow (renewal of Russia's lease on its Black Sea naval base, for example), but has more often resisted Russia in a number of vital areas -- on joining the Customs Union, turning Ukraine's pipeline network over to Gazprom, refusing to diplomatically recognize Georgia's breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, opposing the Russian-led South Stream pipeline project, etc. You can agree or disagree with Kiev's policies, but it is a stretch to call them accommodationist. (And while the status of the Russian language in Ukraine doesn’t directly concern state-to-state ties with Russia, President Yanukovich’s unwillingness to delivery fully on his pledge to elevate Russian to national – and not just regional – status is not lost on Moscow either.)

As badly divided as Ukrainian parties are (and as overheated the rhetoric), what is emerging is a clear consensus on maintaining good relations with Moscow even while standing up for Ukraine in matters that touch on its essential sovereignty. Svoboda might not see it that way, but Svoboda has been marginalized.

In the end, the PoR’s likely showing at the polls next month presents western critics with an interesting and uncomfortable dual irony. First, Ukrainian “nationalism” of the “Orange,” “pro-western,” anti-Russian kind will continue to be a declining stock. Second, a large part of that decline is due to the PoR’s unforeseen emergence as the de facto champion of Ukraine’s independent path.