Five years ago, alleged electoral fraud and a suspicious poisoning attempt on presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian protesters out onto the streets of Kyiv. In the aftermath of what came to be called the Orange Revolution and Yushchenko’s rise to the presidency, it seemed as though Ukraine was on a track that would eventually allow it to catch up with its neighbors to the west. Although it is lagging behind former communist states to its west like Poland and the Czech Republic, Ukraine is still better off, relative to most of the former Soviet republics. According to Freedom House’s annual ranking, it is the freest of these states, excluding the Baltic countries, and its close ties with Europe suggest that it has the potential to someday join NATO and even the EU.
Now though, with the first presidential election since the Orange Revolution approaching, Ukraine seems to be in danger of losing the tenuous progress it has made since it broke off from the Soviet Union 18 years ago. The country’s economy was devastated by the recession and the partnership between Yushchenko and Yulia Timoshenko, his prime minister, is now riven by feuding and electoral politics. Especially in light of recent Russian attempts to influence Ukrainian politics, the international community needs to make an effort to show support for maintaining democratic government in Ukraine and to demonstrate its commitment to protect Ukraine from foreign intervention.
When Ukrainians go to the polls this January, they will be choosing between Yushchenko, his prime minister and former partner, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s rival in the last election, along with 15 others. The lack of clarity on how much power the president can actually exercise has been cited as a major factor in the split between Yuschenko and Timoshenko. Whether Ukraine elects a leader who will try to move in a more authoritarian direction or one who is more willing to work with the prime minister and parliament will undoubtedly be a major factor in the direction Ukrainian democracy will move in.
The election is also likely to have significant bearing on Ukraine’s relations with its neighbors. In the last Ukrainian election, Moscow declared its support for Yanukovich, who has taken a distinctly more pro-Russian stance than the current president. And although Russia has not publicly supported any of the candidates this time around, it has made moves in the past few months that seem calculated to influence the outcome of the election. In August, President Dmitry Medvedev sent a letter to Yushchenko criticizing him for his pro-Western stance, and declaring that Russia will not send an ambassador to Ukraine until the government revises its policies toward Russia— or until a government more friendly toward Russia comes to power.
While Ukrainian voters—many of whom are still anti-Russian—are unlikely to be swayed by Moscow’s political angling, the Kremlin’s clear interest in the outcome of the election suggests a worrying desire to interfere more directly in Ukrainian affairs. Since Russia’s war with Georgia in August of last year, some analysts have raised concerns that Russia would try to intervene militarily in Ukraine as well. Russia has recently shown concern for the large Russian population in the eastern and southern parts of the country, and Russia’s lease on the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, where its Black Sea Fleet is currently based, will run out in 2017, with the concern that the Ukrainian government will refuse to renew it.
Of course, it is not entirely fair to characterize Russia as the big, bad imperialist here. Past conflicts between Ukraine and Russia, most recently last January’s quarrel over gas pipelines to the rest of Europe, have been caused by provocations on both sides. However, Russia cannot be allowed to threaten its neighbor simply because Ukraine looks more favorably toward Western Europe than toward Russia.
While Russia has not done anything illegal in its relations with Ukraine, it is likely to make more moves as the election approaches to push for the election of someone who will be more favorable to Russian interests. If this happens, the United States and NATO cannot sit quietly while Russia bullies Ukraine’s government into following its line. President Obama already showed Moscow that he is willing to be flexible when he agreed to scrap Bush-era plans for a missile defense system viewed by Russia as threatening. Now, he must show that he is also willing to stand up to Russia, and any further attempts to influence the election must be met by strong rebukes. If the United States really wants to “reset” its relations with Russia, then it needs to be willing to stand up to Russia’s attempts to walk over its neighbors. Without the chance to recover from the recession and sort out its own political problems free from Russian intervention, Ukraine will never be able to progress beyond its Soviet past and become a wealthy and solidly-democratic state.
Ellen C. Bryson ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Cabot House.