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Analysis & Opinion
27.10.09 Rivals In Conciliation
By Tom Balmforth

As the presidential electoral race kicked off in Ukraine last week, both frontrunners pledged to revive severed ties with Moscow. While Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko promised a new phase of “equal and honorable” relations with the Kremlin in her opening speech on October 24, Party of the Regions leader Viktor Yanukovich said that renewing “a fully-fledged partnership with Russia” was his foreign policy priority. With both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich emerging as rivals keen to rebuild relations with Russia, which horse will the Kremlin back this time?

Relations between Ukraine and its old master have been continually frosty since President Viktor Yushchenko succeeded Kremlin-backed Yanukovich in the 2005 Orange Revolution. And it was business as usual when on August 11, President Dmitry Medvedev launched a bitter personal attack by video blog on Yushchenko’s “anti-Russian” behavior and postponed the appointment of a Russian ambassador to Kiev.

Back in the 2004 elections, Russia publicly backed Yanukovich, and then-President Vladimir Putin personally paid him a visit in Ukraine in the run up to the campaign. Moscow assumed that the post-Soviet establishment would favor the pro-Russian candidate rather than the pro-European integration Yushchenko. When Yanukovich was later found to be the beneficiary of widespread electoral fraud and Yushchenko was swept to power in the peaceful protests that ensued, not only was Moscow deeply embarrassed, but it was also angry that Ukraine now had aspirations to join NATO.

However, with president Yushchenko, whose popularity now languishes around the five percent mark (scarcely in the frame), Russia’s active involvement to support a particular candidate in the January 17, 2010 presidential elections is likely to be far more cautious this time around. “Russia is not going to put all its eggs in one basket,” said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a political analyst and anchor for a political talk-show on Ukraine’s Inter channel. “Judging by what Russian correspondents based here in Kiev are telling me about their editorial policies, they say their editors in Moscow are quite balanced and are not even trying to exert any pressure to get stories that would be one-sided or that would be more favorable to one of the candidates,” he added.

Tymoshenko’s opening campaign speech before cheering crowds of supporters in central Kiev stressed the revival of ties with Moscow, but it also pledged to continue Ukraine’s integration with Europe. Although Kiev’s Western orientation has been one of the major points of disagreement between Russia and Ukraine, it is a mistake to therefore assume that Russia should favor Yanukovich over Tymoshenko. Firstly, she has proven herself as a practical and reliable alternative to Yushchenko in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and, through this, has also built up personal rapport with the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. “Tymoshenko, as cynical as it may sound, fits in with Russia’s interests because Putin seems to have found common ground with her,” said Aleksei Mukhin, the director of the Center for Political Information in Moscow.

Secondly, in spite of Yanukovich’s comparatively dim view of integration with Europe, it is unclear how strongly he would resist such a move. On the one hand, “if Yanukovich wins, probably there will be certain changes in Ukraine’s Atlantic agenda, and Ukraine’s relationship with NATO will slightly change. But then again, when Yanukovich and his supporters are promising that Ukraine will drop its Atlantic ambitions and change its foreign policy to that of a non-aligned country, like Sweden or Switzerland, it may just be pre-election rhetoric, nothing more than that,” said Kiselyov.

Thirdly, an often-overlooked aspect of Yanukovich’s supposedly pro-Russian credentials is that his policy is to a large extent governed by the interests of the Ukrainian business elite that funds him. Yanukovich’s Party of Regions is a “party of very wealthy businessmen. Look at his party list represented in the Ukrainian parliament. Every second person on this list is a multimillionaire from Donetsk, Lugansk, Dniepropetrovsk,” said Kiselyov. “Their interest is mostly in Eastern Europe. They are buying up factories and plants in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary; they are trying to sell gas and extra electric energy to the neighboring countries.”

The Party of Regions’ business interests are often out of kilter with those of Russia’s political and business elite and, if elected, Yanukovich is unlikely to simply open the doors to Russian dominance. “There are many common economic interests [between Russia and Ukraine], but if we take the biggest industries that exist in the Ukraine, like steel mills, iron ore, all kinds of chemicals and agricultural products, they compete with Russia, because the Russian steel industry is in the same bad shape as the Ukrainian one,” said Kiselyov.

As for a future warming in Ukraine-Russia relations, there seems to be little cause for optimism. Past problems between the two countries, such as disagreements over gas and interpretations of history, are not going to disappear with a change of president. After Ukraine’s newly-appointed Foreign Minister Petr Poroshenko met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on October 23, Russia’s Kommersant daily was quick to discern a “warming” in relations. But Mukhin disagreed. “There is no warming in relations. The first of January is approaching, and it is always a time of extremely tense relations,” he said.

The infamous Russia-Ukraine “gas wars” usually take place around this time, when Ukraine’s contracts for gas consumption are due for renegotiation. The issue of gas contracts will continue to mar Russia-Ukraine relations because “Ukraine will need years to adapt its energy consumption to its financial capabilities,” said Andreas Umland, Assistant Professor of Contemporary East European History at The Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt in Bavaria.

Nor will the politically-explosive topic of differing interpretations of history between the two countries disappear overnight. “Putin's government and ‘political technologists’ will continue to present the Baltic countries and Ukraine as quasi-fascist states, thereby distracting attention from Russia's own and much more serious ultra-nationalist tendencies in its youth culture, party politics, religious circles and intellectual life. I do not see any possibility for a lowering of tensions as long as the Russian regime remains as it is today. It will need these conflicts with Ukraine in order to create legitimacy for its non-democratic rule,” Umland concluded.
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