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Opinion: What Next for Ukraine's Foreign Policy?

Ute Schaeffer (jp)November 23, 2004

In Ukraine, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovich has emerged as the winner of a presidential election many have denounced as undemocratic. DW's Ute Schaeffer looks at repercussions for the nation's foreign policy.

Yanukovich won what was called "an east-west showdown"Image: AP

The western media billed Sunday's election as a vote for either Russia or Europe -- a choice between a return to the Soviet past or integration with Europe. Pro-Western liberal opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was set to tilt the nation further to the West, while Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich hails from the traditional, Russian-speaking East of the country. His foreign policy is therefore expected to build on strengthening ties with Moscow, with relations to Europe a secondary concern.

Blurred lines

But the issue isn't quite so black and white. During his term as prime minister between 1999 and 2001, Yushchenko also cultivated close economic ties with Russia. He was brought down in a no-confidence vote in 2001, organized by the oligarch-led parties and the Communist Party, primarily because of his anti-corruption agenda -- and not because his policies were at odds with Russian interests, as many speculated at the time.

Meanwhile, Yanukovich has also been criticized -- not least by Moscow -- for a restrictive economic policy in his home region of Donezk, eastern Ukraine, because Russian businesses have been unable to buy their way in.

Nonetheless, its was apparent during the election campaign that Yanukovich had the Kremlin's backing. Russian President Vladimir Putin paid two visits to Kiev, praising Yanukovich's economic policy and making a great public show of his support.

Ukraine and Russia

In return, however, Moscow will now expect the new Ukrainian president to protect Russian business interests in the country, which include first and foremost energy concerns. Some 90 percent of the Russian Gazprom corporation's exports are transported to western Europe via Ukrainian pipelines -- revenue crucial to the survival of the Russian economy. Tax revenue from Gazprom makes up one third of Russia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The country's economic growth hangs by the fragile thread of its increasing energy exports. An independent-minded Ukrainian president could cut that thread all-too-easily.

Der russische Präsident Vladimir Putin trifft sich mit seinem ukrainischen Amtskollegen Kuchma
Image: AP

The outcome of the recent election is therefore of key importance to Moscow. The appointment of Yanukovich would guarantee further development of the Single Economic Space (EEP) signed a year ago. The agreement was reached by outgoing President Leonid Kutschma (pictured, with Putin) and his counterparts in Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with the aim of creating a customs union and integrated economic zone.

Ukraine and Europe

Viktor Juschtschenko Wahlen Ukraine Präsidentschaftskandidat der Opposition
Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko addresses his supporters in front of an election poster showing him and his youngest son Taras, in Kiev, early Monday, Nov. 1, 2004. Yanukovych led the high-tension presidential race in this post-Soviet republic with about 48 percent of the vote, not enough for a first-round victory, the Central Elections Commission said early on Monday.(AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)Image: AP

But the presidential race is, above all, a test of the political climate in Ukraine.

Prime Minister Yanokovich and President Kutschma have kept a tight rein on the national media, while rival presidential candidate Yushchenko (pictured) pledged to uphold freedom of the press. And while political pressure within state structures and among civil servants became increasingly oppressive in the run-up to the election, Yushchenko successfully managed to unite the heterogenous opposition.

As prime minister, he went some way to establishing a socially-oriented market economy, while Yanokovich's social agenda included little more than last-minute promises of increases to pensions and public sector wages.

Ukraine is a classic transit nation, sharing borders with seven countries. For this reason, any Ukrainian government will have to develop policies geared to both West and East. The vote showed how divided the country is. Part of the electorate -- the majority, according to official figures -- voted for strong-arm tactics based on Soviet models. But at the same time, interest in fundamentally restructuring Ukrainian politics and economics is clearly gaining ground -- as Yushchenko's popularity showed.

The presidential election was a battle over whether to face East or West. Soon, Europe will have to decide what sort of a Ukraine it wants to cooperate with and support. With Yanukovich in office, this cooperation won't be easy.