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Opinion: Will Ukraine Choose Russia or the West?

Ute Schaeffer (jp)November 2, 2004

Ukraine's presidential race between Viktor Yanukovich and liberal opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko is neck-and-neck. DW's Ute Schaeffer weighs up the options.

Viktor Yanukovich is backed by the outgoing presidentImage: AP

As Ukraine decides either to deepen ties with Moscow or pursue the liberal policies of its western neighbors, early results Monday showed current Prime Minister Yanukovich is just one percent ahead of his reformist challenger.

An ugly campaign

The Ukrainian electorate was determined not to be compromised. A bitter campaign of political mud-slinging and recrimination was not enough to deter the voters from casting their ballots in what could prove to be a critical poll for the former Soviet state.

They kept their eye firmly on the broader picture, unshaken as the opposition accused the media of a pro-Yanukovich bias and supporters of the establishment's candidate claimed that western-leaning Yushchenko was in cahoots with both the CIA and radical nationalistic groups.

A divided country

The two candidates represent two ends of Ukraine's political spectrum. Prime Minister Yanukovich, backed by Moscow and voters in the Russian-speaking industrial East, wants to strengthen the centralist power of the State, while Yushchenko stands for liberal economics and social reform.

The outcome of Sunday's election shows how precarious Ukraine's future is. In many respects, it's a divided country. Many of the younger generation have studied or worked abroad. Today, they're increasingly alienated from low-income and elderly voters, who can still remember the days of Soviet rule, when life was predictable and economically secure.

Not surprisingly, the western part of the country -- which borders Poland and therefore the EU -- proved to be a Yushchenko stronghold.

More suprisingly, Sunday's outcome suggested the "establishment candidate" Yanukovich failed to win over the country's elite. Up to 75 percent of voters in the capital came out in support of the opposition. As the downfall of the Soviet Union fourteen years ago proved, leadership that lacks the backing of the elite is clearly losing ground.

Crucial factors

The run-off next month will undoubtedly be decided by what now happens behind the scenes.

Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma will want to know how much he can rely on Yanukovich, were he to remain in office. And the oligarchs may switch sides and decide to back Yushchenko. Its questions like these that will influence the results of the run-off. Other crucial factors include the possibility that Yanukovich again raises pensions and public sector wages. The country's communists and radical left may also prove critical. Will they choose West-leaning Yushchenko or Russia-oriented Yanukovich?

Flawed democracy

According to Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkow, the country still lacks a truly democratic candidate. It would be naïve to see the presidential race as a battle between traditionalists and reformers. Viktor Yushchenko's base includes plenty of non-democratic elements, and if he assumes office, he will have to make inevitable concessions.

Nonetheless, during his term as prime minister five years ago, Yushchenko demonstrated that he acknowledges the nation's ties to Russia while believing in social justice and understanding how to prompt market reforms. Under his leadership, Ukraine might not become a flawless democracy, but the country would get its best shot at gradual, lasting change.