Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s election: the attempt to turn Yanukovich into a "Ukrainian Putin" has failed


“If Russia lost Kiev, it would be left all alone with its internal torments,” said Le Figaro (France) on Tuesday, November 23 (translated into Russian by Sergei Buntman from Echo of Moscow radio). According to Le Figaro, this is precisely why Moscow has been “stirring up the old embers of confrontation with the West” during Ukraine’s presidential election campaign.

The Times takes a similar view of the situation: “This election has turned into a proxy contest reminiscent of the Cold War, with the West funding supporters of Mr Yushchenko and Moscow sending political advisers to work on the Prime Minister’s campaign.” (A translation of this quote appeared in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.)

The Ukrainian opposition is complaining about administrative resources being misused in favor of Yanukovich, says Olga Romanova in the Vedomosti newspaper: “It’s said with a childlike innocence. Oh, they’ve never seen administrative resources used in elections before – like in Russia, for example – and, God willing, they never shall.”

After all, using administrative resources to influence elections, “as in Russia,” can only be effective if voters are completely apathetic: “But there’s no sign of any social apathy in Ukraine.” In Romanova’s view, Ukraine is “a strong, independent, and influential European state.”

This has become very evident, says Romanova, following the second round of voting: “The economy is growing, political processes are functioning freely and actively, the people are well-informed about the policies and ideology of their politicians and capable of discussing them knowledgeably at any time.”

Kommersant-Vlast magazine takes the view that Kiev today greatly resembles Moscow 13 or 14 years ago.

“As in Moscow back then, the opposition in Kiev finds it fairly easy to gather hundreds of thousands of people for its rallies. As in Moscow back then, there is now an extremely high level of protest among Kiev residents, and they have a sense of being personally involved in historically significant changes.” Essentially, says Kommersant-Vlast, Ukraine is now “experiencing a wave of the anti-communist revolution that peaked in Moscow in August 1991.”

Moreover, according to Kommersant-Vlast, it was due to the Moscow scenario of 1991 that Ukraine gained its independence: “All the romantic histories of a heroic victory for the Ukrainian people in their centuries-old battle for independence were officially legitimated in Ukraine only after the event, and with only one goal: to secure legitimacy for the former Soviet nomenklatura elite in its efforts to remain in power.” Actually, says Kommersant-Vlast, the nomenklatura had no clear idea of exactly where it was supposed to lead Ukraine, the nation it had so unexpectedly gained.

The self-definition process created the two “most persistent myths of Ukrainian politics: seeking the protection of Russia, or seeking the protection of the West.”

Kommersant-Vlast says: “Both myths are founded on the elite’s extreme reluctance to take responsibility for the state of affairs in Ukraine. This political immaturity has been largely supported by the policy of Leonid Kuchma, balancing between Russia and the West.”

For some time, while Russia was preoccupied with its domestic problems and the European Union with its eastward expansion, Kuchma’s policy was effective. Now, however, it has reached its limit. As a result, two powerful factions have come forward in the election campaign, declaring themselves willing to take responsibility for Ukraine’s future.

Each has its own peculiarities. According to Kommersant-Vlast, the “Donetsk clan” led by Viktor Yanukovich has “a clear business plan for the company called Ukraine” – but it has made little effort to explain its political position. The supporters of Viktor Yushchenko, on the other hand – partly due to their diversity – emphasise public politics. Their major argument is the success of state-building in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

The question is whether the confrontation between “Yanukovich the patriot” and “Yushchenko the democrat” (or, as they refer to each other, “Yanukovich the bandit” and “Yushchenko the American spy”) will go as far as open confrontation, as in Moscow in 1991.

Beyond the politically-aware residents of the major cities, the rest of Russia observed the stormy events of 1991 with some amazement. Ukraine, on the contrary, split into two almost equal parts as soon as the results of the first round of voting were announced. Thus, no matter who wins, half the country will be against him from the start. Kommersant-Vlast notes: “Ukraine, unlike the United States, has no tradition or political experience of resolving such conflicts via the mechanisms of public politics.” In the lead-up to the second round of voting on November 21, Yushchenko’s supporters spoke openly of being prepared to go to the barricades “if the authorities steal our victory.”

This intention only strengthened when exit poll results were announced on Sunday night. Valery Paniushkin, a correspondent for the Kommersant newspaper, claims that even a source within Yanukovich’s campaign team was aware of the real exit poll figures: 55% to 43% in Yushchenko’s favor.

But no one in Yanukovich’s campaign team doubts that Yanukovich will win, eventually. The Kommersant source within the campaign team said: “Yushchenko’s supporters are fools, we even feel sorry for them… Why are they bothering with protest rallies? Besides the absentee ballots, there are also the spoiled ballot papers, all of which are being counted as votes for Yanukovich, and the votes against all candidates, also being counted as votes for Yanukovich.”

It is worth noting that the gap between Yanukovich and Yushchenko was about 0.5% in the first round of voting, and not much bigger in the second round: about 3%.

Not surprisingly, following the official announcement of the election results, Viktor Yushchenko told his supporters gathered on Independence Square that “the authorities have stolen 3.1 million votes from us,” and over 11,000 violations had been reported (five times more than in the first round), and “everything is only just beginning.”

Yulia Timoshenko, a leading Ukrainian politician, expressed herself even more emotionally: “After 13 years of slavery, this time we won’t leave the square until we have gained power, because now we have become an army of the people.”

According to Kommersant, Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces and co-chairman of the Free Choice 2008 Committee, also spoke out at Independence Square: “In my view, this alliance between a chekist and a repeat offender is a kind of perversion.”

The Izvestia newspaper says there are four possible outcomes for the “orange revolution.” The first is the least likely: both sides reaching a compromise. “Working out and announcing some rules of the game, and agreeing to abide by them.”

Then there is the radical option. According to Izvestia, the outcome would be unpredictable – the use of force to crush the opposition, or the use of force to seize power and declare Yushchenko president. This scenario is what the Ukrainian authorities fear most: any incautious action, or even statement, could prove to be “the match that sets off the big explosion,” says Izvestia.

The third option would involve the judiciary: an attempt to challenge the election results through the courts. This path is too slow and uncertain, given the current emotional confrontation.

Finally, there’s the fourth option: the revolution on the streets could fade out of its own accord (“it’s impossible to demonstrate every day”) – with no overt counter-measures taken by the authorities.

Izvestia considers this to be the most likely outcome: “Ukraine would continue to have a powerful, well-organized opposition, ready to raise the orange banner at any time. Under the circumstances, President Yanunkovich would essentially have his hands and feet tied – but at least he would be president.”

The Vedomosti newspaper stresses that with the strength of the two opponents being roughly equal (“one has the support of Moscow and nine industrialized regions in southern and eastern Ukraine, while the other is backed by the European Union, the youth of Kiev, and all of western Ukraine”), neither side has an interest in seeing a repeat of the Yugoslavia or Georgia scenarios.

Moreover, if the president were appointed by a mob that seized the parliament, as in Georgia, Ukraine’s leader “would lack the major political tool used by all his predecessors: a multilateral foreign policy.” With a fair amount of healthy cynicism, Vedomosti observes that “if it lost one of its mothers, the delicate little child that is Kiev might become gravely ill.”

In Profil magazine, Svetlana Babaeva says: “The battle between Russia and the West for influence over former Soviet states has reached its peak in Kiev. That’s why Moscow is up in arms against Yushchenko: the idea is that he would look elsewhere for guidance.” And the West is far from pleased at the prospect of “a Moscow-planned victory for Yanukovich – precisly because it would be a victory for Moscow, and thus a victory for ‘Russia’s new imperialist approaches.'”

Both sides believe that Ukraine’s election marks a boundary, beyond which developments will take a new course: “Not only in Ukraine, but all countries where the power-struggle between pro-West and pro-Russian approaches continues.”

Thus, says Babaeva, it appears that the constant diplomatic assurances about partnership between Russia and the West are completely meaningless: the reality is all about “mistrust and confrontation.”

Babaeva draws a paradoxical conclusion: a Yushchenko victory would actually be better for Russia. Yushchenko is not “ours” – so all agreements would be nullified, and Russia would have to build up its entire system of relations from scratch: not with a puppet candidate, but with an independent leader who does not owe his election to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin.

In that case, says Babaeva, the Russian establishment would have to learn to negotiate with Ukraine as an independent state, albeit one that shares economic and cultural roots with Russia.

In fact, ordinary Russian citizens would also have to revise their attitudes to Ukraine. Deep down, they still don’t believe that Russia’s neighbor is independent.

But with Yanukovich as president, says Babaeva, “Russia’s countless expectations would increase, rapidly developing into demands – some of which Yanukovich would certainly be unable and unwilling to fulfill.” And this would have an immediate impact on Russian-Ukrainian relations.

Kommersant-Vlast is also sure that Yanukovich, “preoccupied with establishing control over the Ukrainian economy and repelling the attacks of his rivals,” would be in no position to satisfy Russia’s appetites.

Moreover, says Kommersant-Vlast, Yanukovich probably wouldn’t be able to keep his campaign promises about giving Russian the status of an official language and permitting dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship. “These promises cannot be kept, if only because they would require the parliament to approve amendments to constitutional law, and the new head of state would not have control over the parliament.” And it’s unlikely that President Yanukovich would agree to hold a referendum – that would mean another spiral of confrontation with the opposition.

Thus, says Kommersant-Vlast, Ukraine would find itself in an uncertain position – as it has with Leonid Kuchma as president – “with an ill-defined foreign policy orientation, and incessant power-struggles between rival clans that are totally alienated from the public interest.” Meanwhile, most of Ukraine’s citizens “would either continue expecting a miracle, or remain convinced that if Viktor Yushchenko had gained the victory he deserved at the presidential election, that miracle would have happened.”

On the other hand, says Kommersant-Vlast, neither should we forget that even if Yushchenko won, he still wouldn’t become a “Ukrainian Saakashvili”: Georgia’s new leader came to power with unanimous support from the absolute majority of voters, whereas half of Ukraine is firmly opposed to Yushchenko. As a result, the new president would face an inevitable and vicious battle against old factions within the elite, reluctant to part with power and property.

What’s more, Russia would interpret a Yushchenko victory as a personal defeat for Vladimir Putin: “Despite the fact that it might well be easier for Russia to reach agreement on economic issues with Yushchenko than with Kuchma or Yanukovich, since Yushchenko is not bound by commitments to Ukraine’s major oligarchs.” According to Kommersant-Vlast, regardless of the circumstances, Moscow would do everything in its power to prove “how terrible the consequences of a ‘nationalist’ candidate’s victory are – even if this is contrary to the interests of Ukrainian companies.”

The Kommersant-Vlast article about the two favorites in Ukraine’s presidential election is titled “Both Are Worse.”

Profil magazine observes that Moscow doesn’t want to admit that any president of Ukraine will need to act according to a formula determined by the common infrastructure of Ukraine and Russia, and the close ties between their citizens. “Regardless of the outcome, there will be no complete reversal of the agenda. American companies will not buy up all Ukrainian assets, German companies will not privatize the Ukrainian economy, and Polish companies will not turn Ukrainians into the szlachta.”

Moscow simply “fears the prospect of finding itself in a new system of coordinates,” and therefore “continues fighting for cities which have long since been surrendered – and which there was no real need to conquer, in the old imperialist sense of the term. That’s because it is much better, and more profitable, for us to be there as guests rather than conquerors: we’ll end up with more.”

Marat Gelman, a leading Russian political consultant who worked for Yanukovich’s campaign team, gave an interview to the Lviv Gazette; this was subsequently reprinted by the Moskovskie Novosti weekly.

According to Gelman, the first round of voting made it clear that if Yanukovich wins, Russia would lost the confidence of the Ukrainian people. “And we value contacts with the people of Ukraine far more than contacts with any hypothetical leaders of Ukraine.” It’s noticeable that Gelman is virtually speaking on behalf of the Kremlin: “For the first time, the Russian authorities have attempted a dialogue with Ukrainian voters… It hasn’t worked.”

Now that the election is over, says Gelman, some serious issues come to the fore: “Will there be bloodshed? Will there be widespread civil disobedience? Will the Ukrainian state retain its integrity? Will there be close contact between Putin and the new president of Ukraine?”

Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces, was the only Russian politician to visit Ukraine during the election. In an interview with the Gazeta newspaper, he said he does not believe Kiev will witness any “bloody clashes – to use the favorite term of Russian political consultants, who are here in great numbers.” According to Nemtsov, 75% of Kiev residents, including police officers, voted for Yushchenko.

Nemtsov said: “A civil war requires an approximately equal split between people in the same location – then it’s ‘brother against brother.’ In Ukraine, however, the supporters of Yushchenko and Yanukovich live in different locations.”

As for suggestions that large numbers of Yushchenko opponents might be transported to Kiev, enough of them to start fighting in the streets – Nemtsov says this “can’t be taken seriously.” But there are some grounds for this; Nemtsov told Gazeta: “Exit polls done by a consortium of polling agencies reveal quite the opposite picture from the one painted by the Central Election Commission: 54% of the vote for Yushchenko and 43% for Yanukovich.” Nemtsov added that he is “glad to see that the Ukrainian people have an amazing sense of their own dignity, and won’t go along with being blatantly tricked.”

According to Nemtsov, Yushchenko “is not inclined to violence,” and has already managed to learn a lesson from this election: “The ‘Russia factor,’ the interests of Ukraine’s eastern regions, and the interests of the Crimea need to be taken into account.”

If the Ukrainian parliament doesn’t listen to the opposition’s arguments, Nemtsov predicts a re-count or a repeat election: “Fortunately, Leonid Kuchma is healthy and capable, unlike Ardzinba in Abkhazia, and he could continue to carry out his duties during this transition period.”

“Ukraine is split along the Dnieper,” says the Vremya Novostei newspaper.

In an interview with Vremya Novostei, Motherland (Rodina) party and faction leader Dmitri Rogozin says Ukraine’s election has proved that using administrative resources in a campaign can do more harm than good. “The use of administrative resources probably killed off any opportunities Yanukovich may have been able to use if he wasn’t the prime minister.” Rogozin stresses that Ukraine will face “an inevitable crisis of political power” in the immediate future.

Valery Khomiakov, general director of the National Strategy Council, told Vremya Novostei: “Russia has been too linear, somehow, in backing Yanukovich. We probably should have had a more flexible policy on the presidential election in Ukraine.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta is even more severe in its comments on Russia’s involvement: “The attempt to turn Yanukovich into a ‘Ukrainian Putin’ was doomed from the start.”

Yanukovich, “with his two criminal convictions, his murky past in Donetsk, his lack of people skills and presentation,” is strikingly different from “the refined Putin, well-trained in the etiquette of diplomacy.” Besides, the people of Ukraine “have less and less liking for the situation in Russia, where a ‘strong hand’ leader is in power, but contrary to expectations, order has not improved.”

As the people of Russia observe Ukraine’s election, all they can do is remember 1991 – when they also believed that they could actually change something. But now, as Profil notes, “we’re not even particularly interested in our own elections.”

Russian citizens certainly show little interest in the Ukrainian election. A poll done by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) showed that 56% of respondents didn’t know which candidate Russia was supporting; 19% thought Russia was neutral; 5% thought the Russian authorities were supporting Yushchenko; and only 20% knew Russia was supporting Yanukovich.

Leading pollster Yuri Levada commented: “The Russian people don’t understand the state of affairs in Ukraine or in Russian-Ukrainian relations.”

The Levada Center polling agency considers that the people of Russia, unlike the people of Ukraine, “are completely lacking in any kind of social identity” – and that is why they (we) “are so apolitical.”

But Ukrainian society, according to the Levada Center, consists of three equal parts with clear identitites: “The Uniate Ukrainians of the west, the Orthodox Ukrainians, and the Russians.” In the absence of one leader supported by the whole nation, the election has split this society.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that Yushchenko is viewed by his supporters as something akin to “a hero in the old sagas, who rides in and conquers evil.” For the first time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, democratically-minded voters have been prepared to put up a real fight for their leader’s victory – and attempts to counter this with political techniques practised in Russia have certainly looked pathetic.

Then again, as Profil notes, “the Russian authorities aren’t at all interested in what Russia’s political consultants find interesting. And ordinary citizens aren’t interested in what the Russian authorities find interesting.”

In contrast to the people of Ukraine, ordinary citizens in Russia know perfectly well that the nation’s future doesn’t really depend on which particular individual becomes its president.