13 February 2010

Ukraine: Back to Normal

For a principled non-voter I sure follow many elections. Most recently the one in Ukraine. The result of the second round surprised me somewhat. I assumed that Timoshenko had been hurt more for presiding, as the prime minister, over the most recent economic downturn and that Yanukovich's margin of victory would therefore be greater than the 3.5 points he won by in the end. I guess it goes to show just how uninspiring a politician Yanukovich is and perhaps just how entrenched political preferences are across Ukraine's regions.

Still the most significant shift in Ukrainian politics happened long before the second round and even long before the elections themselves. The spectacular demise of the project of Orange Revolution. After their rise to power the orange partners quickly became bitter enemies, finally Yushchenko's ratings plummeted while Timoshenko ended up softening her stances, sometimes radically so, from the ones she was voicing in 2004. So whatever the outcome of the second round a large shift in Ukraine was inevitable either way.

Too much should never be made of any elections, particularly in a corrupt, dysfunctional state like Ukraine. At the end of the day elections in Ukraine are most fundamentally bitter hand-wrestling contests between adverse oligarch clans and no side should be seen as having many positives associated with it. At the same time nonetheless quite a bit was at stake for the populace. More so than is usually the case in elections elsewhere, which is confirmed by the high turnout — 69% in the second round.

Yushchenko's win would have meant the continuation of the orange, anti-Russian course, Timoshenko's victory its cessation and Yanukovich's victory its reversal. In the end Yushchenko was handed a total defeat, his bankrupt vision garnering a puny 5% of the votes - possibly some sort of a record low for an incumbent candidate while, as said, Yanukovich ended up edging out Timoshenko.

Foreign policy is only one aspect of the difference between the options in the Ukraine election, however. Fundamentally questions regarding the relationship between Ukraine and Russia are not about Russia and Ukraine, but about Ukrainians themselves. The approach taken by the ruling structures in Ukraine in regard to issues like the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, Ukraine's NATO bid, reactions to the 2008 South Ossetian War and the needless gas transportation crises cost them not because of Russia's clout, but because the approach taken was first of all unpopular with large swathes of the Ukrainian electorate itself.

In the English speaking press Ukraine is usually characterised as being split in half, the eastern pro-Russian part and the western pro-Western part. That is a mischaracterization. In reality the split is not between the part of the populace which favours Russia over West and the part which favours West over Russia, but more subtly — between the part of the populace which desires good relations with Russia and does not care an iota about the West, and on the other hand the part of the populace which desires both better relations with Russia and with the West. Only a small region of Ukraine composed today of the Lviv, Ternopol and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts — the only regions where Yushchenko did better than Yanukovich — people of an anti-Russian outlook predominate.

The region, known to history as Galicia or Halichina, was in the 19th century ruled by the Habsurgs. It is then that its Greek-Catholic populace, unlike other Ukrainians, doubled its Ukrainian identity to a feeling of animosity towards Russians or "Muscovites". The views of such Ukrainians are given great amount of space in the Western press, but the population of these three regions barely surpasses one tenth of the whole population of Ukaine.

The shift on the political scene of Ukraine which culminated with the election of Yanukovich and the definite end of the orange project was therefore in no way a surprise. To consider just the orange forces' stated intention to put the country on course for NATO membership. This was always an unrealistic proposition in a country where support for NATO membership is non-existent beyond the previously mentioned nationalistic Galician region and a peculiar, tiny, ostensibly Liberal strata of the populace, who view the solution for all problems berating Ukraine and the whole of Eastern Europe in ridding it its native character and wholesale Westernisation, which as its first step includes subordinating it to Washington and the Brussels.

On the whole the CSTO, the Moscow led counterpart to NATO, actually enjoys a level of support three times greater than NATO does. According to a recent poll 40% of Ukrainians want for Ukraine to join Russia and Belarus in CSTO while only 12.5% propose the country joins NATO. 36% desire for Ukraine to keep clear of any military alliances. These numbers correspond to the demographics of the regions of Ukraine. The CSTO option no doubt the prevailing one in the east and the south, the NATO option prevailing around Lviv and the neutrality option prevailing in the central Ukraine around Kyiv. It is no surprise then Yushchenko suffered a catastrophic defeat and Timoshenko had to modify her stances. Pro-Western policy which seeks to legitimise itself by creating, rather than bridging rifts with Russia can have no staying power in Ukraine. The West may think it has something to gain by opening another front against Russia in Ukraine, but Ukrainians can see they have nothing to gain by making their country into a battlefield. Should they ever be pushed into the contest anyway, they probably would not enter it on the side of the West.

Ukrainians and Russians along with Belarusians share a common origin. They are all the heirs of Old Rus. Ukrainian and Russian languages are less apart than for example Italian and Neapolitan. Russian itself is as commonly spoken in Ukraine as Ukrainian is. It is the language predominately heard in the Southern and the Eastern regions and in the capital, Kyiv. By some estimates in any given moment two million Ukrainians are on temporary work in Russia. In short there are numerous ties between the two peoples. The idea that in a country like this there is political capital to be made of anti-Russian policies was always preposterous. Not because it meant antagonising the Russian Federation but because it meant antagonising Ukrainians themselves.

In a place like Ukraine the most pro-Western political option always has a certain advantage because it can more credibly point to Western Europe as its model. This model will always carry a certain amount of appeal to the populace of any Eastern European country, in Ukraine as in Russia itself, since Western Europe is perceived as a place where state governance is less dysfunctional, where there is less corruption and most of all a place which is wealthy. This easily explains the initial success of the Orange Revolution in gaining power, however, as soon as they proved unable to deliver on their promises of the rule of law and economic improvement and all there seemed left of their project was political chaos of the magnitude unusual even in Ukraine, linguistic Ukrainization of state administration in the Russian speaking regions and rifts with Russia their days were counted.

In reality in a contest between the West and Russia a free Ukraine can only be unaligned or on the side of Russia. Western attempts, such as the one in 2004, to intervene into its politics with the view to push her into its camp can never prove successful in the long term. Ukraine which is anti-Russian is Ukraine which is at odds with itself. With the presidential election of 2010 Ukraine returns back to its natural state.

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