Like generals fighting the last war, much of the western press reported the
recent Ukrainian election as a battle between the ‘pro-western’ Yuliya
Tymoshenko and the ‘pro-Russian’ Viktor Yanukovych. But this election was not
the great existential drama produced by the last vote in 2004
Then everything – foreign policy direction, internal regional tensions, even
the very existence of Ukrainian democracy – seemed at stake, and the fixing of
the vote by Yanukovych’s supporters provoked the ‘Orange Revolution’ that swept
Viktor Yushchenko to power.
Events have moved on. All revolutions disappoint, and the Orange Revolution
disappointed more than most. Its leaders have preferred fighting each other to
getting things done. Tymoshenko served twice as prime minister in 2005 and
2007-10, but by the time of the great gas crisis in January 2009 had clearly
made her peace with Russia.
She and Putin got along just fine, making jokes in public at Yushchenko’s
expense. To use Mrs Thatcher’s famous phrase about Gorbachev, Putin clearly
thought Tymoshenko was someone he could ‘do business with’; and the Ukrainian
media constantly speculated about what exactly that business might be. A deal
on gas? This or that privatisation deal? Meanwhile, the Kremlin and Gazprom had
a very public falling out with several of the business ‘oligarchs’ who backed
Yanukovych. Having got their fingers so badly burned in 2004, Putin’s people
still thought of the charisma-free Yanukovych as a serial loser, until very
late in the election campaign.
But the other lesson that Russia
drew from 2004, when its attempt to back Yanukovych with overwhelming force had
back-fired, was not to put all its eggs in one basket. Medvedev’s notorious
open letter to Yushchenko in the summer of 2009 was designed to isolate his
type of ‘anti-Russian’ politics and define the rules of the game for a
‘primary’ for Russian favour amongst the other candidates in the race.
Tymoshenko and Yanukovych were not the only ones to play along: several of the
minor candidates went further and took Russian money and airtime.
Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych talked of ‘resetting’ a more pragmatic
relationship between Ukraine
But both had also learnt the key Ukrainian lesson from 2004, that there is
little electoral mileage in being seen to be a Russian puppet – Ukrainian
national interests should come first. They were further apart on some specific
issues: Tymoshenko talked of resurrecting the EU gas deal signed in 2009,
Yanukovych favoured solving the problem at the Russian end by asking for a
lower supply price; Yanukovych was more willing to renew the lease on Russia’s
Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol after its expiry in 2017. But both played the
game of balance between Russia
and the West – albeit with Tymoshenko a little closer to the West and
Yanukovych a little closer to Russia.
So what does this mean now that Yanukovych has won? During the election he
played identity politics, seeking votes in east Ukraine by attacking NATO and
promoting the Russian language. But his first foreign trips were first to Brussels and then to Moscow
in the same week. In fact, in Moscow
he got a version of Marlon Brando’s wedding day speech from The Godfather –
‘why did you not come to us first?’ – while Putin tried to bounce him into rash
commitments on joining the customs union between Russia,
Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Yanukovych played a straight bat, though he surprised many on his return to Kiev by proposing a law preventing Ukraine from
joining ‘military alliances’ – though, depending how it was drafted, that could
exclude the Russia-dominated CSTO as well as NATO.
Ukraine is more likely to
balance between east and west than rush back to Moscow. There are even some in Ukraine who
think that Yanukovych could be a ‘Ukrainian Nixon’. Like Nixon in China, because he is more reassuring to Russia and to Ukraine’s
Russian-speaking population, he could actually take Ukraine
further towards Europe in the long run than
Yushchenko ever managed.
A different east European analogy could be Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was
similarly distrusted by the Solidarity right when he became President of Poland
in 1995, but who took Poland into NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004 (though none
would suggest things might happen in Ukraine that fast). Yanukovych’s supporters
also claim that he has a good record of no-nonsense delivery on bread and
Unfortunately, Yanukovych, like Kwasniewski, is surrounded by too many
representatives of the old guard, men who held power under President Leonid
Kuchma (1994-2004) or were prominent during Yanukovych’s brief return as prime
minister in 2006-07. New prime minister Mykola Azarov was then notorious for
abusing the VAT system to reward friends and punish enemies: there was even a
word coined in Ukrainian to describe the process – Azarovshchina . The same
people are back in charge of the energy sector, which has been Ukraine’s main
source of corruption in recent years. Yanukovych has also trampled on the
constitution to fast-forward the creation of his new government.
So maybe the analogy with Nixon is too close for comfort. But if the right
incentives are in place, the West may have someone it can also do business with.
This article originally appeared in Progress
Andrew Wilson’s new policy brief, ‘Dealing with Yanukovych’s Ukraine’, has been published by ECFR
Click here for a podcast interview with Andrew Wilson on the prospects for Ukraine under Yanukovych
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.