Thursday, October 28, 2004

A presidential race again pits Russia against the West

A presidential race again pits Russia against the West
27 October 2004 16:45

It's a shadow war reminiscent of cold-war conflicts in Third World
countries. Russia and the United States are going head to head in Ukraine,
the former Soviet republic that holds a pivotal presidential election on
Oct. 31.
The two sides' arsenals don't include Kalashnikovs or Stinger missiles
anymore. Rather, dollars from Washington and political advisers from Moscow
are the weapons of choice.

The battlelines could not be starker, nor could the stakes be much
higher--for Ukraine or the region. Of 24 candidates, only two have a chance.
One: Viktor Yanukovych, the current prime minister (and protege; of the
retiring President Leonid Kuchma), who pledges close ties to Moscow. The
other: Viktor Yushchenko, who vows to attack corruption and take the country
further toward democracy. The reform-minded Yushchenko is the darling of the
West. Yanukovych has the support of the country's powerful business clans
and the security forces, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin. "For
Ukraine," says opposition parliamentarian Pyotr Poroshenko, "this is a
crucial test."
It promises to be bruising--and dirty. International watchdog groups accuse
the government of preparing to rig the vote. The state has used tax laws to
harass Yushchenko and his supporters. Opposition campaign events have been
disrupted, and pro-Yanukovych propaganda flows from state-controlled
Ukrainian and Russian television stations. Employing tactics imported by
their Russian political consultants, top government officials deliver daily
instructions--temnyki --to news executives concerning what issues to cover
and how. "The temnyki are our work," boasts Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser
to Yanukovych.
More brutal Soviet-style tactics are also coming into play. Earlier this
fall Yushchenko was apparently poisoned. "They were absolutely trying to
kill him," says an aide, who rushed with him to a Vienna hospital. State
courts are now threatening to close the country's last independent TV
station, which supports Yushchenko. Meanwhile, Putin--hugely popular in
Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine--has all but endorsed Yanukovych,
announcing he would come to Kiev just three days before the vote.
Western NGOs are working hard--and spending freely--to ensure the election
is fair. Just last Friday special police raided several of their offices.
"Before today I was reasonably optimistic about the election," says Sam
Coppersmith, a former U.S. congressman working with the U.S.-Ukraine
Given a free choice, most Ukrainians would probably opt for closer ties to
the West. Ukraine contributes 1,600 troops to the U.S.-led occupation in
Iraq. Kuchma has said he would like to see the country join both NATO and
the EU, which it now borders. But the fact that those doors seem closed has
hurt Yushchenko's cause--and strengthened those like Yanukovych who
gravitate toward the East. Russia's interests in Ukraine are apparent.
Sevastopol is home to its Black Sea Fleet; most of its western-bound
natural-gas pipelines pass through Ukraine. Its membership in the Moscow-led
Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose union of former Soviet
republics, lends substance to Russia's lingering dream of empire.
If Yanukovych wins, there will be widespread accusations that he stole the
election, much in the manner of the stage-managed referendum by which
President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus granted himself the right to run
for another term last week. The results could be bloody. Ukrainian youth
organizations plan to put 50,000 demonstrators on the streets of Kiev on
election night. If that doesn't help produce an honest result, they will
mobilize as many as 2 million protesters, hoping for a repeat of the Rose
Revolution in Georgia last year that overthrew the regime of President
Eduard Shevardnadze. The government says it will forcibly put down unrest.
Whatever happens, Ukraine's election will set a new standard of democracy,
either higher or lower, for post-communist states. "I'm not suggesting that
Mr. Yanukovych is another Milosevic, but if he is beholden to [the security
forces of Russia and Ukraine] for winning this election, it will be a very
bad precedent," says Adrian Karatnycky at Freedom House, an NGO that will
send 1,000 election observers for a likely second round on Nov. 21. The
battle has begun.
Source: Newsweek


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