Snub to the West

Published : Apr 21, 2006 00:00 IST

Elections in Ukraine and Belarus result in the victory of pro-Russian candidates.


UKRAINE'S parliamentary elections of March 26 were the first test at the hustings for the year-old "Orange Revolution", hailed in the West as a historic break with the post-imperial dependence on Russia and as a move towards genuine democracy. On March 19, voters in Belarus put on hold the Western game plan to bring about a "colour revolution" in another post-Soviet republic.

Judging by the election results, the "Orange" government in Ukraine has failed the test. President Viktor Yushchenko suffered a severe humiliation. His Our Ukraine bloc, which campaigned on a platform of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), came in a distant third with less than 14 per cent of the votes polled. His main political opponent, Viktor Yanukovich, whose Party of the Regions favours closer ties with Russia and is opposed to NATO membership, emerged as the winner; his party captured over 32 per cent of the votes. It was a remarkable comeback for the former Prime Minister, who had been stripped of victory in a controversial presidential election of November 2004 following massive street protests against alleged vote-rigging.

The party of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, fired by Yushchenko last September in a bitter fight for power, also came ahead of the President's bloc with over 22 per cent of the votes.

The "Orange" government was beleaguered by a nose-diving economy, corruption scandals and infighting. Economic growth slumped from over 13 per cent in 2004 to almost zero at the end of 2005. President Yushchenko's team split over re-division of industrial assets privatised by the previous regime, charges of corruption and betrayal of "Orange" ideals. Relations with Russia soured after Ukraine refused to join a common market union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine has also been rebuffed in its bid to join the European Union, which told it to wait for "at least 15 to 20 years".

The parliamentary election showed that the "Orange" government failed to heal a bad political split in Ukraine along geographic lines that surfaced during the 2004 presidential election. In last month's elections, the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions again voted for Yanukovich, while the western and central regions supported the "Orange" parties.

The democratic credentials of Ukraine's new leaders were also questioned following their manoeuvres to reduce voter activity in pro-Russian regions. In the run-up to the March 26 vote, the authorities launched a campaign to translate Russian names in the electoral rolls into Ukrainian. This created chaos at the polling stations and effectively disenfranchised half a million to one million voters, reducing support for the anti-"Orange" parties.

Yushchenko's party's defeat has greatly weakened his hold on power. This happened at a crucial juncture when Ukraine was transiting from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government. Under a constitutional reform approved last year, the power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister and most Cabinet members passes from the President to the new legislature. But the President retains control over foreign and defence policies and has the right to disband Parliament if it fails to form a government within a month.

As none of the parties has won half the seats in the 450-member Verhovna Rada, the next government will have to be a coalition one. Yushchenko faces the hard choice of teaming up either with Timoshenko, whom he accused of "betrayal" last year, or with Yanukovich.

Both options are bad for Yushchenko. He may be more comfortable in an alliance with Yanukovich, who is prepared to accept the President's choice of a Prime Minister. A coalition with Party of the Regions will help improve relations with Russia and patch up the rift between the pro-Russian east and the pro-Europe west. But such an "unholy" alliance with a political foe will destroy Yushchenko's reputation among "Orange Revolution" supporters and chances for re-election in 2009.

A coalition with Timoshenko will put Yushchenko in her shadow; the more charismatic and strong-willed Timoshenko will use her premiership to propel her to the presidency in 2009. It might also worsen the relations with Russia, as Timoshenko has promised to revoke the natural gas deal with Russia made in January under which Ukraine agreed to a near-two-fold increase in gas prices.

The United States and the E.U., which orchestrated the 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, will no doubt put strong pressure on Yushchenko to patch up with Timoshenko in order to cut out pro-Russian forces. Russia, which in the 2004 presidential campaign unwisely supported just one candidate, Yanukovich, refrained from openly supporting any party this time. Instead it played its trump card - energy. Moscow bluntly told Kiev that it cannot supply subsidised natural gas anymore and that it would have to pay at market rates. The price hike has put the steel and chemical industries, which form the backbone of the country's export-oriented economy, on the brink of collapse.

No matter which of the two coalitions forms the government, Ukraine's foreign policy is unlikely to undergo drastic changes as it continues to be the responsibility of the President under the new power-sharing arrangement. But the indecisive outcome of Ukraine's vote means that the second biggest ex-Soviet republic will remain a battlefield between Russia and the West.

Squeezed between Russia and the West, Ukraine has tried to balance between the two centres of power ever since gaining independence. The "Orange Revolution" ended this balancing act, with the new leadership pushing Ukraine towards the West.

Moscow has sent a clear signal to Kiev that if it continues the "Orange" course of the past year, it will face more economic problems, including further increases in the price of gas, which has been fixed only for the first six months of the current year. These problems can be solved easily if Ukraine returns to the path of economic integration with Russia and other post-Soviet republics. While Ukraine's economy has ground to a standstill, neighbouring Belarus is demonstrating high growth rates thanks to cheap natural gas it gets from Russia. Much will depend on how cleverly Russia plays its cards: Russia is not only the only source of energy supplies for Ukraine, but also the main market for its industry and agriculture.

Three days after the Ukrainian poll, Russian President Vladimir Putin called up Yushchenko to tell him that Moscow's proposal to Kiev is still on the table: first set up an economic union of former Soviet states, whose economies are still closely interlinked, and then seek jointly closer ties with Europe.

Washington's main goal is to prevent Ukraine from joining what it calls Russia's "Eurasian empire". It is trying to draw Ukraine into NATO, arguing that this will make its entry into the E.U. community easier. Last December President Yushchenko signed a decree to speed up Ukraine's integration into the Atlantic alliance. The document defines preparations for NATO membership as a priority for the Ukrainian government and calls for drawing up a programme for adapting the country's armed forces and defence industry to NATO standards.

However, Kiev's NATO bid is likely to split the country further. Opinion surveys show that about 75 per cent of Ukraine's population is opposed to NATO membership. The opposition is the strongest in the east of the country, while support for the membership comes mostly from the west.

In all scenarios, Ukraine appears to be heading for a period of instability and economic decline. This is not in the interests of either Russia or Ukraine's other neighbours in Europe; it can only benefit outside players, above all the U.S.

In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko scored a convincing victory in the presidential election held on March 19. Massive street demonstrations had followed elections earlier in Georgia and Ukraine with pro-Western Opposition parties alleging rigging of polls. These led to the installation of pro-Western regimes. The same situation was planned for Belarus. However, Lukashenko, described by the Bush administration as Europe's "last dictator", made it abundantly clear that he was not ready to brook any interference from the West in the domestic affairs of his country.

Even his Western critics admit that Lukashenko has widespread support in his country. He polled 82 per cent of the votes in the March elections, easily beating his two main rivals, Alexander Milinkevich and Sergei Gaidekunevich. The two Opposition candidates between themselves won less than 10 per cent of the total votes polled.

Election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), representing the West, were quick to characterise the election as "seriously flawed". However, observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) gave a different verdict, by saying that the elections were fair and free.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying that even if the U.S. invaded Belarus, the people would have voted for Lukashenko. Moscow was quick to send its congratulations to Lukashenko on his victory. Washington and Brussels condemned the conduct of the elections.

Lukashenko's popularity to a great extent is derived from his government's ability to keep the economy functioning efficiently. The economy grew by 8.3 per cent in 2005 and is projected to grow by more than 6 per cent in 2006. In many of the other former Soviet republics, mismanagement and corruption had contributed to public disillusionment and alienation. Unlike most East European government leaders, Lukashenko refused to be dictated to by Western financial institutions. In the 15 years he has been in power, the people of Belarus did not have to suffer from the kind of economic "shock therapy" that other former Soviet republics were subjected to. Public sector institutions continue to play an important role in the country's economy. In comparison to many of its neighbours, Belarus offers good salaries and pays pensions on time.

Lukashenko's opponent, Milinkevich, campaigned on an anti-Russian platform. The economic stability of Belarus is greatly dependent on oil and gas supplies from Russia. Moscow has not yet asked Belarus for international market prices for its supplies.

The Western media tried its best to manipulate public opinion after the election results were announced. All the major media outlets expressed scepticism about Lukashenko's huge majority. In the elections held five years ago, he had won more than 76 per cent of the votes cast. In 2004, he won a referendum, which allowed him to run for a third five-year term. Opinion polls taken by independent organisations before the elections had indicated that Lukashenko would bag more than 80 per cent of the votes

When Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili got 97 per cent of the vote in the presidential election in his country, there was no such scepticism in the Western media. The Georgian President is among the closest allies of the West in the region.

The government in Minsk has alleged that as part of the disinformation campaign against it, a fake Gallup poll was fabricated in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, in early March. Its results were to be released on March 18, the date of the election. The poll had given Milinkevich 53 per cent of the votes.

The Opposition parties, as expected, have refused to recognise Lukashenko's victory. They tried their best to mobilise crowds in Minsk in order to overturn the verdict. However, only a few thousand people turned up at the city centre. The Western media were quick to report that tens of thousands of people had massed in the city centre, demanding the ouster of Lukashenko. In the bitter cold of the Belarus winter, it was no surprise that after a couple of days only a few hard-core Opposition activists were left in the city square. The security services disbursed them after the fourth day and jailed their leaders for disrupting peace.

Before the election, Lukashenko had warned that he would not tolerate any attempts to stage a "coup" and vowed to "break the neck" of anyone who tried to seize power illegally. The big-built Lukashenko, a former director of a collective farm, is known for his blunt manner of speaking. He has repeatedly emphasised that he will preserve stability under all circumstances.

Washington had invested millions of dollars in order to destabilise the Lukashenko government. It is unlikely that it will give up its efforts soon. After the results were out, the White House spokesman said the U.S. was "supporting the call for a new election". The Bush administration has accused the Belarus government of selling arms illegally to countries such as Iran and Iraq. Lukashenko responded by saying: "From a man who has profited so much from war and oil, it is an accusation that doesn't deserve a response."

Lukashenko has been unabashedly calling for even closer relations with Moscow. The Kremlin in fact has been trying to distance itself from some of Lukashenko's demands, including his call for a merger of the two countries. When the abortive attempt to reinstate the Soviet Union took place in 1991, Lukashenko was among those leaders who expressed their open support for the revival of the communist bloc. In the late 1990s, Lukashenko was among the most popular politicians in Russia. One reason why the Russian leadership is not too keen on a political union between the two countries could be the suspicion that Lukashenko may be an aspirant for the top job at the Kremlin. But Moscow may not be averse to strengthening military ties with Minsk.

In 2004, President Putin had once again broached the idea of forming an economic and political community comprising Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. With Ukraine taking a pro-Moscow turn, a pro-Russian grouping could once again become a reality. Russia is concerned about the growing Western influence in its backyard. Poland is playing a key role in further expanding the influence of the Western alliance in the region. According to reports in the Russian media, much of the money funnelled to the so-called pro-democracy activists in Belarus came from Warsaw and Prague.

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