Can Central Europe reduce tensions between EU and Russia over Ukraine?

Ukraine, photo: CTK

Ukraine's Parliament has cleared the way for a repeat of its Presidential run-off election on December 26th. MP's voted overwhelmingly for constitutional and electoral changes which should mean a minimum of foul play in the battle between pro-western Viktor Yushchenko and the Moscow backed Viktor Yanukovych. The political crisis now appears headed for a peaceful end but it has raised tensions between the European Union and Russia - each of them accusing the other of interfering in Ukraine's internal politics. The result is a fight for influence over a country that both East and West have paid little attention to. And in the middle of the ring is Poland's President Alexander Kwasniewski.

Parliament's vote for new electoral laws means the country can now hold fair elections. It was Poland's President Alexander Kwasniewski who drew up a three-point plan to resolve the crisis: This called for the verifying of election results, annulling those tainted by irregularities, and the renunciation of violence by all sides.

"I hope that European politicians both from the East and West, parliamentarians as well, will refrain from trying to influence the election campaign. The Ukrainians should have a chance to make decisions in an unrestrained way. To decide who they really support."

For Poland the stakes are high. Its large southern neighbour is one of the country's most important trading partners - before World War II much of western Ukraine was part of Poland. Warsaw wants to see a reforming democratic government in Kiev but it also wants good relations with Moscow. Kwasniewski has good contacts with all of the major political players in Ukraine and has been able to fill a big gap in the EU's mediating team. Tim Snyder from the Vienna based Institute for Human Sciences says Europe was caught napping:

"Europe right now doesn't really have something called a foreign policy. What Europe has is membership or not membership. So long as you see the world and your neighbours in terms of whether they are members or not members, you get precisely this kind of thinking. It would be very difficult to have Ukraine as a member and therefore it's nicer not to think about it."

But Russia resents Europe's role in Ukraine and accuses it and the United States of interfering in the country's internal politics. But according to Tim Snyder that's just what Russia itself is doing:

"For all of us who were observing the Ukrainian electoral campaign, it was extremely clear that there was massive external intervention. But that intervention didn't come from the west. It came from the east. Many of Yanukovych's closest advisors aren't even Ukrainians but are from Russia. The propaganda techniques that were used in the elections were largely modelled on those that Putin uses. The influx of Russian money was much greater than the influx of money from any other source."

Ukraine,  photo: CTK
Much is at stake - Europe depends on Russian oil and gas and wants good relations with Moscow. On the other hand Russia sees Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. It's unclear how Moscow will react if there's a Yushchenko victory on December 26th. But NATO's Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says it's now up to the Ukrainians:

"I understand that Ukraine is an important neighbour for the Russian Federation. My answer is Ukraine is an important neighbour for NATO and the European Union as well. So, let's not make this into a fight or into a quarrel but let's both agree that the Ukrainian people should decide free and fairly who their president is going to be."

In this tug of war between East and West Alexander Kwasniewski knows the western European negotiators have a poor record. He's suggesting the Visegrad countries - Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia - could mediate in the EU's political dealings with its eastern neighbours - including Ukraine. If elections go smoothly in Ukraine and relations with Russia can be smoothed over, he will have proved his point.