Presidential elections in Ukraine raise concern in Prague

Photo: CTK

The disputed Presidential elections in Ukraine have sent ripples of concern around the world, with Europe and the United States backing opposition claims that the voting was marred by fraud. Czechs too are watching the developments with concern. Before the Second World War, part of today's Ukraine was Czechoslovak territory; in the days of the Czechoslovak federation, the country bordered on Ukraine and today there is a large Ukrainian community in Prague and other Czech cities, many working in the construction industry. For a Czech perspective on what is happening in Kiev, Daniela Lazarova spoke to Petr Kratochvil of the Prague Institute for International Relations.

Photo: CTK
"I think the presidential elections in Ukraine this year are no doubt a turning point in the country's rather short independent history because Ukraine has been oscillating between two possible directions during the last decade. One of the options was reintegration with Russia and the other is -or was- moving in the western direction and these two contrasting visions have clashed in the presidential election. I think the importance of the election is vividly demonstrated by the external pressures, especially from Russia. For example, Russian President Putin visited Ukraine shortly before the first round of the election. And, the election has gained a nationalist twist as well. The eastern and southern regions of Ukraine with a large Russian minority have supported Mr Yanukovych, while the more independent minded western part of Ukraine is a stronghold of Mr Yushchenko."

There are still massive protests in Ukraine. The election results seem to have divided the country. Do you feel that the opposition is strong enough to actually change the present situation?

Mr Yushchenko, photo: CTK
"Right now the situation is quite complicated and there is no doubt about the fact that there have been numerous irregularities and that the opposition is right when staging protests in Kiev and in many other cities. But the question is whether - and that's the crucial point - the business elites will shift their support from Mr Yanukovych to Mr Yushchenko because without the support of these business elites, it will probably be impossible for Mr Yushchenko to claim victory over Mr Yanukovych."

So you don't think this is a fait accompli, this turn towards Russia?

"No, definitely not. Both candidates are in a way pragmatic and they know that they cannot rely solely on Russia or solely on the West. They need both Russian support and investments from the West."

If Ukraine does turn towards Russia, what do you think would be the impact on Europe and on the Czech Republic in particular?

"In the East - and that, I think, is the vision of President Putin - a new power would rise, which would concentrate around Russia with a common economic and later political space, in which Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus would unite. That might pose a threat to Central Europe, not only in economic terms but maybe also in the export of instability to Central and even Western Europe."

One commentator has said that Ukraine will have to fight and win this battle on its own. What can the international community do apart from putting pressure on Ukraine for it to have regular elections, and so on?

"Well, in my view, there is not much that can be done by the international community except for stressing that the elections have not been fair, which is what the OSCE has already proclaimed, and really pressing on Ukrainian leaders to acknowledge that the elections have not been fair and that something must be done with that. But as for saying more explicitly that the West is in favour of Yushchenko or of someone else, would not be very helpful."