Ukraine election result raises concerns in former eastern bloc

Viktor Yanukovych, photo: CTK

The result of Ukraine’s presidential run-off on Sunday – a slim victory by opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych – is being seen by some analysts as an indictment of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of five years ago, at the very least a political full-circle that will now see the country move closer towards Russia. That could spell bad news for the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme as well as for regional neighbours such as Poland or the Czech Republic, long concerned with Russia’s growing regional influence.

Viktor Yanukovych,  photo: CTK
Ahead of the run-off in Ukraine’s presidential election many predicted no matter who won – whether Viktor Yanukovych or Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko – in the future the country would tilt more strongly towards Moscow than to the West. Certainly, more so than under the previous president, Viktor Yushchenko, one of the leading figures of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The shift from Kiev and the Kremlin could be a marked turnaround from some of the pro-Western policies which pushed Ukraine closer to the European Union and also opened the possibility of integration within NATO. How will those aims be affected by the latest developments and where does Ukraine stand after this weekend’s vote? I put that question to Petr Kratochvíl, the deputy head of Prague’s Institute of International Relations a little earlier:

“In terms of Ukraine’s political future I don’t think we have many reasons for optimism because both candidates were repeatedly accused of corruption, both of them have strong ties to influential economic groupings, and neither of them shied away from extreme populism, so there I think that the choice was not great and a choice of two evils. The victory by Mr Yanukovych just confirms that the country’s orientation towards the East will gain new momentum.”

The shift could impact both economic ties as well as security issues to different degrees; in terms of economic cooperation, Petr Kratochvíl says, there are reasons why Ukraine will opt for deeper ties with the EU, rather than Russia. But security is another matter. Petr Kratochvíl again:

Photo: CTK
“In terms of economic integration I think that Mr Yanukovych will be very careful because many of his supporters, oligarchs from the east of the country will fear take-overs by Russian firms. They also very much advocate an open access by Ukrainian firms to the EU market, which would be incompatible with deeper economic integration with Russia.”

As for NATO, is that effectively frozen?

“Absolutely, absolutely, it is moving to the backburner and I think that unlike the issue of European integration, NATO membership will simply disappear from the political agenda.”

The new rise of Russian influence in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet bloc – is something that observers within the former eastern block, historically wary of Russia’s expansionist ambitions, are now debating. Last February, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov raised Czech hackles when he suggested the Czechs were still well within Russia’s geopolitical backyard. Vladimír Votápek is a Prague-based specialist on Russia who suggests there is cause for concern; here’s how he sees the latest developments:

Yulia Tymoshenko,  photo: CTK
“In general we can see it as a failure of the West or of Europe that we ‘lost’ Ukraine or that we are going to lose Ukraine… but in fact we never really had it. It’s an important step, we should be even more careful. We should analyse the situation and be careful if there are forces calling for reintegration of something like the former Soviet Union – by that I mean a reintegration of Belarus and Ukraine. In fact, all of the region is already under the influence of the Kremlin now. Yesterday’s result of Ukraine’s election means a stronger Russia and weaker West.”