Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Ukraine’s New President
Russia Profile
Vladimir Frolov

Ukraine has just had a successful
presidential election, choosing Viktor Yanukovich, the leader of the
Party of the Regions, as its fourth president. He has promised to
embrace relations with Europe while simultaneously renewing ties with
Russia, but it is not clear how he will achieve this goal. What will be
Ukraine’s foreign policy under president Yanukovich? How will he
negotiate the intricate gas-transit relationship with Russia’s Gazprom?
How far will Yanukovich move toward Russia? Will he seriously pursue
economic integration projects with Russia, like joining the Customs
Union and the Single Economic Space? Will he continue on a path toward
Ukraine’s membership in the EU?

Yanukovich won by a very
small margin, leading his rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, by
slightly over three percent of the vote. He also won by garnering
substantial majorities in just nine out of Ukraine’s 27 regions.

victory once again demonstrated a clear regional division within
Ukraine, with voters in eastern and southern parts of the country
supporting Yanukovich and his Russia-friendly agenda, while voters in
the western and central regions of the country voted overwhelmingly for
Yulia Tymoshenko and her pro-European agenda.

Both Yanukovich
and Tymoshenko ran on a pledge to improve relations with Russia, which
suffered serious disruptions due to president Yushchenko’s provocative

But Yanukovich went much further than that, promising
not to seek Ukraine’s membership in NATO, delegate to the regions the
right to make the Russian language official, join the Customs Union or
the Single Economic Space with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan,
privatize the Ukrainian natural gas transportation network with Russian
participation, and even join Russia in building the Nord Stream gas

All those promises undoubtedly helped secure the vote
for Yanukovich in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions,
and thus proved crucial to his electoral victory. But they also limited
his freedom to maneuver as president.

To succeed Yanukovich
needs to unite the country behind his policies, and that means winning
over western and central Ukraine by going slow on his pro-Russian
agenda. But neither can he afford to alienate his electoral base in the
east and the south by going wobbly on his promises to address the
concerns of the Russian-speaking voters.

In one of his first
interviews since the election Yanukovich said that he would not be a
“Russian puppet” and will pursue policies that would put Ukraine’s
interests first. As if to prove the point, Yanukovich made his first
international trip as president to Brussels for meetings with the EU
leaders. His visit to Moscow, on a personal invitation by President
Dmitry Medvedev, came three days later.

What will be Ukraine’s
foreign policy under President Yanukovich? How far will Yanukovich move
toward Russia? Will he seriously pursue economic integration projects
with Russia, like joining the Customs Union and the Single Economic
Space, or will he just imitate such moves in order to negotiate
preferential terms for Russian energy imports and market access for
Ukrainian steel and other industrial products? Will he seek Russian
financial support in clearing Ukraine’s financial mess and helping it
service its ballooning external debt? Will he abandon the course toward
NATO membership and solidify the national consensus behind a
non-aligned status for Ukraine? What does he mean by endorsing Russian
president Medvedev’s proposal for a new European Security Treaty? Will
he continue on a path toward Ukraine’s membership in the EU, now that
the European Parliament has just encouraged Ukraine to apply for it?
How will he negotiate the intricate gas-transit relationship with
Russia’s Gazprom? Will he open the Ukrainian gas transportation network
to Russian and European investment? Will he be able to avoid the
sporadic gas wars with Moscow? What will Yanukovich’s relationship with
Washington be like?

Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian
Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

is not my favorite activity due to the fact that historians are trained
to talk about the past rather than the future. However, questions were
asked and I will express my humble opinion on them.

First of
all, anybody who is dealing with Ukraine, and especially anyone trying
to lead Ukraine, must understand that in reality there are at least two
countries: Western Ukraine, as well as Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
This was proved again in the most recent elections, and it ties the
hands of anybody who is trying to move sharply in one or another
direction, orienting Ukraine in global politics.

However, even
in those two culturally different parts of Ukraine people want to see a
well functioning state, to have jobs in their towns and be able to
maintain living standards at least on the level of what they had in the
Soviet times.

When a leader is unable to provide them with this
minimum they vote him out of office, as happened to former President
Viktor Yushchenko. Almost all of Ukraine, or at least 94 percent of
those who took part in the first round of the presidential elections,
voted against him.

Yanukovich certainly understands this
reality and will try to act better than his completely failed
predecessor.  “The Orange plague” killed itself due the fact that its
leaders primarily focused on fights among themselves, which locked the
country into a permanent political crisis and completely abandoned the
economic modernization that the country needed most of all. Today the
Soviet-era economic foundations of Ukraine have eroded to such a level
that continuation of “Orange politics” could lead to the collapse of
Ukraine as a state.

Already Yanukovich’s first step in power
shows that he might be much more successful. I am talking about his
plans to pass the issue of the status of the Russian language to the
provincial level, where it really belongs, and which will greatly
satisfy eastern and southern regions without really affecting western

As for foreign policy, there are some obvious things
here and some that will require time for clarification. NATO membership
is absolutely out of the question during his presidency and those who
were sent to Ukraine to instill love for this military bloc in
Ukrainians may certainly pack their bags and go back to Washington or
wherever else they came from.

Yanukovich will agree with and
support certain Russian foreign policy initiatives that do not
contradict Ukrainian national interests. Medvedev’s proposal for a new
European Security Treaty is just one of such examples that may benefit
Ukraine as much as Russia.

However, the most interesting
aspect of Ukrainian foreign policy is in its economic dimension and its
potential membership of the EU, or the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus
and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, in this question not everything depends on
the wishes or preference of Ukraine.

The European Union is
entering in its own tough times economically and will be preoccupied
with the issues of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain (the PIGS
states), and the new Eastern European members that will inevitably
cause even more concerns in the future. All of these will simply make
Ukrainian membership out of the question in the current situation. It
is also obvious that with an economy that contracted 15 percent in 2009
Ukraine is not ready for EU membership by any of its standards, and to
become ready it must first of all improve its economy.

So, how
can Ukraine improve its economic position and modernize its own economy
without cooperation with the countries of the Customs Union, which are
actually major trade partners of Ukraine? “Stupid economy” may
eventually show whether it will be more economically beneficial for
Ukraine to be with EU or with partners to the east of Ukraine. It
certainly depends on how efficient the Customs Union turns out to be;
it has the potential to become a well functioning and mutually
beneficial organization, but it could also share the fate of the CIS.

again, if the EU and the Customs Union can cooperate successfully and
dynamically, the question of making a choice may simply be dropped off
the agenda.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC :

seeking the Ukrainian presidency, Victor Yanukovich promised to pursue
closer ties with Russia and elevate the status of the Russian language
and culture in the country. It is likely that he can deliver in the
latter area, but what he can accomplish in the former is less clear (as
are the benefits of doing so).

While the use of the Russian
language in Ukraine has political overtones to some, principally in
Western Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora, to many people the Russian
language is merely a lingua franca. From that point of view elevating
its status is merely a way to show that Ukraine is a bilingual state
consisting of ethnically pure Russians and Ukrainians, persons of mixed
origin, and national minorities.

Upon independence, for example,
all legislative and regulatory acts were officially published in both
languages, but with the passage of time the latter were available only
in Ukrainian. This occurred despite a significant segment of the
population in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine (which for
hundreds of years were Russian lands) who do not know the Ukrainian
language. The situation is made worse by the refusal of some to examine
dispassionately national histories and myths in the lands currently
forming Ukraine.

At present Russia has little to offer Ukraine
other than energy and raw materials. Russia has its own fiscal problems
and cannot produce products that can compete in the world market.
Russia cannot afford to support Ukraine economically and most Russians
in any event do not want to.  At the same time, the Russian leadership
fears a Western-looking Ukraine that might be a dependable ally (or at
least not a friend of NATO’s). It also wants to permanently maintain
its naval base at Sevastopol.

From a practical standpoint,
Russia represents an existential threat to Ukraine’s existence, so
ignoring Moscow’s national security concerns is done only at great
peril (Ukrainians watched with considerable interest the
Georgian-Russian conflict). Whether Yanukovich is someone who
understands that Ukraine will not benefit if it provokes Russian
suspicions, or is simply a potential Quisling to Russian expansionism,
is difficult to predict. There is general agreement, however, that
Ukraine is too large to swallow whole if the Ukrainian population is
opposed to the concept.  

I anticipate that Yanukovich’s
position will weaken with the passage of time. The Ukrainian
president’s power is limited and the benefits of better ties with
Russia will not dramatically change the lives of most Ukrainians.
Importantly, he will not have a working majority in the Rada. If in the
initial period of his presidency, Yanukovich is not successful, both
Sergey Tigipko, who came third in the first round of the presidential
election, and Yulia Timoshenko will remain on the Ukrainian political
scene and have a say in national policy in all areas. The Ukrainian
president will have to be open to bargaining and compromise.

EU finds itself in a weakened economic condition, illustrated by the
decline in value of the euro. Helping Ukraine is a lower priority than
stabilizing its older members, such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, and
those states that would require less assistance (albeit they are of
less strategic importance than Ukraine), such as the Baltic States,
Bulgaria, and Romania.

If the EU could not effectively support
Yushchenko, it will be less inclined and less likely to support
president Yanukovich. Ironically, he may have to make more of an effort
to please the EU than his predecessor, but will receive less in return.
On the other hand, the EU/NATO countries do not want to treat the
legitimately elected president of Ukraine, or his country, as a pariah.

time, president Yanukovich is likely to discover that he does not want
to be taking orders from Moscow. Hence, he will probably have to
moderate his policies once in office or find his initiatives largely
failing both at home and abroad. Don’t be surprised if the new
president increasingly wraps himself in the Ukrainian flag when out in

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

is remarkable that the choices perceived for Ukraine are stated as an
“either-or” proposition. Either join the EU (and NATO) etcetera – or
improve ties with Russia. In such a model, Ukraine is viewed as an
appendage, a subordinate region which must define itself by attaching
to one of two distinct and opposing geopolitical alternatives. The
“either-or” model very significantly positions Russia and the EU as
opposite and mutually exclusive choices. Such contraposition is false –
Russia and the EU are on a trajectory of collaboration. Improving
relations with Russia does not imply for Ukraine a distancing from the
EU or a loss of benefits from friendly relations in the Western

Natural gas transit issues are an excellent
illustration. Yushchenko and Timoshenko repeatedly disrupted winter
supplies of natural gas to Europe – evidently due to irrational and
profound hostility toward Russia. In the longer run Ukraine not only
lost revenues, but also provided impetus for the now active projects to
bypass the disruptive region with alternate transit pipelines (North
Stream and South Stream). Had Yushchenko-Timoshenko maintained
constructive relations with Russia, Ukraine would have benefitted as
well from good relationships in both the east and the west directions
of the compass. Instead, the Ukraine’s previous government managed to
antagonize both of its key counterparts.

Timoshenko also
campaigned on the platform of repairing relations with Russia.
Therefore, voters in Western Ukraine made their pro-Timoshenko
decisions not on the basis of her attitude toward Russia (in principle
analogous to Yanukovich’s) but for other reasons, not tied to the
“Russian question.” The east-west “split” in Ukraine involves much
broader factors than simplistically the relationship with Russia. For
example, religion (Eastern Orthodox versus Eastern Rite Roman Catholic)
is a powerful influence. Highly significant are the facts of
collaboration with the Nazis, endemic in Western Ukraine, compared with
resistance to Nazi occupation prevailing in most of the rest of that
country – and the participation of anti-Nazi non-Western Ukrainians in
the liberation of Europe from Hitler.

The fundamental truth of
Ukraine is that any effective government there must recognize the
vitality of historical and ethnic bonds between modern Ukraine and
Russia. There are nearly 1,000 years of shared history – Ukraine has
been an integral part of the “bigger narrative” of Russian history for
a very long time. At one time U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union
George Kennan pointed out that separating Ukraine from Russia was as
questionable as separating the state of Pennsylvania from the United
States – and he chose his analogy carefully: Pennsylvania is the cradle
of American existence as a sovereign nation, just like present-day
Ukraine was for Russia centuries ago.

In the present, Ukraine
does not need to reduce its sovereignty by establishing closer links of
collaboration and mutual benefit with Russia. It would actually be very
foolish to discard 1,000 years of common past – which can be the basis
for very productive “win-win” economic and cultural synergy between the
two countries.

Membership in the EU and NATO is an idea
supported by a very small and very unpopular fraction of the Ukrainian
political class. There is clearly no significant real benefit from
either membership. And for both the EU and for NATO Ukraine is not an
acquisition with a strong marginal benefit – in fact, considering the
current troubles contributed by weaker EU members (like Greece), one
must wonder whether Brussels really wants to add yet another
potentially troublesome member country.

As to relations with
Washington – geography will assert itself. Brussels and Moscow are a
lot nearer to Kiev than Washington, DC.

Anthony T. Salvia, Executive Director, American Institute in Ukraine:

election of Viktor Yanukovich sets the stage for a new rapprochement
with Russia, ending five years of official Ukrainian hostility, and
putting paid to Western-led efforts to ensnare Russia in what Sergei
Tigipko has called a “cordon sanitaire,” as if the Cold War had never

Yanukovich’s call for official neutrality is clearly in
the interests of Ukraine, Europe and the United States. All are in a
state of economic distress with no end in sight. All face similar
long-term strategic challenges stemming from the rise of Islamic
extremism and Asian economic power. None benefits from NATO blithely
handing out defense guarantees it cannot possibly honor, a practice,
which, over time, would only eviscerate the alliance.

Europe and the United States have a vested interest in affecting a new
entente with Russia—the logical end of the North Atlantic Treaty—and
the bridging of Europe’s debilitating, centuries-old east-west divide.

of 80 percent of Ukrainian voters supported candidates in the first
round who called for dramatic improvement in Kiev’s relations with
Moscow. Meanwhile, the incumbent Viktor Yushchenko—no friend of
Russia—snagged a mere five percent of the vote. In addition to
declaring NATO membership off the table, Yanukovich has already spoken
in favor of extending the lease on Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol,
and endorsed Moscow’s call for a new European Security Treaty.

selling his policy of entente with Russia to the Ukrainian public,
Yanukovich should invoke Tigipko’s assessment of Yushchenko’s
anti-Russian course: it did more harm to Ukraine’s interests than to
Russia’s. Yushchenko’s Russophobia alarmed Paris and Berlin and
hardened their determination to block Ukraine’s entry in NATO; it made
an invitation to join the European Union, never very likely, even less
likely; it prompted Russia to consider ways of bypassing Ukraine when
supplying energy to Europe—thus harming an already perilously weak
national economy; and it gave Ukraine a reputation for intolerance in
seeming to discriminate against Russian-language speakers (a huge
swathe of the population).

A rapprochement with Russia is a vital precondition for Ukraine’s economic revival.

way forward for Ukraine is as a unified nation, sovereign and
independent, neutral as between blocs and alliances, pursuing
productive relations with all great powers, and protecting the language
rights of all segments of the population. This is a rational policy
rooted in realism and justice.

An idea president Yanukovich
ought to consider: chairing a European security forum in Kiev with
other European heads of state and government. The idea was broached by
Steven Meyer of the National Defense University at a recent press
conference in Kiev, organized by the American Institute in Ukraine. He
raised the idea in the context of Russia’s support for a new European
Security Treaty, which he called a “good idea” that needed to be
“fleshed out.” He called on Ukraine’s president to exert leadership by
convening his European counterparts in an effort to develop ideas that
would put flesh on the bones of Moscow’s proposal.

If Yanukovich
is serious when he says Ukraine should serve as a “bridge between East
and West,” convening such a security forum would be a good place to

Dr. Igor Torbakov, Senior Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki, Finland:

a brief comment on Ukraine’s “east-west divide” will be in order. True,
the divide is still there, but it is primarily a cultural, linguistic
and regional fault line rather than a purely ethnic one, and despite
the regional division, a sense of common identity is slowly emerging.
Consider the strong showing across the board – in the east, center and
west – of the businessman (and former National Bank president) Sergey
Tigipko, the candidate who got the third result in the first round with
13 percent. Some analysts persuasively argue that had Tigipko made it
to the second round, he would have beaten both Yanukovich and
Timoshenko. In the second round, many people were voting for the
“lesser of the two evils” and a million plus voted “against all,” thus
basically withdrawing their support from the two frontrunners.
current divisions are the legacy of history and of domination by rival
great powers. It’s not easy to get rid of them soon and they will
likely persist for a while: regionalism (which is in fact more
multifaceted than the divide between East and West) will always be
strong in Ukraine. But other historical processes are at work as well…

Yanukovich clearly has a limited mandate – he is the first Ukrainian
president who got less than 50 percent of the popular vote. The acute
deficit of public trust and the dire straits of Ukraine’s economy will
significantly constrain the new leadership’s room for maneuver. For the
new leader, the job ahead will be a balancing act, at home and abroad.
In fact, Yanukovich himself has said as much in his Wall Street Journal
op-ed. I would call his piece a perfect manifesto of an “in-between”
country. “We are a nation with a European identity,” contends
Yanukovich, “but we have historic cultural and economic ties to Russia
as well. The re-establishment of relations with the Russian Federation
is consistent with our European ambitions.”

However, the
specifics of Yanukovich’s foreign policy will depend a great deal on
whether he succeeds in forging his own coalition in Parliament and on
what kind of coalition that would be. Until Yanukovich’s Party of the
Regions is able to establish its control in Parliament, the new
president will be rather weak – resembling in a way the hapless
Yushchenko, who had his veto powers but could not pursue resolute
policies, lacking as he did strong backing in the Rada. Although the
Party of the Regions did manage to gain enough votes to oust
Timoshenko’s government, it may well fail to garner enough support to
form its own. Then Yanukovich will have no other option but to go for a
snap Parliamentary election – and Ukraine’s turbulent political season
will continue.