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President Yanukovych?€™s Dilemma

Although the official results of Ukraine’s presidential election have not yet been announced, it has been clear all along that a second round of voting, on Feb. 7, will be needed to determine who will be the country’s next president — Viktor Yanukovych or Yulia Tymoshenko. Barring the unexpected, Yanukovych, who lost big in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election to the Orange team of Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko, should get his revenge by beating Tymoshenko in the second round.

There are several reasons behind Tymoshenko’s expected election failure. This is the first time that she has entered a campaign as a member of the ruling power structure and not as an opposition figure, which might be the reason for her low probability of winning the second round. She is running for the presidency while holding the post of prime minister, and thus many Ukrainians blame her (along with Yushchenko) for the host of crises and economic hardships that have rocked the country.

Another of Tymoshenko’s big mistakes was that the once-fiery revolutionary had grown so comfortable sitting in the prime minister’s chair that she did not heed advice to step down from that post and become a leader of the opposition — something she has proven good at.

In addition, there was a whole series of political mistakes that have led to Tymoshenko’s low popularity ratings. For example, her attempt to build a special relationship with Moscow based on her strong personal rapport with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin provided ammunition for her critics, including nationalists and supporters of Ukraine’s integration with Europe, to accuse her of trading away national interests, As a result, Tymoshenko eroded much of her voter base in the central and western regions, where strengthening of Ukraine’s independence from Russia has always been a top priority.

But it would be a mistake to assume that a Yanukovych victory would mean that Ukraine will wholeheartedly embrace Moscow. To be sure, Kremlin insiders affirm that Russian leaders would prefer to see Yanukovych become president, just as they did five years ago. The Kremlin considers him to be more predictable because he is tied to the pro-Russia sentiment of his supporters. But this is only part of the picture. It is correct that Yanukovych’s main electoral base is the industrially developed eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine, where 17 million of the country’s 37 million voters live and where Ukraine’s main economic potential and its pro-Russia contingent is concentrated.

At the same time, however, it would be naive to believe that those regions are willing to embrace Moscow’s suffocating bear hug. All of the business interests of the financial and industrial magnates in Ukraine’s eastern region are in the West. Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s wealthiest man with a personal worth of $1.8 billion, is Yanukovych’s main sponsor. Akhmetov and most of the other oligarchs built their fortunes in the metals and mining industries, sectors that have few prospects on the Russian market, which has more than its share of metals and other natural resources that compete with Ukraine for export markets.

Although the eastern half of Ukraine is the bastion of pro-Russia sentiment, polls show that they have no desire to reunite with their northern neighbor. In other words, even a victory by pro-Russian Yanukovych is unlikely to bring about a substantial change in Russian-Ukrainian relations. To be sure, Ukraine under Yanukovych would not try to kick Russia’s Black Sea Fleet out of Sevastopol or speed up the country’s accession to NATO. But it is important to remember that as prime minister to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma Yanukovych signed the agreement for Ukraine to join the NATO Membership Action Plan and his party supported the decision in the parliament. At the same time, Yanukovych is unlikely to make any major concessions to Moscow regarding one of the most sensitive issues affecting relations: the transit of Russian gas to Europe through Ukrainian territory. On Friday, during an interview on my television program “Bolshaya Politika,” Yanukovych said Ukraine is paying too much for Russian gas and should renegotiate the terms of its contracts with Moscow. He also said the Kremlin should pay “market prices” for the rights to base its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

But in the long run, Kiev’s relations with Moscow will be determined by how Europe and the United States structure their relationships with Yanukovych. Yanukovych is hungry for international recognition, and if the leaders of the United States, European Union and NATO are smart and do not distance themselves from Yanukovych as they once did from Kuchma, then Yanukovych might turn out to be a pliable partner for the West. This is particularly true considering the acknowledgement among his supporters that Ukraine won’t be able to modernize without large-scale assistance and investment from the West.

The fly in Ukraine’s ointment, however, is that the West has too many problems on its plate to deal with Ukraine. And if the West’s priorities don’t change in the next five years, the future Ukrainian president may have no other choice than to turn to Moscow.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Inter television in Ukraine.

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