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Moscow Times
November 1, 2004
Perplexed by Putin's Bet in Ukraine

Russia's involvement in the Ukrainian presidential race has been unprecedented. Political and cultural figures, from President Vladimir Putin to Soviet-era crooner Iosif Kobzon, have visited to root for Viktor Yanukovych.

Russian campaign gurus and spin doctors have camped out in Kiev on the same mission to get Yanukovych elected, with some of them so self-confident and blatant in their actions as to admit that opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned so that his looks would not win him extra votes.

Overall, Russia's involvement in the race has become so excessive that it may alienate voters, as happened in Abkhazia, which is far more dependent on Russia than Ukraine is.

Like Yanukovych, Abkhazia's Raul Khadzhimba was prime minister and campaigned on a platform of strengthening relations with Russia, using images from his meetings with Putin in the campaign and recruiting the services of Russian public relations specialists. Yet he lost the popular vote to Sergei Bagapsh, and now President Vladislav Ardzinba and his patrons in Moscow are scratching their heads over how to nullify the results.

It was puzzling when Moscow decided to back one candidate in Abkhazia since all the candidates, including Bagapsh, were unquestionably pro-Russian. Similarly, one cannot help wondering why Moscow decided to back Yanukovych or any single candidate in Ukraine. Paradoxically, of the two candidates, it is Yushchenko who appears to have done more to advance Russia's interests in Ukraine, at least in economic terms, though his rhetoric has never been as pro-Russian as that of Yanukovych. Yet the Kremlin has bet on Yanukovych, even though his call for closer Ukrainian-Russian cooperation is little more than rhetoric.

The Kremlin may have opted for Yanukovych because if he wins, the voting is seen as rigged and his election is not recognized by the West, it could drive him into Russia's arms in the short term. In the long term, however, Western leaders would soften their stance, given Ukraine's geostrategic importance, and Yanukovych would still have to balance relations with the EU, the United States and Russia if he wanted an independent Ukraine.

The Kremlin's failure to have its candidate of choice elected in the tiny and dependent Abkhazia is astonishing. Should Russia fail with Yanukovych, it would cast serious doubt on Russia's ability to influence affairs in what it considers its own backyard, where both the EU and the United States are playing an increasingly active role. Should Yushchenko win, it could inspire opposition forces in other CIS countries.