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RIA Novosti
November 12, 2004
MOSCOW, RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov

Russia's ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, recently asked the question in the headline. Although, he has something of a reputation for mangling the Russian language, some of his phrases have become pithy sayings every Russian uses, and on this occasion he seems to have hit the target as well.

On Wednesday, Ukraine's central election commission broke its nine-day silence to declare the opposition's candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, the winner of the first round of the presidential election by a margin of 0.55%, i.e., about 150,000 votes, over the incumbent Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich.

Other candidates who failed to make it through the run-off have already voiced their support for Mr. Yushchenko. They include: Alexander Moroz, who came third in the first round and is the head of the Socialist Party, Alexander Omelchenko, Kiev's mayor and the head of the Unity Party, and Anatoly Kinakh, the leader of the Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Party. They have all signed cooperation agreements with Mr. Yushchenko, who, therefore, has a genuine chance of succeeding Leonid Kuchma follower after the run-off on November 21.

This means Russia's political elite will have to take a new look at the opposition candidate from a less biased and more concerned position. There is an assumption that the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, who is married to an American, will become an unpleasant surprise for Russia as a Ukrainian president. But is this really the case?

Indeed, hostile pre-election posters often depicted Mr. Yushchenko as an American cowboy with a lasso or wearing an Uncle Sam stars-and-stripes hat. Hence Russian and Western political analysts have often written that a "President Yushchenko" would be determined to lead Ukraine farther away from Russia toward the West.

In contrast, Viktor Yanukovich is seen as a devoted ally of Russia's and, the same analysts claim, when elected will offer the prospect of preserving status quo. They refer to Mr. Yanukovich's promises that, should he be elected, Kiev will not join NATO, Russian will become the second state language and dual citizenship will be introduced.

However, everything is not so black and white. The philosophy of both candidates is a more complicated alloy that could change dramatically after victory. But I have no doubt that a Yushchenko presidency could suit Russia, especially in terms of economic development. It is common knowledge that, when he was prime minister in 1999-2001, Mr. Yushchenko succeeded in halting the decline in bilateral trade and put an end to the main sore point in relations - the theft of Russian gas. He also opened the Ukrainian market for major Russian companies and insisted that the Ukrainian economy be privatized in an exceptionally transparent manner. All this can be hardly detrimental to Russian business.

In stark contrast, Viktor Yanukovich's government recently put Ukrtelecom and Krivorozhstal up for privatization on terms that virtually excluded Russian industrial groups, in particular, Severstal. As a result, one Ukrainian company took control of the country's biggest metallurgical plant, the Krivoy Rog works, without an auction being held. This lucky company is rumored to be connected with a relative of a senior official in the Kiev establishment. Although this may seem inconsequential, it is rather indicative.

However, we should return to Mr. Yushchenko's supposed anti-Russian sentiments. Perhaps, someone could point to an example of this? You could sift through an entire archive of the opposition leader's comments about Russia and not find any attacks on the neighboring country, let alone any attempts to play up to Ukrainian nationalists. Mr. Yushchenko does not blow kisses towards Moscow, but there is nothing hostile in his keeping distance from Moscow. "Some neighbors are better than relatives," he once said.

Mr. Yushchenko is well aware of Russia's significance as a natural and inexhaustible market for Ukrainian commodities. A week before the elections, he said that Russia would be Ukraine's eternal strategic partner in any circumstances. On taking a more intent look at a pre-election speech by Mr. Yushchenko, Moscow has noticed a paragraph where he promised, should he be elected, to do everything possible for ethnic Russians to feel comfortable in Ukraine, watch television programs in Russian, read Ukrainian newspapers in Russian, see their children study the Russian language and Russian culture.

The Russian population of Ukraine believes Mr. Yushchenko's words. Many influential Russian political analysts also claim that, on coming to power, the current leader of the opposition will develop a normal partnership with Russia and will hardly irritate Moscow with his constant shuttling between Moscow and Washington, as distinct from his predecessors. His views on the Russian Orthodox Church seem to have also been received positively. Last Sunday, Vladimir, Metropolitan of Kiev and Ukraine, a representative of the Moscow patriarchate, granted an audience to Mr. Yushchenko. When the meeting came to a close, the metropolitan blessed the presidential candidate, which means a great deal on the eve of the second round.

There is one more circumstance that, to my mind, could help the Russian authorities overcome the temptation of reacting to the winner of the first round of presidential elections in Ukraine as a Western agent of influence. A closer look shows that Viktor Yushchenko and Vladimir Putin have a great deal in common: both are seeking to consolidate law and order in their countries, do away with corruption and curb the reach of the oligarchs.