Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#11 - JRL 8474 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
November 26, 2004
Democratic Precedent Is Real Threat

The media have been portraying the Ukrainian presidential election as a contest between East and West, between entrenching a cronyist authoritarian regime and creating a liberal democratic one: pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych vs. pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, each candidate with radically different visions of Ukraine's future. In reality, there is less difference in substance between the two candidates than first appearances might suggest.

Both a Yanukovych and a Yushchenko administration would face a similar set of external and internal constraints. Neither has much choice but to establish good working relations with Russia (by dint of dependence on Russian natural gas and geographical proximity) and the West, while catering to various domestic constituencies.

The bandit/crony factor under a Yanukovych presidency would no doubt be higher, but it's a bit of a stretch to portray Yushchenko's team as crystal-pure. Yulia Tymoshenko, for example, a likely candidate for prime minister under a Yushchenko presidency, has something of a checkered past.

That is not to say that the outcome of the election doesn't matter -- on the contrary, it matters a great deal. The real issue in this election is whether a democratic transfer of power will be allowed to take place, rather than a Russian-style "managed" succession. All the evidence is that Leonid Kuchma and Co. are bent on ensuring a smooth succession -- without the vagaries of democracy in any way interfering with their plans.

If Yushchenko prevails despite the state machine being fully mobilized against him, that would establish a precedent that would resonate throughout the CIS -- not least in neighboring Russia. Ukraine is balanced on a knife-edge: It could follow in Russia's footsteps, but it could equally follow Central Europe's lead with power regularly handed over from the incumbent to the opposition. (Unlike Russia, Ukraine has already notched up a democratic transfer, in 1994 from Leonid Kravchuk to Kuchma.) This is perhaps what Putin fears more than the victory of a "pro-Western" candidate and why the Kremlin's interference has been so excessive. A democratic transfer of power in Ukraine could have a powerful demonstration effect on its neighbors to the east -- not something that Putin necessarily wants to encourage as he ponders his own succession in 2008.

A successful democratic handover in Ukraine would also serve to undermine a key myth underpinning Putin's increasingly authoritarian regime -- that Russia is not yet ready for democracy and that without "continuity of power" the country will be condemned to chaos and collapse.