Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov received their Ukrainian counterparts, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych, on October 9 at the Novo-Ogarevo residence near Moscow. Ostensibly a private affair to celebrate Putin’s birthday, it was used for Putin’s ringing public endorsement of Yanukovych’s candidacy in Ukraine’s October 31 presidential election.
Televised coverage of the meeting targeted primarily the Russia-oriented electorate in populous eastern Ukraine, demonstrating the Kremlin’s support for the Kuchma-Yanukovych presidential succession scenario (which Kremlin operatives have helped devise against the most popular candidate, Viktor Yushchenko). Putin kissed the Ukrainian president, then the anointed successor, declaring, “Russia is not indifferent to the choice that the people of Ukraine will make . . . We particularly treasure all that President Kuchma has done in laying the basis for the development of Russian-Ukrainian relations. The future of relations depends on how Ukraine’s leadership will build its policy toward Russia.”
Speaking to journalists during the meeting, Yanukovych reaffirmed that introducing dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship in Ukraine and official status for the Russian language are among the goals in his party’s program and in his own program as presidential candidate. Yanukovych has also come out for a policy of non-alignment, which would reverse Ukraine’s current course toward eventual NATO membership.
Similarly, Ukraine’s goal of joining the World Trade Organization is now being superseded by an orientation toward Russia. Yanukovych and Fradkov announced that a common Russian-Ukrainian stance on the terms of joining the WTO would be worked out by December, “taking into account the requirements of forming the Single Economic Space [SES, Russia-Ukraine-Belarus-Kazakhstan] and a Russia-Ukraine free trade zone [space].” Fradkov continued vaguely and somewhat ominously, “We need to protect ourselves against dishonest competition from third parties.”
These stated intentions need not be taken entirely at face value. An existing, decade-old Russia-Ukraine free trade agreement has been eviscerated by unilateral Russian exemptions for major product goods, prompting Ukraine at times to retaliate within its limited resources. Removal of those exemptions is a long-standing Ukrainian demand at summits with Russia. Even the October 9 love fest conformed to the pattern in this regard. Significantly, Yanukovych alone raised that issue publicly, calling for an agreement to be finalized by December on lifting such exemptions. While boasting of a spectacular 35-37% growth in trade turnover, Yanukovych did not clarify whether the figure applied to Ukraine’s trade with Russia, with the SES countries, or with CIS countries; he was also vague about the period of reference (Russian Television Channel One, RTR Russia TV, Itar-Tass, Interfax, Ukrainian Television Channel One, October 9).
Russian authorities at various levels are aiding Yanukovych’s presidential bid. On October 8 in Moscow, the authorities helped sponsor a congress of ethnic Ukrainian associations in Russia, which called on Ukrainian citizens residing in Russia to vote for Yanukovych. However, some influential ethnic Ukrainian societies in Russia boycotted the congress and afterward issued a statement distancing themselves from it. On October 9 Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the main Ukrainian opposition leaders, rebutted corruption accusations leveled against her publicly by Russia’s Main Military Prosecutor’s Office. That Office had recently announced that a Moscow court has issued an arrest warrant against Tymoshenko and asked Interpol to place her on the international wanted list for declining to answer a subpoena from Moscow. Bribery charges against her, dating from the 1990s, were never proven and were part of a corruption scandal in Russia’s Defense Ministry at that time. Tymoshenko told an October 9 electoral rally that the sudden resurrection of those charges was a purely political move, arranged in Moscow by Kuchma’s presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk to damage the Ukrainian opposition’s campaign (UNIAN, Interfax, October 8, 9).
Kremlin endorsement of favored Ukrainian candidates and “parties of power” has been a routine feature of Ukraine’s elections since 1994. In this presidential election, however, the situation differs from those precedents in at least two key respects. First, the Kremlin and the incumbent Ukrainian president have prepared a scenario envisaging the handover of power to a designated successor, so as to thwart the free and fair election of a Ukrainian president — in this case Yushchenko. Second, Moscow and its supporters in Ukraine are capitalizing on frustration with the continuing failure by the European Union, WTO, and NATO to signal clearly that their doors are open to Ukraine. The lack of such signals has weakened the Western-oriented elements in the governing establishment and now reduces the chances of Ukraine’s pro-Western opposition in the electoral campaign.