Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition Party of Regions leader (formerly two-time prime minister) Viktor Yanukovych will face each other in the presidential election run-off on February 8. Russia has made clear that it is willing to work with Tymoshenko, Yanukovych, or both leaders at present and in the post-election period.
By all indications, Moscow does not have a preferred Ukrainian candidate. However, Moscow must contemplate a preferred outcome, which could well be a diarchy in Ukraine. A Russian-brokered governing diarchy would enable Moscow to play both sides in Ukraine and emerge as a political arbiter or balance holder between them.
Moscow has previously supported diarchy-type arrangements in two post-Soviet republics: in Armenia in 1998-2000 and in Moldova in 2001. Both experiments ended with the imposition of de facto presidential rule by Moscow-friendly presidents, despite the mixed presidential-parliamentary systems formally existing in both countries.
Ukraine’s existing constitutional arrangements are a prescription for stalemate, pitting the presidency against the government and parliamentary majority, and turning rivalries between parties into conflicts between institutions. The 2004 constitutional compromise aggravated this situation, with often paralyzing effects. The Orange Revolution’s unintended result turned out to be disorganization of the state and generalized dysfunctionality of its institutions.
As President Viktor Yushchenko—who bears a major share of responsibility for that situation—departs the scene, Ukraine’s three-cornered power contest is turning into a bipolar one involving the Party of Regions and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYUT). A fragile and unstable equilibrium between these rival forces after the presidential election would open possibilities for Russia to advance its objectives in Ukraine. From Moscow’s standpoint, the optimal solution for Ukraine would be a tense diarchy.
An unstable Ukraine or a dysfunctional Ukrainian state, however, is clearly not in Russia’s interest. Ukrainian political leaders would simply be unable to deliver on agreements reached in such circumstances. Ukraine’s Western partners as well as Russia have learned this repeatedly from 2005 onward — with the partial exception of the BYUT-led government in 2009. Moscow needs a Ukrainian president and government sufficiently effective to deliver on agreements, but still unconsolidated and insecure in power, and leaving scope for Moscow to deal alternately with Ukraine’s rival political forces.
Whether Tymoshenko or Yanukovych win the presidency, Moscow may well encourage diarchy-type arrangements to take shape for the post-election period. That would involve a Russian-brokered cohabitation between the Ukrainian president and government, as well as between the parliamentary majority and an almost evenly matched opposition. A delimitation of spheres of authority at the level of institutions could then, with Russia’s encouragement, take shape also between Kyiv and Donetsk, formally or informally.
Russia can therefore be expected to resort to a soft version of the general post-Soviet paradigm of controlled instability. In Ukraine’s case it can exploit the stalemate between institutions and branches of power and their respective political exponents. The Kremlin had earlier invoked more severe forms of controlled instability by playing on Ukraine’s regional differences, e.g., to influence the presidential election in 2004 and derail the Ukraine-NATO membership action plan in 2008. At this time, however, Moscow has no cause to encourage centrifugal forces and no interest in doing so.
On January 19, two days after the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev instructed Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov in front of TV cameras to take up his post in Ukraine immediately. Zurabov had been appointed in August to fill that vacant post, but was never actually sent to Kyiv as the Kremlin refused to deal with Yushchenko. Once Yushchenko lost the election’s first round on January 17, Medvedev instructed Zurabov in this set-piece meeting to work with the first-round winners in Ukraine. Without naming names and without awaiting the run-off, Medvedev expressed confident hope that “capable, effective authorities would emerge in Ukraine [from this election], willing to develop constructive, friendly, multi-dimensional relations with Russia.” The message to Tymoshenko and Yanukovych is that Moscow is ready to work with either of them or both. Medvedev elevated Zurabov’s status by appointing him special presidential envoy for economic relations with Ukraine (i.e., reporting directly to the Russian president), concurrently with the ambassadorial assignment (Interfax, Russian Television, January 19).
If Tymoshenko wins the presidency, Ukraine could overcome the political stalemate without a Russian-brokered diarchy solution. According to many observers, a Tymoshenko success would induce defections from the Party of Regions and residual pro-Yushchenko sub-factions, reinforcing the BYUT-led parliamentary majority and government. Should Yanukovych win the presidency, however, he is widely expected to trigger pre-term parliamentary elections for a new majority and government under his Party of Regions (UCIPR [Kyiv], “The Obvious and the Hidden,” Research Update, January 14).
Yet another electoral campaign, if Yanukovych does trigger it, would cripple Ukraine’s and international lenders’ efforts to deal with the economic crisis in the country. It would also prolong Ukraine’s permanent election campaign syndrome (almost continuous since 2004) even further. And it would increase Moscow’s opportunities to play arbiter and stabilizer between Ukrainian political forces, for greater Russian political influence in the country.