THE RUSSIAN FACTOR IN THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 214

The Russian government’s open blessing contributed significantly to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s electoral victory over the Red opposition. That blessing enabled Kuchma to make deep inroads into Ukraine’s large ethnic Russian or russified electorate and hold the Russian-oriented communists to a draw in some of their eastern and southern strongholds. According to preliminary returns, Kuchma even outvoted the communist challenger Petro Symonenko in the populous and russified Donetsk and Kharkiv Regions and garnered an impressive 44 percent in the overwhelmingly Russian-populated Crimea. These are just some of the returns suggesting that Kuchma’s country-wide victory would have been less categorical in the absence of the political support he received from Moscow.

Moscow’s attitude was shaped by the short-term goal of preventing a Red revanche in Ukraine in the runup to Russia’s own parliamentary and presidential elections. Such a turn of events in Ukraine could not have failed to produce a spillover effect in Russia, unsettling to both its political system and the Kremlin’s own interests. Predicted by the Monitor in July on the basis of preliminary statements and gestures from the Kremlin (see the Monitor, July 9), the support for Kuchma turned demonstrative in September and culminated on the eve of each of the two rounds of Ukraine’s presidential election. The support took the form of televised propaganda and high-level official statements, designed to cast Kuchma not simply as the Russian-preferred candidate, but as the statesman best able to ensure friendly relations and close cooperation between Ukraine and Russia. Driven by purely tactical considerations, this portrayal ignored Kuchma’s defense of Ukrainian national interests against Russian pressures on a wide range of issues throughout his first term in office. And it simply erased from the picture–at least for the moment–Moscow’s indignation over Ukraine’s military and security relationships with NATO and the United States–a policy identified with Kuchma and his top aides.

Russia’s official endorsement did not pose the risk of alienating Ukraine’s nationally conscious electorate from Kuchma. That part of the electorate judged Kuchma on his actual foreign-policy record and supported him overwhelmingly in this election, as shown by the returns from Ukraine’s western regions. In the eastern and southern regions, Russia’s endorsement did achieve its main objective–that of depriving the Red forces of the powerful “Russian card” which they had been set to play against the president.

Moscow had made its decision to back Kuchma well before the communist Symonenko emerged as the leftist frontrunner in Ukraine. Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz had during most of the campaign looked as the probable standard bearer of a Red coalition–to be built around the Communist and Socialist Parties–in opposition to Kuchma. But when Moroz made his pilgrimage to Moscow for support, he was denied any significant contacts or media exposure by the Russian government. Only the Russian Communist leaders, the anti-Ukrainian mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov and the Orthodox Church Patriarch Aleksy II offered Moroz some political and media exposure, which ultimately was hardly noticed in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian leaders, however, benefited from carefully orchestrated meetings with Russian counterparts and ample imagery on Russian television for political consumption in eastern and southern Ukraine, especially during the decisive stage of the electoral campaign (see the Monitor, October 12). On October 30, the eve of the first round of balloting, Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma issued identically worded communiques on a telephone conversation they had that day concerning “specific steps to promote trade and economic cooperation between Ukraine and Russia. They expressed satisfaction with the development of bilateral relations in all areas. Yeltsin congratulated Kuchma on Ukraine’s election as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council in recognition of Ukraine’s important role in strengthening international peace and security” (Itar-Tass, DINAU, October 30-31). On November 13, the eve of the runoff in Ukraine, Yeltsin and Kuchma again had a telephone conversation which produced identically worded communiques: “The presidents discussed the many-sided cooperation, in which the two countries have recently scored important results. Boris Yeltsin expressed appreciation for Leonid Kuchma’s efforts toward that goal.” The endorsement could hardly have been more explicit (Itar-Tass, DINAU, November 13-14).

Such accolades stood in contrast to the actual record of Russian-Ukrainian relations, replete with unresolved problems which were shelved for mutual convenience for the duration of the Ukrainian presidential campaign. Barring some confidential bargains, Kuchma should not have to pay a high political price for the help received, since it was given in the Russian government’s own interest and probably on its initiative. Kyiv has reciprocated with some relatively modest favors: it has muted criticism of the Russian war in the North Caucasus, straddled a cautious middle line between the Russian and the Western positions on Kosovo, deemphasized political cooperation with the GUUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova) countries in the CIS, and accepted Russia’s terms for selling eleven Soviet-era strategic bombers in Ukrainian inventory to the Russian Air Force (see the Monitor, November 11).

Many foreign and local observers have emphasized the analogy between Ukraine’s just-completed presidential election and Russia’s 1996 presidential election. In both cases, the incumbents embarked on their campaigns with low popularity ratings due to economic recession, social hardships and public backlash against official corruption; they cast the election as a stark choice between communists and anticommunists; they exploited the state media very heavy-handedly against the communist challengers; and they made a pre-runoff deal with one of the runner-ups–Aleksandr Lebed in Russia and Yevhen Marchuk in Ukraine–who in each case was rewarded with the post of Security Council Secretary. The analogy is correct as far as it goes, but it misses at least one essential difference between the two cases. In Russia, the victory of anticommunist forces ultimately produced governments headed by former KGB agents which led Russia into confrontation with some of its neighbors, disputes with the West, military adventures and a general reassertion of imperial nationalism. Ukraine by contrast cooperates harmoniously with all its neighbors, pursues close relations with the West–including NATO–and looks westward and into the future, not into the past, in the aftermath of its election (see the Monitor, October 22, 29, November 8, 15-16).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at [email protected], by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions