Yanukovych Consistently Russia-Leaning in Ukraine’s Presidential Election

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 15

Viktor Yanukovych (R)

Russia’s authorities have adopted a position of studied equidistance between the two main candidates during Ukraine’s presidential election campaign. Moscow has interfered only to the extent of ostracizing President Viktor Yushchenko, whose re-election chances it knew to be nil. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Party of Regions leader (formerly two-time prime minister) Viktor Yanukovych will face each other in the February 7 run-off. Moscow as well as Western governments have insisted throughout the campaign that they would work with either winner after the election, only stipulating that the process be free and fair.

Formal equidistance seems to be the only possible option at this stage, in view of the volatile race with an unpredictable outcome. But this option also reflects the lessons of the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine, when the Kremlin’s Yanukovych project failed outright, and the opposite Yushchenko project unraveled soon afterward. His presidency already sinking in 2006, Yushchenko tried to keep afloat by bringing RosUkrEnergo into Ukraine (as Yanukovych had first decided to do in 2004 as prime minister) and bringing Yanukovych back as prime minister (2006-2007) on a fast track toward the presidency again.

Yanukovych’s programmatic statements during this campaign differ starkly from Tymoshenko’s positions regarding Ukraine-Russia relations and Ukraine’s place in Europe. Theirs are two different foreign policies. Yanukovych’s stated positions are aligned with Russian policy objectives on some issues of central significance to Ukraine, his prescriptions opposite to those of Tymoshenko.

On gas supplies and transit, Tymoshenko has signed agreements in 2009 with Russia on supplies and with the European Union on modernizing the transit system. The agreements envisage European-level prices for Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and E.U.-led technical and financial assistance to the transit system’s modernization, keeping Ukrainian ownership intact.

Yanukovych, however, calls for sharing control of the Ukrainian system with Gazprom, in return for discounted prices on Russian gas supplies. Yanukovych has brought back the old idea of creating a Gazprom-led international consortium to implement that bargain. Apparently reflecting the Donetsk steel and chemical industries’ need for low-priced gas supplies, Yanukovych is turning this issue into a campaign promise of cheap gas for the people, vowing to renegotiate the agreements with Russia (Interfax-Ukraine, Inter TV, January 15, 19).

Regarding the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union, Yanukovych considers the possibilities of Ukraine participating in it selectively, with regard to certain categories of goods and commodities (steel, chemicals, and agricultural products presumably topping the list of protectionist interests). Moscow is willing to negotiate the terms of such Ukrainian participation. This would, however, complicate and slow down the negotiations launched by the Tymoshenko government toward an association agreement with the E.U. and a trade agreement with it. Yanukovych claims that Ukraine could have it both ways, in an overarching framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, however, are not WTO members; and their chances have become more remote since Russia insists on their admission as a group, which is unacceptable to WTO countries, including those of the E.U. (Interfax, January 16, 20).

Yanukovych supports a prolongation of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s stationing on Ukraine’s territory. In return for higher rent payments (currently a derisory $ 95 million per year), Yanukovych says that he would favor extending the Russian fleet’s presence beyond the 2017 deadline, and delaying official debate until the deadline draws closer (thus pre-determining the deadline’s breach). According to him, the Russian fleet enhances Ukraine’s and Russia’s common security; and extending the fleet’s presence would fit within Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s concept of a new European security architecture. Tymoshenko, however, is citing the Ukrainian constitution’s ban on the stationing of foreign forces on Ukraine’s territory beyond 2017 (Inter TV, January 15).

Following Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, Yanukovych came out in favor of “recognition” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Elements in his Party of Regions submitted resolutions to that effect in the Verkhovna Rada and the Crimean regional legislature in 2009. Yanukovych did not seem to actively support that effort but he did not distance himself from it either.

In line with Russia’s policy, Yanukovych supports conferring official status on the Russian language in Ukraine’s regions (not necessarily confined to the east and south). This would be impossible to legislate at the national level because it would necessitate a two-thirds majority in the Verkhovma Rada to amend the constitution. Yanukovych (as well as Moscow) call for adopting the European charter of minority and regional languages in Ukraine, so as to restore what in practice would be a privileged status for Russian at the level of Ukraine’s regions.

The Party of Regions has a cooperation agreement operating with Russia’s party of power, United Russia. According to the Duma’s international affairs committee chairman, Konstantin Kosachev, the two parties’ relations have a “systemic character” (Interfax, January 17). Tymoshenko’s presidential candidacy, however, has been endorsed in emphatic terms by the European People’s Party, the umbrella organization of Europe’s Christian-Democrat parties.