Viktor Yanukovych, the once-disgraced Ukrainian politician who was defeated by outgoing President Viktor Yuschenko in 2004 as a result of election tampering, a Supreme Court ruling that overturned fraudulent election results and massive street protests dubbed the "Orange Revolution" has finally gotten the last laugh. He is expected to be named the next president of the former Soviet Republic with an election victory on February 7, thanks in no small part to former presidential campaign advisors of Senator John McCain.
Yanukovych, who employed the services of Paul Manafort, a strategist for McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and his partner at lobbying firm Davis Manafort Inc. Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, narrowly defeated Ukrainian Prime Minster Yulia Tymoshenko, who hired media consulting firm AKPD, founded by David Axelrod, believed to be the architect of President Barack Obama’s historic campaign victory. Yuschenko, who was knocked out of the first round with a dismal 5 percent showing, used Mark Penn, former Chief Strategist for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
This participation, or interference, by Washington´s elite political operatives in another country´s election shouldn’t come as a surprise. Dick Morris, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton and current Fox News commentator was a strategist with Felipe Calderon’s presidential victory, albeit probably fraudulent one in Mexico in 2006. Meanwhile James Carville, lead strategist for Clinton´s 1992 presidential victory and popular political pundit had his role in Bolivia´s 2002 election revealed in the recent documentary Our Brand is Crisis.
Washington Orange to Kremlin Red?
Yanukovych, with 98.8 percent of the vote in, has a slim 2.9 percent victory over Tymoshenko, the former "gas princess" (believed to have made millions in the 1990s) turned populist who burst on to Ukraine’s political scene in 2004 as a leader of the "Orange Revolution" which helped her once ally turned political foe Yuschenko win the presidency, and her the position of Prime Minister. But the so-called revolution was anything but grassroots, as the Bush Administration spent over $65 million to fund and organize it. At the time, getting a pro-Western president in Ukraine was believed to be a way to push NATO east and keep Putin in check. But the experiment failed.
Jeffrey Laurenti, senior fellow and director of foreign policy programs at The Century Foundation, believes this Cold War mentality caused conservatives in Washington to misplay their hand.
"Yanukovych’s election yesterday, narrowly edging out prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the run-off, spotlights the folly of Washington conservatives who pressed single-mindedly to lock Ukraine (and Georgia) into the Western military alliance during the Bush administration," said Laurenti. "They discounted deep ambivalence among Ukrainians themselves and sought to override overt opposition from NATO’s leading members in western Europe."
But while the 2004 election was marred with fraud, according to election observers this one was "an impressive display" and that "democratic elections in Ukraine are now a reality."
Even Washington joined in the praise.
"The United States commends the Ukrainian people on the conduct of the February 7 second round of presidential elections," the US embassy said in a statement. "We welcome the high turnout of voters. The conduct of both the first and second rounds reflect another step in the consolidation of Ukraine’s democracy."
The only thing missing was congratulations to Yanukovych, which might raise eyebrows as Tymoshenko has thus far refused to concede and has threatened to challenge the results. But Western election monitors have urged her to concede, essentially negating any potential repeat of 2004.
"Normally for the good of the nation the one who loses shakes hands with the one who wins," said Assen Agov, head of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s delegation.
Regardless, some journalists still try to define the election in Ukraine as a defeat for Washington and victory for Moscow. But political posturing by both candidates, as well as Western involvement with all of the campaigns, suggests otherwise.
"And although Western commentators have traditionally been fond of casting Ukrainian politics in very simple terms – ‘pro-Western’ vs. ‘pro-Russian’ – the real test of Ukrainian democracy lies in whether or not the people who are set to run this country are going to start acting pro-Ukrainian," said Natalia Antonova is the editor of GlobalComment.com.
Vladimir Koroilov, head of Ukraine Branch, CIS Institute, said, "The overwhelming majority of the population in western Ukraine, according to all the public opinion surveys by various companies, believe it is the top priority of the Ukrainian leadership’s foreign policy to improve relations with Russia that have worsened over the past years."
This is a position both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko had adopted during their campaigns.
"Anyone who says Yanukovych will just do the Kremlin’s bidding doesn’t know the man," said Sergei Shtukarin, director of the Donetsk Centre for Political Studies. "He is going to push a pragmatic economic agenda, and if necessary he’ll play hardball with the Russians and the Europeans both."
Yanukovych told CNN his policy "would be a policy based on mutual interest and good relations with both Russia and the European Union," and that he would "continue to cooperate with NATO, but joining the alliance must be decided by the people of Ukraine in a referendum."
As for Tymoshenko, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, remarked recently that she was someone he could "do business with." She met with him last winter and was able to strike a deal to end a Russian gas blockade with Ukraine.
For Ukraine to move forward it must move beyond this Cold War paradigm by having mutually beneficial diplomatic relations with both Russia and the United States, if not pitting each side against each other occasionally to optimize potential economic deals. Civil society must also demand a greater role in the governing process, while organizing itself to ensure that political infighting and corruption don’t continue to take this struggling country down the road of economic ruin.
Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.upsidedownworld.org, an online magazine covering politics and activism in Latin America. He also serves on the board of the Canary Institute.