The Campaign in Ukraine

If you think the U.S. election is nasty, take a look at this one.

The U.S. version of negative campaigning sounds like shrill sandbox shouting compared with the ongoing presidential campaign in Ukraine, the most important European country that’s on no one’s geopolitical map. Instead of Willie Horton and the Swift Boat Veterans, consider bogus egg attacks, an opposition candidate with serious food poisoning, and a rash of well-timed car crashes.

There’s no room for schadenfreude, though. The Oct. 31 presidential elections in Ukraine, a country roughly twice the size of New Mexico lodged in a historical buffer zone between Poland and Russia, could well be critical to defining the future of the balance of power in Europe, and of Russia’s lingering imperial ambitions. It will also decide the fate of Ukraine’s 50 million citizens and of democracy in a sleeping European giant.

But the rest of Europe doesn’t want a needy new friend at its far frontiers—even one that is a critical conduit for the oil and gas from Russia that keeps the lights on throughout the continent. The United States, preoccupied with Iraq, is similarly ignoring Ukraine.

Not too long ago, Ukraine (forget the definite article) was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, accounting for more than a quarter of the total agricultural output of the former Evil Empire. But, as with the rest of the former Soviet Union, the music stopped for Ukraine when the hammer and sickle lost their luster. Despite a recent run of strong growth, including an estimated 12 percent jump in 2004, Ukraine’s still-minuscule GDP amounts to less than one-third of the annual revenues of General Motors. On a per capita basis, Ukraine bats around the level of Honduras.

Things looked more promising in 1994, when Ukraine was the first post-Soviet state to peacefully transfer presidential power. But the government of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, which won re-election in 1999, has done Ukraine few favors, defaulting to Third World standards of corruption, incompetence, and all-around disregard for the country’s best interests. A merry-go-round of prime ministers has sapped public confidence in his administration, as politicking has taken precedence over governance. Transparency International ranks the country 122nd—out of 145 countries surveyed—in its Corruption Perceptions Index, a record that puts it on par with Sudan. One of the Kuchma regime’s low points was when a man sounding very much like the president was surreptitiously recorded discussing—using memorably foul language—ways to do away with a troublesome journalist. Kuchma weathered days of noisy mass protests after the reporter’s mutilated body was discovered. Needless to say, the murderer has yet to be found. (For more on the slain journalist, see this “Foreigners” column from December 2000.)

Politics and big business are incestuously intertwined in Ukraine, with competing clans of oligarchs vying for power in the country’s parliament. Kuchma has survived, despite approval ratings in the mid-single digits, in part by playing the country’s big businessmen off against each other and by allowing them to enrich themselves through acquiring state-owned assets worth billions. Pro-Kuchma forces are unified by the fear of losing their ill-gotten gains if the president’s choice for the country’s highest office, current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, doesn’t win the upcoming election.

The principal opposition candidate is Viktor Yushenko, prime minister a few years back and a rare spark of hope during Kuchma’s regime. Yushenko, lauded for his economic reform programs, was kicked out by Kuchma for supporting the wrong group of oligarchs. He has built his support base by managing to appeal to a range of interest groups that have little in common other than not being in power, by promising to make Ukraine a more democratic society and ending the culture of cronyism and corruption.

Kuchma and the anxious oligarchs in his corner have ensured that Ukraine’s (largely state-controlled) airwaves are unapologetically all-Yanukovych, all the time. The full weight of so-called “administrative resources”—i.e., every level of the supposedly apolitical governmental structure—is being brought to bear upon the election through, for example, leaning on the media, advising government employees and the military how they will be expected to vote, and redefining pork-barrel politics. Nearly three-quarters of the country’s pensioners will receive a little something extra in their October checks, courtesy of the government. In May, Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment estimated that the total cost of the Ukrainian election will be roughly in the range of $200 million to $300 million (a significant portion funded by Russian companies operating in Ukraine). That may not sound like so much—it’s comparable to George Bush’s re-election campaign—but it’s an enormous sum in the context of the $10 billion total government operating budget.

After years of halfheartedly trying to increase the country’s integration with the West, in recent months—tired of being ignored—Kuchma appeared to surrender in favor of drawing closer to Russia. Eager to preserve what is left of its rapidly dissipating former empire—particularly following the May 1, 2004, accession of much of Central Europe and the Baltics to the European Union—and to prevent NATO from continuing its slow eastward creep, Russia has thrown its considerable heft behind Yanukovych, rather than the more westward-leaning Yushenko. In a country that followed the Russian lead during the 70 or so years of communism, and where 17 percent of the population is ethnically Russian, the opinion of the big brother to the east matters.

So, Russian President Vladimir Putin has cozied up to Kuchma and his prime minister, inviting them to his Moscow dacha for an ostensibly private birthday celebration and making frequent appearances in Kiev. Earlier this week, he appeared in a live question-and-answer session  on Ukrainian television. Pro-Yanukovych posters dot downtown Moscow, and Putin sent Kremlin spin doctors to help Yanukovych.

Kuchma, and now Yanukovych, play hardball in a way that makes Karl Rove look like a swing-set schemer. Over the past several years, political rivals who were inconvenient to Kuchma—such as the arms export chief, a prominent parliamentarian, a deputy head of the central bank, and a half-dozen or so others—have been killed in suspicious auto accidents. In a fresh twist, in early September, Yushenko was taken ill with what appeared to be severe food poisoning (allegedly after dining with the head of the Ukrainian security service). After a two-week recovery at a clinic in Austria, Yushenko claimed that the powers-that-be had tried to kill him.

Days later, the clinic supposedly issued a statement claiming that Yushenko had not been poisoned, triggering predictably widespread condemnation of the candidate and calls for him to quit the race altogether. But a week later, the statement was revealed to be a fake, ostensibly disseminated by pro-Yanukovych forces.

Meanwhile, in an apparent effort to divert attention from Yushenko, the Yanukovych camp suffered its own assassination attempt—though it may have been of its own creation. During a campaign stop, the prime minister was struck in the head by what his campaign later called a blunt metal object. Yanukovych—clutching, strangely, his chest, according to press reports—fell into the arms of aides and was taken to a local hospital. A video replay suggests that he had been hit by nothing more lethal than an egg, rendering accusations of attempted assassination overblown at best.

Political games aside, what’s next for Ukraine? Given the advantages enjoyed by Yanukovych—media control, massive state spending, and efforts to stifle the opposition, for starters—it is already clear that Ukraine’s elections will be far from free and fair. Instead, the question—as has often been the case in the former Soviet Union—is how blatantly the polls will be rigged, and how noisy the resultant protests will be.

Julia Tymoshenko, a prominent opposition leader, has warned that Ukraine could follow the path of fellow post-Soviet state Georgia, which last year ousted its president in a popular coup following crooked elections. Western governments and nongovernmental organizations have predictably raised the decibel level on their warnings that the election will be an important test of the future of democracy in Ukraine. But by sending 1,600 Ukrainian troops to Iraq, Kuchma has ensured a measure of political protection against too much—U.S.-generated, at least—tut-tutting about a fraudulent vote.

In some ways, very little will change in Ukraine, regardless of who wins on Oct. 31, or in the likely Nov. 21 runoff vote if no candidate receives a majority of the vote. Since Ukraine receives the vast bulk of its energy needs from Russia, Moscow will always be a foreign policy centerpiece. Similarly, while the European Union hasn’t been overly accommodating, Ukraine can hardly afford to turn its back on the world’s largest trading block, and Ukraine’s next president will need to continue to navigate a fine line between Mother Russia and Europe. The pace of reform will either be slow, under Yushenko—who would have to make too many compromises, particularly to nationalist-leaning supporters, to be particularly effective—or very slow, under Yanukovych, who is likely to remain under the thumb of the country’s backroom power brokers. And democracy will remain a largely foreign concept, particularly with an increasingly authoritarian Russia (not to mention international pariah Belarus) on Ukraine’s doorstep.

Real change—in Ukraine, and throughout the former Soviet Union—may well have to wait for the generation that still carries the legacy of the USSR to pass away. In the meantime, most likely, is more of the same old borscht.