What You Need To Know About Ukraine …

So you can forget about it next month.

A deeply divided electorate and fraud-ridden ballot counting awards neither candidate a majority in a closely contested presidential election. The Supreme Court steps in to make a ruling on the disputed result, although its authority on the matter is unclear. The country drifts dangerously into legal and political limbo. Ukraine, late 2004, could be United States, late 2000.

But add to the mix hundreds of thousands of street protesters, the (remote, but growing) possibility of secession by some regions, backroom politicking as opaque as borscht, and a Russian bear with egg on its face at the border—and Ukraine makes the American red vs. blue split seem like a sandbox squabble.

Whether the next step is a recount, a backroom deal, revolution, or—as now seems most likely—a fresh election featuring a few new faces, roughly half the population will, regardless, end up feeling disenfranchised and defrauded. And it will be just a matter of weeks before the international community, which noticed that things were amiss in Ukraine only when it was far too late to do anything more than fire-fighting, again wills itself to ignore the restless giant wedged between Russia and Europe.

To recap: After a monumentally ugly electoral campaign, Ukraine suffered through two rounds of flawed and fraudulent presidential balloting. The favored son of incumbent Leonid Kuchma, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, claimed a narrow victory. But his opponent, Viktor Yuschenko, disputed the results in the country’s Supreme Court as his backers took to the streets of Kiev—as did Yanukovych supporters in his strongholds. The country’s parliament passed a (nonbinding) vote of no confidence in the Yanukovych government, as the Supreme Court was presented evidence of electoral fraud, and the Yuschenko and Yanukovych camps jockeyed for position. A procession of high-profile would-be mediators from abroad—most of whom just discovered Ukraine on the map and recognized that it would be bad for a key energy-source corridor from Russia into Europe, with nearly 50 million citizens, to descend into chaos—paraded through town, pounding the double-barreled drums of democratic process and peaceful conflict resolution.

What next for Ukraine (besides more Viktor/victor headline puns)? Given the extraordinary advantages that Yanukovych and company enjoyed—including a blizzard of positive media coverage, mountains of cash, and the government’s so-called “administrative resources”—the election was, in the most cynical sense, Yanukovych’s to lose. So, it’s no surprise that Kuchma recently indicated that he would welcome a replacement for his protégé. One current scenario calls for a new presidential election, pitting Yuschenko against Yanukovych’s former campaign manager, Serhiy Tyhypko. A well-connected insider (until a few days ago, the head of the country’s central bank), Tyhypko may be able to present himself as a centrist alternative to the now-tainted Yanukovych and the more extreme Yuschenko, says Peter Lavelle, an analyst of the post-Soviet political scene.

Many Yuschenko supporters have taken their cue and inspiration from the nearby Caucasus—and fellow former Soviet—country of Georgia, where last year a “democratic coup” ousted President Edvard Shevardnadze. (Yuschenko is even reported to be a personal friend of former Georgian opposition leader, and current president, Mikhail Saakashvili.) But while Shevardnadze was almost universally loathed by his countrymen, there is no such unity in Ukraine, although the corrupt and incompetent Kuchma was widely disliked. Broadly speaking, the eastern part of the country is pro-Yanukovych/Kuchma, while the western segment generally favors Yuschenko—and the country is split in myriad other cultural, linguistic, and economic ways. There have been secessionist grumbles in the east, but they’re likely to lead to greater regional autonomy rather than a rash of mini-Ukraines.

In Georgia, the bad guys were wearing black hats. But in Ukraine, the standard clichéd dichotomies—democracy vs. the will of the few, east vs. west, independence vs. subversion, etc.—aren’t quite as clear: It’s a spaghetti Western where everyone’s decked out in gray (the bright orange of Yuschenko supporters notwithstanding).

International press coverage, for example, has focused on the more western and European leanings of Yuschenko and the pro-Russia stance of Yanukovych. But characterizations of the Ukrainian election as a Cold War proxy, vintage 2004, are misleading simplifications at best: Ukraine will need both Russia and Europe (and vice versa), a reality Yuschenko and Yanukovych (and Tyhypko) doubtless recognize. While Kuchma is cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the relationship is relatively new, as foreign policy during much of Kuchma’s tenure was characterized by flirtations with both Europe and Russia.

While democracy may be at stake in Ukraine, there’s no peoples’ champion on the ballot. “Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have discovered political activism, while a small number of oligarch clans maneuver to continue their grip over Ukraine’s economy and politics,” says Lavelle. Behind both candidates are clans of oligarchs who enriched themselves largely through acquiring state-owned assets via very murky means and who are anxious to maintain their privileged positions. And for a man fingered as the savior of Ukraine’s democracy movement, Yuschenko is toting a bit of baggage in the form of accusations of having stolen $120 million from the country’s central bank.

Perhaps the biggest loser will be Russia, which has suffered a massive loss of face in what turned out to be a monumental miscalculation about how much it could meddle in Ukrainian affairs. Putin invested considerable personal political capital in backing Yanukovych in one of the few remaining outposts of Russia’s rapidly shrinking sphere of influence. Kremlin spin doctors who were dispatched to Kiev to help the Yanukovych campaign are now reduced to blaming their failure on Yanukovych’s “criminal past”—a teenage robbery conviction—and impressively immature and irrelevant criticism of the hue donned by Yuschenko’s supporters (“the color of children’s diarrhea”). Russians may remember the Ukrainian effort if Putin tries to extend his time in the Kremlin beyond a constitutionally mandated second term.

If not for effective and vociferous—if misguided and naive—international pressure, what passes for a democratic movement in Ukraine wouldn’t have had a chance. But once the next stage of electoral hanky-panky has passed—in whatever form—and righteous international election observers have issued their virtuous conclusions on the state of democracy in Ukraine and gone home, the country will likely revert to its pre-electoral anonymity.

One of the key reasons that the situation in Ukraine reached a boiling point is that it failed to register as a priority within Europe or the United States. Once the crisis has passed, Ukraine shouldn’t be surprised to find itself at the bottom of the agenda once again. Until, of course, photos of hundreds of thousands of protestors—decked out in black next time, perhaps?—pave the streets of Kiev.