Pro-Moscow Candidate's Win Could Distance Ukraine From Kremlin

KIEV, Ukraine -- The apparent electoral victory of Viktor Yanukovych, the villain of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, is full of ironies.

Supporters of Viktor Yanukovich chant in front of the Central Election Commission in Kiev.

The political rebirth of this man, who served two prison sentences as a teenager for robbery with violence and whose adult reputation is of a political thug who is too friendly with Ukraine's robber-baron oligarchs, is extraordinary enough.

Five years ago the outright fraudulent theft of the presidential election by his followers led to the pro-democracy Orange Revolution on the streets of Kyiv.

The election was overthrown by the courts, and revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko became president with his tempestuous Orange colleague Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister.

But now Yanukovych has won in what a multitude of international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union and others have called "an impressive display" of democracy.

Other former Soviet Union states have never received such accolades.

An irony here is that while Yanukovych, whose core support is in the Russian-speaking regions of east and northern Ukraine, is seen as pro-Moscow, the quality of these elections is a major step toward the country's qualifying for membership in the EU.

This objective was the central policy plank of his main rival for the presidency, Tymoshenko. Moreover, the clear desire for closer ties with Europe, especially among Ukrainians from the west and south of the country, pushed Yanukovych to support at least some form of free trade agreement, though he still rejects the country's joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The verdicts on the high quality of the election also counter some pessimistic views that Yanukovych's win is a reversal of the Orange Revolution.

The truth seems to be quite the reverse: Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions won because they adopted the values of the revolution.

They realized Ukrainians expected a fair election and a strong leader who earned their trust.

There was substantial voter disgust at the constant bickering in the past five years between President Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, his on-again-off-again prime minister.

The result was an increasingly dysfunctional economy and a derailed $17-billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund.

While voters among Ukraine's 46 million people decided they wanted a firm hand on the tiller, it is equally evident they don't want a return to autocracy or some localized version of Moscow's fictitious democracy.

Even so, the election was a close thing.

In the first round of voting last month, after which all the also-ran candidates were dropped, Tymoshenko trailed Yanukovych by more than 10 per cent of the vote. She picked up considerable support in the second round and has been defeated by only about three per cent of the votes cast.

Her camp was saying on Tuesday she plans to challenge the result in court. Her supporters question the results in more than 1,000 polling stations out of a total of more than 30,000 across the country.

In theory, that could produce about 900,000 falsified votes, the number by which Yanukovych beat her.

But Tymoshenko has already backed away from her pre-election day threats of another people-power street revolution.

In addition, she cancelled two scheduled news conferences on Tuesday, suggesting she has little confidence in a court challenge in the face of the verdict by the international observers.

But Tymoshenko, who is a populist politician of undoubted skill, may yet be led by her instincts for a fight.

Certainly in Moscow there is a mood of caution.

President Dmitry Medvedev issued very low-key applause in which he "congratulated Viktor Yanukovych on the completion of the election campaign, which was highly evaluated by international observers, and on the success he achieved in the presidential election."

Indeed, Moscow has been careful not to repeat its mistakes in 2004 when then Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared twice on campaign platforms with Yanukovych.

Putin then had to swallow the embarrassment of having lavishing congratulated Yanukovych on his victory even as the result was being overthrown on the streets.

Moscow showed little overt support for Yanukovych this time round, though it doubtless welcomes his victory -- although he himself has proclaimed to everyone who would listen, "I'm no Kremlin stooge."

We'll see.

Source: Vancouver Sun