Wednesday, November 24, 2004

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High stakes or déjà vu in Ukraine?

A few years ago there were sizeable protests in Kiev because of "Kuchmagate," in which tapes came to light suggesting that President Leonid Kuchma played a role in the disappearance of Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze in September 2000. There was tangible evidence that Kuchma personally ordered Gongadze -- who was investigating corruption in Kuchma's administration -- to disappear. Despite months of protests, however, Kuchma stayed in office (click here for an exhaustive World Bank study on this case).

Not to put a damper on what's going on right now in Ukraine, but that example should be kept in mind when speculating whether the protests at the rigged election results in Ukraine will actually cause a change in government a la the Rose Revolution in Georgia [Quickly: opposition leader/reformer/nationalist Viktor Yushchenko led by double digits in Western-run exit polls over Kuchma stalwart/Russophile Viktor Yanukovich. However, the preliminary election results had Yanukovich winning by three percentage points. Outside observers are pretty much unanimous in their belief that there was massive vote fraud].

The two most salient facts in assessing what will happen are that:

a) Leonid Kuchma wants Yanukovich to win;
b) Vladimir Putin really wants Yanukovich to win.

I would love to be wrong about this, but it doesn't look good for Yushchenko.

Stefan Wagstyl and Tom Warner have a pretty sophisticated analysis in the Financial Times pointing out the limits to Kuchma's influence within legal institutions. My concern, however, is whether the "party of power" will be willing to use extrralegal means to secure their position in the country. They have in the past (though this has not included firing on crowds) -- I see no reason it will change now. The one difference between now and what happened two years ago is that the opposition has a clearly identified leader -- who went so far as to swear himself in as president yesterday.

We'll see if that makes a difference. As a political scientist who's spent time in-country, my guess is no.

UPDATE: The International Herald-Tribune has more details -- but I still don't see any evidence that Kuchma or Putin are prepared to back down.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Ukraine's Central Election Commission has declared Yanukovich the winner, and Yanukovich supporters have been bused into Kiev.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: In response to the CEC announcement, Yushchenko has called for a national strike. Meanwhile, both the US and EU have (appropriately) slammed the election process. Powell said:

If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine's hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud.

I'm not sure how costly a sanction that would be to a Yanukovich government -- which reveals the fundamental asymmetry when talking about Ukraine as the pivot between Russia and the West. If a Russophile is elected, they can get by with Russian assistance (which Putin would be happy to provide). If a nationalist/reformer is elected and tries to move closer to the West, it doesn't change the fact that the country is completely dependent on Russia for its energy supplies.

One interesting diplomatic dimension will be the extent to which both the US and EU bypass the Ukrainian actors entirely and lobby Putin directly. CNN International already reports that Powell "repeated [his] concern to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a separate phone call.... 'Tomorrow is the EU-Russian summit in Europe, and I'm confident this will be a subject of discussion between the EU leadership and the Russians,' the secretary said."

Meanwhile, Anne Applebaum provides useful analysis in the Washington Post.


posted by Dan on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM


Quick comment: I tend to believe "outside observers" who are not Jimmy Carter. However, given our own experience, I really, REALLY don't trust exit polls. So I'm not fully prepared to simply get behind Yushchenko and say we should declare him the winner; perhaps that's just not true. But can claims of vote fraud really be investigated in the time period they would need to? I am also skeptical about that. I really don't see a way out of this, other than to say "revote". And I don't know that either side would accept a do over.

posted by: Al on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Exit polls here and exit polls in Ukraine are not precisely analogous. Early voting, resistance to being polled, sampling errors, and other factors that make exit polling here less accurate than it used to be are evidently not factors in Ukraine.

Michael McFaul, who I believe is a Russian expert at Stanford, gave an alarming take on the split in Ukraine last night on the Lehrer show. Essentially his argument was that two leaders each claiming to be the legitimate head of the government was at least a necessary if not a sufficient condition for civil war. I don't know enough about the state of Ukrainian politics to say whether things could go so far. What ought to be clear, though, is that Ukrainian independence from Russia is an important Western (i.e. not just an American) interest. This independence is precisely what Putin and his Ukrainian allies wish to undermine.

A strong stand against Russian expansionism is as necessary now as it ever was. I was relieved and even a little surprised that the White House followed Sen. Lugar's lead using plain language to discuss vote fraud in Ukraine and the seriousness with which this election is viewed in the United States.

posted by: Zathras on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

I thought that the Stanford prof.'s most discouraging point on the Lehrer show last night was that even Western polls showed 40% support for Yanukovich. He seemed to imply that the acual support could be higher. Yanukovich may not be playing by the rules, but he is not without popular support, so I can't really imagine him agreeing to a revote.

In Clash of Civilizations, Huntington predicted that Ukraine would either
1. break into civil war (least likely),
2. partition along the cultural fault line or
3. muddle through as a generally pro-Russian state (most likely).

What would be the best outcome?

posted by: PD Shaw on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Let me weigh in (as a Russian person).

Firstly, it's clear to me that democartic and rich Ukraine is absolutely in Russian interest to have as a neighbor. There's no reason to try and "protect" the Russian minority--unlike what happened in the Baltic countries of the early 90s, they will not be denied the basic rights or treated as 2nd class citizens, and most Ukrainian people will speak Russian for a long time to come.

Secondly, it is unfortunate that Putin showed his love for Yanukovych. He should have been saying that he'd work with whoever is president. As a matter of fact, if the Western leaders want Yusch. to win, they are better off keeping their mouths shut as well. The simple reason is that these kinds of statements from abroad have in the past caused contrarian reactions in people. Just think of the US election.

Thirdly, the reason the thousands of Ukrainians are in the streets is not necessarily first because they love Yushchenko. The fact of the matter is that Yanuk. is clearly an odious person with a criminal past and most likely current organized crime ties. Yushch. seems like an angel in comparison.

Fourthly, one should not forget the Russian experience. In 1990 and 1991 Boris Yeltsin was swept into power by the populus. He turned out (from the Russian point of view) a pretty bad president, in 1993 ordered tanks to fire on crowds and ultimately made a smooth transtion from "national hero" to "national caricature" by the time he resigned.

So the "orange angel" may or may not be a saviour, and he may or may not be the leader to lead the way to "democratic and rich" nation. All I hope for that there's no violence--Ukrainians have shown remarkable restraint so far.

posted by: Ivan B Zhabin on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

And we thought we had problems...

posted by: Mark Buehner on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

Does anyone really see this ending with less than 10K dead and Russian tanks preserving the stability of the government?

On the other hand, this may be the price necessary for continued Russian support of the WoT.

posted by: Tom West on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

YOU: "We'll see if that makes a difference. As a political scientist who's spent time in-country, my guess is no."

ME: Maybe this is a quibble, but "scientist[s]" don't guess. Guessing is a cop out. Scientists generate hypotheses which make predictions as to what will happen in the future given a particular set of circumstances. If their hypotheses generate inaccurate predictions then scientists admit that their hypotheses were wrong. If Yanukovich does not accede to power, then you're hypothesis (Kuchma and Putin hold all the cards) will have been invalidated. Doubtless, this is the hypothesis that the "realists" in a Kerry administration would have endorsed. If Yanukovich does not take power, will you admit that your hypothesis (and all of its underlying assumptions) is wrong. That's what a "scientist" would do.


posted by: jim on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

"A few years ago there were sizeable protests in Kiev because of "Kuchmagate,". . . Despite months of protests, however, Kuchma stayed in office . . . Not to put a damper on what's going on right now in Ukraine, but that example should be kept in mind. . ."

Honestly, these two situations are *completely* different, both in scale and motivation. And there is such a sense of hope now, that something can be done about the mass corruption that there wasn't two years ago.

It seem a lot of people are focusing on the east/west, "Russian"/"Ukrainian" split. That seems to be much less of an issue (in many senses, a non-issue) in what is going on here. Instead it is desire for freedom and integrity and a real hope that they can overcome the corruption and oligarchical rule.

And, I'm a lot more optimistic than you seem to be in this post! *grin*

posted by: TulipGirl on 11.24.04 at 08:17 AM [permalink]

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