In the March 26 parliamentary elections in Ukraine - a country that is a bridge between Russia and the EU - the voters will, once again, have to assess whether the direction where the country is headed for satisfies them. This time around opinion polls favor Viktor Yanukovich, the ex-Prime Minister and Yuschenko rival in the presidential elections of December 2004, followed by the sensational Orange Revolution that brought the latter to power. The reasons for this are manifold ranging from lack of political will on the side of the pro-Western President Yuschenko to soaring inflation and plummeting economic performance.

Nevertheless, Ukraine is not the same place it used to be. The biggest test to pass in democracy was to recognize that power changes hands through free and fair elections. There is an absolute consensus on this point among all the competing factions, which have conducted their campaigns in an atmosphere free of fear, intimidation or any sort of machination. Even the pro-Russian candidate Yanukovich got rid of his notorious Russian political advisors, instead hiring professionals from the United States. Media has gained considerable strength and independence. There has been some progress in economic reform like the improvement of taxation system, decrease in the red tape and successful re-privatization of Krivoryzhstal steel factory acquired by the UK-based Mittal Steel for $4.8 bln.

More significant is the fact that despite differences in political views there is now more room for inter-elite and inter-regional compromise and partnership that creates a favorable ground for systemic reforms inside the country. Hence, the talk of a possibility of a birth of a new post-election “grand coalition” between Yuschenko’s Our Ukraine and Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, mainly representing the Russian-speaking eastern part. This would be a marriage of convenience dictated by political and economic interests. Yuschenko realizes the monstrous obstacles for the smooth functioning of the economy and embarking upon deeper reforms without sharing power and striking some sort of modus vivendi with eastern oligarchs (like Rinat Akhmetov who is the financial backbone of the Party of Regions) who control key industrial assets. Yanukovich, on the other hand, as a potential Prime Minister, would find it extremely hard to adopt an ideology of independent Ukraine and justify before his constituency a need for multivector foreign policy that majority of Ukrainians now favor. Upon his ascent Yuschenko rejected this very legacy of his predecessor Kuchma--no matter how insincere his relationship with the West was--in foreign affairs setting his sights on integration with Europe and the strategic partnership with United States. Gradually, as inflated expectations and euphoria associated with the Orange Revolution gave way to sober assessments it soon became obvious that Ukraine’s bid for EU had to wait for some years to come.

Nevertheless, it would be an injustice not to underline the changing nature of EU-Ukraine relations. Today the EU is much more involved in Ukrainian affairs as demonstrated by its rising feeling of responsibility for stability and interest in the successful completion of political and economic reforms in that country. During the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis this past winter it refused to regard this issue as bilateral instead putting considerable diplomatic pressure on Russia in that war-of-nerves thus creating a more space for maneuver for Ukrainian authorities. An additional strategic aspect behind Europe’s given actions on this issue is its efforts at breaking Russian monopoly for access to oil and gas reserves of the Caspian and Central Asia for which Ukraine could play a role of a key transit country.

What stands on the agenda though is Ukraine’s entry into NATO. This choice seems to propose a better and more realistic way of tying Ukraine to Western institutions. Eventually, it hopes to repeat the “Polish path” of becoming EU member.

Considering their common past more serious transformation has been taking place in Ukraine’s relations with Russia. Orange revolution put an end to the post-Soviet phase of those relations, with Ukraine rejecting Russia as “big brother” and consequently setting a historic precedent for other former Soviet states. Russia’s irritant reprisal came about as termination of the mechanism of subsidization of Ukraine’s economy and the use of the energy weapon against it. Russian leader Vladimir Putin would best be advised to note that the gas crisis was not only a severe blow to Russia’s global image as a reliable energy supplier but also a catalyst for Ukrainian domestic consolidation and a warning signal to government and society of the need for quicker and effective reforms that would make its otherwise tortuous journey to EU smoother.

A due consideration should also be given to existing mutual economic interests. Despite all the political upheaval of the past year, Ukraine’s export to Russia rose more than 27% in 2005 in comparison with the previous year. Imports from Russia reached almost 6%. The future of Russian-Ukrainian relations will surely include elements of both partnership and competition at times reaching the level of conflict to some extent depending on the constitution and policies of post-election Ukrainian administration. The ultimate challenge for the new Prime Minister will be to increase the transparency of those relations and adapt them to norms and rules set up within Europe.

Any attempt at prediction of events in Ukraine in the coming weeks carries the risk of flaw. What is definite though is that the Orange Revolution has changed this country for good and gave it a point of destination. Revolutions change regimes but they cannot transform a country overnight. European and American efforts at enhancing Ukrainian sovereignty and promoting reform should not be underestimated. A democratic, stable and prosperous Ukraine would not only benefit the West but also its eastern neighbor Russia.
By Teymur Huseyinov, Master's in International Relations from Oxford University. He currently works as an independent political and economic consultant on energy issues. He has been published in the international press, including The Wall Street Journal, and have been quoted in various media outlets.

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