Huffpost WorldPost
Robert Amsterdam Headshot

Ukrainology and Russia's Pyrric Victory

Posted: Updated:

Some people think that Russian politics have become predictably boring, especially compared to the competitive race which led to the recent victory of Viktor Yanukovych. Even the analyst Evgeny Kiselyov told The New York Times that it's like comparing a "cemetery" with a "madhouse."

I respectfully disagree. There could be nothing more dramatic than watching the rapid rise of fall of clans and political kingmakers, the cruel and sudden fates of political prisoners - from opposition-backers like Mikhail Khodorkovsky to insiders like Sergei Storchak, and the general reading of the tea leaves that is Kremlinology. It's just a pity that this great performance of Russian politics is only available to restricted audiences.

In Ukraine, the important question is whether or not the current "madhouse" will turn into a similar "cemetery," now that the new Moscow-influenced president has legitimately won what we can call a relatively free and fair electoral contest. Will Yanukovych usher in a new era of Ukrainology, where we watch for the signs of hidden movements by businessmen and nomenklatura to replace the democratic, if not messy, process introduced by the Orange Revolution?

That question will naturally depend on whether the democratic values which have survived the incapacitating government infighting over the past number of years will continue to be observed under a Yanukovych presidency - and that will depend in no small part to the perceptions and expectations of Ukraine's allies, partners, creditors, and the international community at large.

Firstly, it is very misleading to place much trust into the neat and tidy dualities which seek to explain Ukrainian politics. This isn't just the clash of angelic pro-Western democrats fighting for a breath of fresh air against the specter of Putinism 2.0 for export, and it's much more than pro-NATO or anti-NATO politics, which has been the obsession of many navel-gazing American observers. A little more than 30% of Ukrainians decidedly stayed at home on Election Day, and substantially less than half of the remaining population actually voiced their support for either of the two leading candidates. Disenchanted voters offered to auction their choices for sale on the internet, one candidate changed his last name to "Against All," while outsider candidates like Sergei Tigipko brought in 13% of the vote.

So while we should not view Ukrainian politics solely through the prism of NATO and the West, there has been a significant impact of both Europe and the United States giving up on Kiev. Both countries have experienced fatigue and exhaustion of the challenges posed by Ukraine's slow progress toward reform, with the final coffin nail being driven home by the "reset" policy of the Obama administration.

One would have to imagine that at some point in the early summer of 2009, ambassadors were sent around to deliver the bad news to Poland, Czech Republic, Ukraine, and many other countries comprising the former Soviet sphere: "Look, you are on your own now, we are leaving you to Russia's whims and devices because we think they will help us with Iran and sign a few easy treaties."

Whether or not we go with that hypothesis, there has certainly been a de-Americanization within Ukrainian politics, with candidates sorting themselves toward the EU and Russia. The Viktor Yanukovych of 2004 did not win the 2010 election, and the Yulia Tymoshenko of the former Orange Revolution did not lose it. Both candidates went through self-reinventions, with Yanukovych hiring John McCain's campaign advisers to make him look a little less Putin-ish, while Tymoshenko warmed up to working with Russia and seemed to forget the strong declarations she made in a 2007 article on containing Russia published in Foreign Affairs.

It's also no zero sum game for the authoritarians to the East. The supreme irony of the Yanukovych victory is that there are many good reasons why this outcome is bad for Putin and good for Medvedev, and detrimental to the siloviki while opening opportunities for the seemingly yearning reformers within part of the state. As the historian Timothy Garton Ash has noted in the Guardian, "there is no evidence that the oligarchs behind him want Ukraine to cease being an independent country. Their interest is to play both sides, Russia and the European Union."

Firstly, having a stoutly obedient Kremlin ally in a key neighboring country diminishes Putin's ability to push his narrative as "Russia as the besieged fortress." It has long been a cornerstone of his argument justifying authoritarian powers that Russia was always being surrounded by the Americans and hostile forces, and that his seizure of power and diminishing rights was just a necessary result of keeping the motherland safe. Yes, in this respect, the color revolutions were actually very good politics for Putinism.

Secondly, the problem of Ukraine being a democratic example still remains. This is the third election in a row that Yanukovych and his party have won in relatively competitive terms (which has turned out to be much more successful than simple electoral fraud, such as that in 2004), and this places a lot more pressure on the next time that Russia plans to do another power swap masked by a mockery of voting. If Ukraine can hold real elections - despite the turnout and outcome of either 2004 or 2010, then why can't Russia? Here's a radical idea to follow that: how about Russians be allowed to directly elect their own governors instead of having them appointed by Putin?

It is of course much too early for anyone to say whether Yanukovych will take Ukraine backwards in terms of democratic rights and process, or if he will live up to some of his campaign promises to stand up for Ukrainian sovereignty before Russia. I do however believe that some of Nina Khrushcheva's observations of the new president's personality must be taken into account before he is unequivocally embraced by the international community. The new president and the Ukrainian people should be congratulated for undertaking a genuinely admirable process under difficult economic circumstances, but the new government must understand that they still have a lot to prove.

We need to remember that Russian political groups have just gained a tremendous amount of expertise in financing and managing election campaigns. This developed skill may one day be brought to use closer to home.