Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe

Ukraine: Current Issues and U.S. Policy *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe

Ukraine: Current Issues and U.S. Policy *

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND

Ukraine, comparable in size and population to France, is a large, important, European state. The fact that it occupies the sensitive position between Russia and NATO member states Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania adds to its geostrategic significance. Many Russian politicians, as well as ordinary citizens, have never been fully reconciled to Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and feel that the country belongs in Russia's political and economic orbit. The U.S. and European view (particularly in Central and Eastern Europe) is that a strong, independent Ukraine is an important source of regional stability.

From the mid-1990s until 2004, Ukraine's political scene was dominated by President Leonid Kuchma and the oligarchic "clans" (groups of powerful politicians and businessmen, mainly based in eastern and southern Ukraine) that supported him. Kuchma was elected President in 1994, and re-elected in 1999. He could not run for a third term under the Ukrainian constitution. His rule was characterized by fitful economic reform (albeit with solid economic growth in later years), widespread corruption, and a deteriorating human rights record.

Ukraine's 2004 presidential elections were characterized by electoral fraud and massive street protests. The oligarchs chose Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as their candidate to succeed Kuchma as President. The chief opposition candidate, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, was a proreform, pro-Western figure. After the November 21 runoff vote, Ukraine's Central Election Commission proclaimed Yanukovych the winner. Yushchenko's supporters charged that massive fraud had been committed. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets, in what came to be known as the "Orange Revolution," after Yushchenko's chosen campaign color. They blockaded government offices in Kyiv and appealed to the Ukrainian Supreme Court to invalidate the vote. The court invalidated the runoff election and set a repeat runoff vote. Yushchenko won the December 26 re-vote, with 51.99% of the vote to Yanukovych's 44.19%.

The "Orange Revolution" sparked a good deal of interest in Congress and elsewhere. Some hoped that Ukraine could finally embark on a path of comprehensive reforms and Euro-Atlantic integration after years of halfmeasures and false starts. However, subsequent events led to disillusionment among Orange Revolution supporters, both in Ukraine and abroad. President Yushchenko soon fell into squabbling with Yuliya Tymoshenko, his main backer during the Orange Revolution and his first Prime Minister, over policy and over mutual allegations of corruption, slowing progress on reforms.

In 2006, Yushchenko reluctantly reappointed his former 2004 presidential election opponent Viktor Yanukovych as Prime Minister, after Yanukovych's Party of Regions won the most seats in parliamentary elections that year. Yanukovych's government then worked steadily to whittle away at Yushchenko's powers and political influence. In response, President Yushchenko dissolved the Ukrainian parliament. Yanukovych charged that the move was unconstitutional. The contending sides eventually worked out a compromise and on September 30, 2007, Ukraine held early parliamentary elections. The Party of Regions remained the largest party in the legislature. However, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine- People's Defense group won enough seats to form a new government. After lengthy negotiations, President Yushchenko nominated Tymoshenko as his candidate for Prime Minister. The parliament approved Tymoshenko as Prime Minister on December 18, 2007, with 226 votes, the barest of majorities in the 450-seat assembly.

Over the next two years, Ukraine's government lurched from one political crisis to another. Perhaps the key problem was the familiar one of tensions between Tymoshenko and President Yushchenko. In addition to policy differences and intense personal enmity and distrust between the two leaders, the conflict was also due to jockeying for power in advance of upcoming presidential elections, in which both were to be candidates. …

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