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A mid the clamor and confusion of the U.S. elections, it is easy to forget that ballots are being held elsewhere in the world. This week Ukraine held a presidential election, and while the outcome will not shape international politics as much as the U.S. vote, it will be significant nevertheless. The two leading candidates have very different visions for their country. Squeezed between Europe and Russia, Ukraine’s future course will profoundly influence both regions.

Twenty-four candidates contested Sunday’s election, the fourth since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. The leading contenders to succeed President Leonid Kuchma were Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and Mr. Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and central bank president who has become the leading critic of Mr. Kuchma and now heads the opposition. As anticipated, the results were close. With virtually all votes counted, neither man garnered the 50 percent needed to win outright. Instead, the two were in a virtual tie, forcing a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 21.

While both men appear ready to accept the results, there have been complaints about the election process from both sides. International observers concurred. The head of the observer mission from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe called the vote “a step backward” from parliamentary elections held in 2002, and even those were faulted for falling short of European standards.

Complaints are to be expected. Ukraine, a country of 47 million people, is deeply divided by region, ethnicity and social class. Democratic traditions do not yet exist, although the high turnout — nearly 75 percent — suggests that voters are eager to use their right to vote and ready to defend it. The balloting Sunday suggests that they will also have to be vigilant.

Foreign observers blamed the government for most of the abuses. They cited extensive bias in state-controlled media and the use of state resources for Mr. Yanukovich. Fears that the security forces would be used to disrupt polls proved unfounded, but opposition leaders worry that the gloves will come off during the runoff campaign. Equally troubling were complaints about voting lists as well as other irregularities, such as attempts to steal ballot boxes and the busing of voters to polls. Observers reported problems in nearly half of the polling stations.

The stakes in this election are high and include considerably more than who controls the spoils in Ukraine. The country straddles the divide between Europe and the East; it borders seven countries, among them Russia, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and three new members of the European Union. The Ukraine election matters greatly because the two candidates have very different visions of their country’s orientation and future.

Mr. Yanukovich aspires to be Mr. Kuchma’s heir, promising to make close relations with Russia closer still. He has said he will end Ukraine’s bids to join NATO and the EU, and will rely more on Russia to protect its security and economic interests. He will make Russian an official language and allow dual citizenship. That has won him the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Yanukovich favors the old order, with a government-directed economy that preserves the privileges of bureaucrats and facilitates corruption.

Mr. Yushchenko’s outlook is more Western. He calls for closer ties to Europe but only to balance Russian influence, not to replace it. He has endorsed more market-oriented reforms, an end to corruption and greater respect for freedom, including a more independent media. Ironically, for someone who appears more Western in approach, Mr. Yushchenko has promised to withdraw Ukraine’s 1,600 troops from Iraq.

While Ukraine’s future hangs in the balance, Belarus has already made its choice. In a referendum last month, more than three-quarters of voters agreed to amend the constitution and allow President Alexander Lukashenko to run for more than two terms. Without the amendment, Mr. Lukashenko, a domineering totalitarian who brooks no dissent, would have been forced to step down in 2006. Now he can run for as long as he likes. That election was also denounced by foreign observers who concluded that the results can “in no way be described as free and fair.”

Mr. Lukashenko’s victory in Belarus comforts Mr. Putin, who is striving to consolidate power and silence dissent in Russia. A victory for Mr. Yanukovich in Ukraine would help provide a powerful counter to the liberal, democratic model that Europe presents to the former Soviet states of Eastern and Central Europe. There is security in numbers, and a bloc of three Soviet-style leaders in the heart of Europe could provide an attraction for other budding autocrats.

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