Opposition party candidate Viktor Yushchenko has won Ukraine’s presidency. At least, that’s what a count of nearly 100 percent of the ballots shows following last weekend’s rerun of the November runoff election. It is still unclear, though, whether Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych will accept the results. If he does not, the country could fracture and descend into civil war. Equally significant is the impact on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had backed Mr. Yanukovych.
Mr. Yanukovych appeared to have won the November ballot, Ukraine’s first for a president, but Mr. Yushchenko’s supporters took to the streets, holding mass demonstrations and claiming that the election was stolen. Most international observers agreed. The Supreme Court concurred two weeks later, annulling the results because of fraud. A second round of voting was scheduled for last weekend. After a bitter and vicious campaign, Mr. Yushchenko beat his opponent by a margin of 52 percent to 44 percent — or more than 2 million votes — and claimed a majority in 17 of the country’s 27 regions.
The results are unlikely to end the controversies. After first claiming that he would serve in the opposition, Mr. Yanukovych reversed course and said he would appeal the results in the courts. Despite the presence of 12,000 international observers — or perhaps because of it — Mr. Yanukovych says he was robbed of a victory after a court decision changed the rules and effectively banned “at home voting,” which is said to have been abused in the November vote.
Mr. Yanukovych has said he does not trust the Supreme Court since it overturned the first ballot. Mr. Yushchenko, meanwhile, has vowed to remain in office and has called on his supporters to block a scheduled Cabinet meeting to keep the current government from taking steps to undermine the results.
There is little chance that Mr. Yanukovych will prevail in the courts, but he could make Mr. Yushchenko’s already-difficult job even harder. The election winner has promised to base his government on “freedom, democracy and the rule of law.” Equally important, however, will be his readiness to compromise with opponents rather than exacting revenge. That appears to be Mr. Yushchenko’s plan.
After winning his call for a rerun of the ballot, Mr. Yushchenko worked with outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who had originally supported Mr. Yanukovych, to engineer constitutional reform that will reduce the president’s powers. As Mr. Yushchenko’s pledge to root out corruption will invariably target the former president, his family and supporters, a desire to settle scores would only make the situation worse.
That raises a real challenge for Mr. Yushchenko. How can he reconcile the desire for a country based on the rule of law with the temptation to turn a blind eye to past misdeeds? Some crimes, such as the murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze, seem too large to ignore. The purchase of Ukraine’s top steel mill by Mr. Kuchma’s son-in-law and his partner for about half of what foreign investors offered is another obvious target of inquiry. Mr. Yushchenko has said the matter should be examined, although he is leery of reviewing all such purchases. His more radical supporters argue, however, that a failure to take on the oligarchs who benefited under the previous administration will leave the economy precariously unbalanced and open the new president up to challenge.
The selection of a prime minister will give a peek at the new president’s outlook. If he chooses firebrand Ms. Yulia Tymoshenko, the radicals will have prevailed. If he opts for someone like Mr. Petro Poroshenko, a parliamentarian, or Mr. Olexander Moroz, head of the Socialist Party, he will have chosen moderation.
Watching with equal concern is Russia. Mr. Yushchenko’s victory is a slap in the face of Mr. Putin, who strongly backed Mr. Yanukovych. Moscow had immediately congratulated the prime minister on his win after the now-discredited November ballot. It has been silent since last weekend’s vote. The outcome is a warning to the Russian president that some members of the Russian “near abroad” are not content to remain Russian satellites. In fact, the two candidates in the election offered stark choices to voters: Mr. Yanukovych looked to deepen integration between Ukraine and Russia, while Mr. Yushchenko leans more toward Europe and the West, and hopes to eventually secure membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Mr. Putin is likely to be wary of the revolutionary fervor that Mr. Yushchenko stoked. A crackdown on civil rights and the suppression of dissent may not be long to follow. Foreign organizations working to build civil society are other likely targets. Ukraine’s win may be Russia’s loss in more ways than one.
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