Ukraine Elections Russian Roulette

Russian President Vladimir Putin ate crow today for his decision to support a Ukrainian candidate opposed by millions of opposition demonstrators. This isn't his first major political mistake in the region. It is becoming something of a habit.

After the Ukranian election, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first world leaders to demonstratively congratulate Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich. At the Russia-European Union summit in the Netherlands last week, Putin expressed his solidarity with the disputed politician. "The Ukrainian people have cast their vote," Putin said, "a vote in favor of stability, strengthening stateliness and further democratic and economic development." No one, he said, has a "moral right" to "incite mass disturbances in a major European state." Whoever has issues with the elections in Ukraine, Putin, a trained lawyer, said, can turn to the courts where the problem will be solved "within the existing constitution and laws."

Such bureaucratic language and vestiges of the real socialist legacy, and the conjuring up of "stability" and "stateliness," say more about the state of the Kremlin than they do about Ukraine. And after this statement, which can't be dismissed as rash or thoughtless, it ought to be more difficult for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to present Putin to a doubting public as a misjudged "unblemished democrat" in liberal colors.

In Putin's foreign policy, like that in the United States, geopolitical interests rank higher than fundamental political values. But in that sense, regardless how the power struggle ends, Putin failed to achieve his goal of aligning Ukraine closer with Moscow through Victor Yanukovich's election. Even if Yanukovich succeeds in establishing himself as president of the current Ukraine, in the face of very strong opposition, he'll have no other choice than to visibly distance himself from Moscow. And it is hardly conceivable that Ukriane will fit in to the "common economic area" the Kremlin strategists are dreaming of for Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

A streak of bad luck

Recently, Putin has had little luck in his efforts to turn Russia's neighbors into tight friends and partners. Last year, he backed Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze as he aligned himself with the neo-feudal leader of the autonomous Ajaria Province, then-President Aslan Abashidze, to counter his growing opposition. Within just a few weeks, Shevardnadze fell from power as a result of mass protests that were subsidized, among others, by American organizations. And when the young and dynamic pro-West Mikhail Saakashvili got elected on the wave of the "Rose Revolution" in January, Moscow continued to side with the Abashidze. But his efforts to resist the Georgian central power with an authoritarian regime under the guise of "stability" failed at the beginning of May through another "Rose Revolution" on a Black Sea beach that forced Abashidze, like Shevardnadze, to step down.

The toppled Abashidze was disposed of by Gentleman's Agreement and flown to Moscow. Moscow secret service agents then persuaded Putin he should build up Ex-KGB man Raul Khadzhimba as a presidential candidate for elections in Abkhazia, another Georgian break-away region that borders Russia. Putin even went so far as to risk a diplomatic uproar with Georgia by demonstratively meeting with Khadzhimba, then prime minister of the Republic of Abkhazia, a "country" that wasn't even recognized by the international community. But Moscow emissaries went to Russia-friendly Abkhazia and rode roughshod over the locals -- a move that would later backfire.

The Muscovites pushed the Abkhazis to vote for Khadzhimba. And if Moscow's desires weren't listened to, it threatened to close the borders and cease pension payments to countless Russian citizens living in the small Black Sea region. But on Oct. 3, the Abkhazis didn't vote for Khadzhimba. Instead, they cast their ballots for Sergej Bagapsch, a politician friendly with Russia but not managed by the Kremlin.

The Kremlin's homemade disaster in Abkhazia was the overture to the election adventure in Kiev. There, too, Kremlin-aligned "Polit-technocrats" under the leadership of Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst from Odessa, made use of their special talent for turning Russia's friends against the Kremlin. The high point of Moscow's PR activities was a military parade, in historical uniforms, with Putin, Yanukovich and President Leonid Kuchma in Kiev's Independence Square on the anniversary of the liberation of the German occupation. But what was intended to be a gesture of old solidarity came across to young Ukranian observers as a mockery. Putin, with his heart for nostalgia, wanted to tend the flames of the Soviet empire without dirtying his suit with ashes.

Washington plays its deck

Without the 47 million Ukrainians, whose economic potential runs the gamut from coal mines to defense companies, Putin would just be the head of a regional power, and would have to sweat with angst every time the White House called. Indeed, that's one reason former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lined up behind Yushchenko so early. Currently, she runs the US Democratic Party-aligned National Democratic Institute, a foundation active around the world. The foundation's Kiev office also provided training and consulting for Yushchenko's campaign.

In his campaign headquarters, Yushchenko hangs a photo of himself next to Albright in which he wears an expression much like a grateful grandchild sitting next to a generous grandmother. The International Republican Institute of the US Republican Party and the organization Freedom House, led by former CIA chief James Woolsey, also schooled organizers before the mass protests broke out. Additionally, Yushchenko's wife, Katherine, worked for the US State Department. Putin knew all of this -- he has nearly daily contact with the head of Russia's SVR foreign intelligence service, Sergei Lebedev.

Moscows hurdles didn't stop there. Take, for example, the fact that Poland's Lech Walesa flew to Kiev to be a neutral mediator in the election crisis. That must have come as a shock to the Russians -- after all, it's a lot like showing up at a restaurant and being greeted by a bouncer rather than the waiter. Members of the Polish right and nationalists would love nothing better than turmoil in the neighboring country in the hope they could retrieve the West Ukranian area near L'viv, which Poland annexed after World War I, back into a "Larger Poland." The Russian consulate in the West Ukrainian city of L'viv these days is besieged by thugs by day and sullied with slogans against "Jews and Muskovites."

Meanwhile, the Russians -- in Russia itself as well as in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea -- can hardly be thrilled about the attempted revolution in Kiev. The Russian-speaking regions in the South and East of present-day Ukraine were artificially created by the Soviet state. And in recent days, tens of thousands of Russian-speaking people have demonstrated against being used politically to turn against Russia. In Crimea, and not just the Russian city of Sebastapol, attempts at forced "Ukrainification" have been resisted for years. And on the northern coast of the Black Sea and in Eastern Ukraine, there are already discussions under way about the creation of an autonomous area to oppose the central power in Kiev.

The meltdown happening in Kiev isn't just that of a corrupt, government apparatus suspected of fraud, but also a state whose borders are no longer viable. In the growing chaos, Russian leaders could soon be faced with more questions than those posed by people in Kiev yearning to distance Ukraine from Moscow. Meanwhile, the desire of millions of Russian-speaking people currently living in Ukrainian territory to practice their culture and traditions accordingly autonomously and not under the control of a central government in Kiev continues to grow.

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