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  Europe
Upset in Ukraine
Orange Divorce Partners to Reconcile?
By Ronan Thomas
London Correspondent
Unkranian President Viktor Yushchenko

Sunday (March 26, 2006)'s parliamentary election in Ukraine has ended in political turmoil with President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Party beaten into third place.

Votes are still being counted: the final result will not be clear until later this week.

The opposition Party of Regions, led by pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych, took most parliamentary seats (around 30 percent) with Mr Yushchenko's former party ally and current rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, coming second with around 22 percent. Yushchenko took a mere 15 percent, leaving Mrs Tymoshenko as a key power broker.

Talks between the former architects of Ukraine's 2004 ‘orange revolution' are now underway to prevent a Yanukovych majority. But progress is expected to be tortuous. A Yushchenko-Yanukovych coalition remains a possibility in the days and weeks ahead.

In November 2004, Mr Yanukovych – who represented for many Ukrainians the corruptions of previous Russia-friendly regimes - was beaten by Mr Yushchenko after Ukraine's "orange revolution." Kiev became a sea of orange flags as protesters opposed an obviously rigged result and insisted that a free and fair poll be re-run.

To international acclaim, Mr Yushchenko - who famously survived poisoning during the campaign, leaving his face deeply pockmarked – then became president in a genuine democratic revolution.

But this Sunday the pendulum of power has swung back as voters punish Mr Yushchenko for the slow pace of his reforms, poor performance of the economy and "betrayal" of the revolution's ideals. During the past year, disillusionment with his leadership has set in and splits and tensions within Our Ukraine have become critical.

Yushchenko's political support finally fractured into rival "orange blocs" last year when he sacked Mrs Tymoshenko from her post as prime minister amid claims of corruption and disloyalty. Since then, Mrs Tymoshenko - glamorous, ambitious and keen to regain her former position - has proved a formidable rival. She has assiduously gathered about 15 percent of Our Ukraine's support base, versus around 25% for Mr Yushchenko.

And whilst opponents have gained strength, Mr Yushchenko's record is one of missed opportunities.

Take the economy. Ukraine's economic performance under his presidency has alienated voters.

In 2004, Ukraine enjoyed GDP growth of around 12 percent. By end 2005 this had slipped to 2.6 percent. Foreign investment has fallen ($7.5 billion in 2005) and the economy remains notorious in Europe for the activities of black market criminal gangs and the power of oligarchs. Growth forecasts for 2006 give little hope for immediate optimism: 2 percent at best.

Worse still, Ukraine's economic doldrums have been exacerbated by the legacy of the 2005/6 row with neighbouring Russia over subsidized gas prices. Russia, traditional energy supplier for Ukraine under the Soviet Union, capriciously revised gas prices upwards in December 2005, to internationally competitive levels, prompting a furious response from Mr Yushchenko. A deal was hastily reached – gas prices were increased from $60 to $95 per thousand cubic metres- but the economic impact and bitterness between Kiev and Moscow lingers on.

Eastward and Westward

Ukraine's relations with Russia have nosedived since 1994 as Ukraine has openly shifted her political aspirations westwards toward the European Union and away from previously close links with her former Soviet partner. Seeking eventual EU entry and membership of the WTO this year, Ukraine has irritated Russia's President Vladimir Putin profoundly. Last year, Mr Putin made it known he sees the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a "catastrophe."

The two countries' shared history is controversial, to put it mildly, reflecting regional ethnic, political and religious tensions also within Ukraine itself. With her past legacy as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and occupation by Poland, Ukraine (which translates as "edge" or "borderland") also has deeply ambiguous relations with Russia, which dominated her for centuries.

Western Ukraine, with its Catholic and Ukrainian-speaking heritage, contrasts culturally and ideologically with the industrialised, largely Russian-speaking Orthodox Christian, East Ukraine. The western territories, centred on the city of Lviv, have traditionally espoused nationalistic policies, pulling away from Russian influence. In the east, where Mr Yanukovych has his power base, sympathies are far more pro-Russian.

In the early 1930s, Ukraine – then known as the ‘bread basket of the Soviet Union' – suffered appallingly under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who directly engineered a Great Famine in which six million perished. Subsequent invasion by Nazi Germany in 1941 and Soviet reprisals for alleged collaboration – including the deportation of an entire ethnic group, the Crimean Tartars - took or ruined the lives of millions more.

In 1986, Ukraine was to suffer further, as the Soviet Union neared its end, in the world's largest nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Today, there is the complex issue of Ukraine's Black Sea ports, largely Russian-speaking enclaves such as Sebastopol, where Russian naval forces are still based on an uncertain political lease.

If Ukraine's relations with Russia remain problematic, the same is true with those with the European Union.

For the past two years Mr Yushchenko's westward orientation has prevailed but his ultimate hope – EU entry – will prove elusive not least because the EU's rapid expansion eastward in recent years has led to much soul searching among member nations. Wider, deeper EU expansion has hit the buffers.

In 2005 France and The Netherlands voted against an EU-wide constitution and, this year, enthusiasm for further expansion has cooled after rows over funding newer EU entrants including Poland and the Baltic States. The vexatious issue of possible Turkish membership is now exercising minds in Brussels. Ukraine's entry is a long way off.

Ukrainians are well aware of this, of course, and are neither happy with the EU's seeming lack of warmth nor with Mr Yushchenko for not bridging the EU/Ukraine gap more adroitly.

With the ideals of the "orange revolution" tarnished for many ordinary Ukrainians, many difficulties and problems remain for whichever new coalition is formed.

For many it's surely a depressing sign of the times that the election has also just returned previously discredited Socialist and Communist parties to parliamentary representation.

Even so, with Sunday's increased political woes and forced compromises for Mr Yushchenko, there are hopes aplenty for Ukraine's rapid development into a stable democratic nation with close ties to Western Europe and both realistic and looser relations with Russia.

Unlike recent polls in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Belarus, this election has been assessed positively by international monitors: almost entirely free and fair of intimidation and violence.

With her new role as political kingmaker, Mrs Tymsohenko now holds the balance of power and is likely to exact key concessions as her price for keeping Our Ukraine in power. This will be particularly difficult for Mr Yushchenko, whose political divorce from Mrs Tymsohenko was acrimonious to say the least.

In the meantime, Mr Yanukovych's political fortunes have never been higher – he may yet become joint coalition partner. In Moscow, Mr Putin must be allowing himself a wry smile.



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Mr. Ronan Thomas serves as London correspondent for The Seoul Times. He has reported on global affairs from US, East Asia, Russia since 1993. His articles have appeared in such respected publications as the Washington Times, Asia Times Online, and the American Spectator. He graduated in 1989 with a master’s degree in Int’l Relations from Cambridge University.

 

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