The European Union should be pleased with the outcome of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election. Not because the politician who received the most votes was former premier Viktor Yanukovich, the most pro-Russian of the main candidates. Rather, because the election for the most part met the very high standards of democracy, legality and fairness that the EU had demanded of Ukraine to sustain the process of bringing the country closer to the 27-nation bloc.
It was a genuine contest among a variety of distinctive candidates, and the second, knock-out round on February 7 between Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, the incumbent prime minister, will be a genuine contest, too. Compare this with the tainted presidential election of November 2004, which precipitated the Orange Revolution that propelled Viktor Yushchenko to power. In terms of democracy and the political maturity of society, Ukraine has progressed a long way over the past five years.
In contrast to 2004, Russia has so far kept a low profile during this election. No doubt one reason is that Moscow was perfectly aware that Yushchenko, the outgoing president, whom the Kremlin loathed for his pro-western attitudes, had suffered a near-total collapse in popularity and didn’t stand a chance of making it to the second round. Another reason is related to Ukraine’s desperate economic troubles. Russia senses that, after the election is over, the new president and his or her policy advisers will have little choice but to adopt a more accommodating stance towards Russia than Yushchenko was inclined to take.
Nevertheless, the very fact that Ukraine is able to hold a free and fair election with multiple candidates is in some ways a rebuke to Russia – and other former Soviet states with authoritarian inclinations. It will remind those Russians with an interest in political freedom – and there are still quite a few – that they have been denied the same possibility for at least a decade. For all Ukraine’s economic difficulties, the “little Slavic brother” on Russia’s western frontier is persevering with his promising experiment in democracy.
What is important now, from an EU point of view, is that the election’s second round proceeds calmly and that the winner is able to arrange a smooth transfer of power with Yushchenko. This will ease the EU’s worries about political instability or deadlock in Ukraine and, one hopes, will speed up the negotiations on a EU-Ukrainian association agreement. This accord would be a much more realistic and positive step forward for Ukraine than entry into Nato – something a relative majority of Ukrainian voters seem to grasp.