The Ukraine’s election crisis is commonly depicted as a duel between prime minister Victor Yanukovych, officially declared Wednesday, November 24, the winner, and Victor Yushchenko, opposition leader and former ally of outgoing president Leonid Kuchma. Upon learning that he had lost the election, he announced to massed crowds in Kiev that it was rigged and he was the rightful president-elect.
Quite soon, the United States, the European Union and NATO – but not Moscow or Paris – lined up behind Yushchenko’s refusal to accept the results until an inquiry was held.
The two Ukrainian presidential contenders are as different as chalk and cheese.
Very little is known about Yanukovych’s past beyond that it was shady. He is described as a reformed criminal who went straight, studied engineering and took a doctor’s degree in economics.
Yushchenko has had a brilliant career as an economist and former governor of Ukraine’s central bank, with the kudos of having rescued his country from hyperinflation in the late nineties and stabilized the national currency, the Hryvnya.
Neither stands out as a zealous democrat.
Yanukovych is close to Russian security services the FSB (formerly the KGB), according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts, familiar with the convoluted interaction between Russian and Ukrainian organized crime rings and their clandestine agencies. They believe his intelligence connection is with the First Chief Directorate (counterintelligence), a survival of the old KGB, some of whose officers are still on active service while others took jobs with New Russia’s oligarchs and mafia chiefs.
Russian intelligence is thought to have recruited him when he was incarcerated in a Soviet gulag for ultra-nationalist Ukrainian views. Classing him simplistically as the Kremlin’s man is therefore incorrect. Rather Russian president Vladimir Putin supports his claim to the presidency with great reluctance, after being maneuvered into that position by two factors:
1. Putin has no standing inside Russia’s lawless intelligence-oligarch-mafia circles. Yanukovych would give him some access.
2. The external players in the Kiev standoff, the US, the European Union, NATO, are pushing him willy-nilly in that direction. Outgoing US secretary of state Colin Powell turned the Ukrainian crisis into a Washington-Moscow showdown when he called Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday, November 24, to caution him against using force in the Ukrainian crisis.
Orthodox Yushchenko is riding Catholic steed
The Kiev scenario bears a superficial resemblance in its early stage to the Velvet Revolution that toppled Georgian ruler Eduard Shevarnadze exactly a year ago.
However, the Kremlin sees a stronger parallel between the American-European effort to crown Yushchenko and displace his rival and the way in which they overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade at the end of the 1990s. But this time, not all the Europeans are of one mind. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that French president Jacques Chirac secretly tipped Putin the wink that he flatly opposes opposition leader Yushchenko bid for power in Kiev. He proposed a joint French and Russian intelligence effort to upset his apple cart. Although Putin does not exercise full control over Russian agents in Ukraine, he decided to take the French president up on his offer.
France is consequently as deeply involved in Ukraine’s election impasse as Russia – which means that the European Union which saw the crisis coming is unable to formulate a common policy to resolve it.
Like so many disputes, Chirac’s rationale is motivated largely by a religious-ethnic consideration.
Although an Orthodox Christian himself, would-be president Yushchenko’s main domestic support derives paradoxically from the Catholic minority (15% out of 56 million inhabitants) whose main urban center is Lvov just across the border from Poland. Seventy percent of all Ukrainians belong to the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, 45% are of Russian extraction and Russian is their first language. But Ukrainian Catholics have a stronger affinity to Catholic Poland than to Orthodox Russia. Cherishing separatist aspirations, they see in western Ukraine a potential second Poland and follow Warsaw in turning their face towards Washington and Brussels rather than to Moscow.
Hence their support for the Washington-Brussels frontrunner for president, Yushchenko.
At the same time, they are under no illusion that if he made it to president, he would satisfy their aspirations – both because he belongs to the rival denomination and because partition is not on his agenda. In some places, therefore, Ukrainian Catholics have taken advantage of the crisis in Kiev as a window of opportunity to start setting up local machinery for autonomous tax collection and the preservation of law and order.
For them, this is but round one of a comprehensive campaign, supported secretly by some circles in Warsaw, for Catholic western Ukraine to break away and eventually merge with Poland. After all, the Lvov region has swung back and forth between Russia and Poland more than once in its turbulent history.
Such a prospect is viewed by Paris and Moscow alike as inimical to their interests. They are both determined to thwart the emergence of a powerful, enlarged Poland close to Washington in the heart of Europe although, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s analysts, Chirac is a lot more resolute and active than Putin.
This hidden Paris-Moscow lineup has impelled Washington to come out in support of opposition leader Yushchenko who for the moment is riding the Catholic steed. Poland’s Solidarity Lech Walesa was given a tumultuous welcome by the crowds filling Kiev’s main square Thursday, November 25, when he stood up and offered to help broker a compromise to resolve the standoff.
At the same time, all eyes are watching the Kiev crisis develop minute by minute, uncertain how it will end. Our Washington sources report that the Bush administration is as undecided as Putin on which way to jump – and when. Some factions in the state department, the Pentagon and the national security council are all for overtly throwing American support behind Yushchenko. Others urge caution lest Washington find itself embroiled in a needless quarrel with Paris and Moscow that would risk, first, inducing disequilibrium in a highly strategic part of Europe; second, upsetting Paris and Moscow just when they show signs of willingness to work with Washington on Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.