After a first-round presidential contest that saw pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych take the lead, the EU is worried about political instability in Ukraine
EU institutions are wary of post-election instability in Ukraine, as exit polls show that Viktor Yanukovych, the villain of the Orange Revolution, won the first round of the presidential vote on Sunday (17 January).
Mr Yanukovych came top with 31.5 percent, according to the National Exit Poll 2010 Consortium. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko came second with 27.2 percent, pitting them against each other in a run-off on 7 February because no candidate got a clear majority. The current president, Viktor Yushchenko, got 6 percent.
The result is a symbolic reversal of the 2004 revolution, in which Mr Yushchenko and Ms Tymoshenko ousted Mr Yanukovych in mass street protests and put the former Soviet republic of 46 million people on a path of EU and Nato integration.
Mr Yanukovych, previously seen as a Kremlin stooge, has reinvented himself in the past five years.
He is against Nato and has promised to improve relations with Russia but he also advocates democracy and EU membership.
The official result of Sunday's vote is expected in the coming days. Meanwhile, international monitors, the ODIHR, will on Monday say if the election was "free and fair."
The EU is planning to make a statement through its new foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, or its acting neighbourhood policy commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Its new president, Herman Van Rompuy, may also chip in. But they are likely to hold back until the ODIHR assessment.
EU endorsements could play an important role if one of the losing candidates alleges fraud and contests the result in court.
"We are rather worried about possible political instability in the country, which might then have an influence on the negotiation process [of an EU-Ukraine association treaty] in 2010," one EU diplomat told this website. "The first round should be 'fine,' but many interesting things will start happening before the second round and after it."
One negative scenario could see the emergence of multiple presidents.
The Higher Administrative Court, which would be the deciding authority in a dispute, currently has two heads, one of whom is loyal to Mr Yanukovych and the other to Ms Tymoshenko.
If a dispute arises and one court chief says Mr Yanukovych is the rightful winner, while the other court chief backs Ms Tymoshenko, the current leader, Mr Yushchenko, could claim he is still president because of the stalemate. The head of the parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, could also claim he is in charge because there is a constitutional crisis.
In the worst case scenario, a dispute could see unrest on the streets.
Mr Yanukovych reportedly has thousands of supporters ready to travel to Kiev to press his claim. Ms Tymoshenko, as prime minister, controls the police.
"As for people on the streets: This is hardly possible. The situation is different from 2004, people are much less romantic and much more sceptical about the politicians," Volodomyr Yermolenko, an analyst at the Kiev-based Internews-Ukraine think-tank, told EUobserver.
EU interests in play
The EU currently sees Ukraine as a buffer against Russia rather than as a prospective member state.
But instability could threaten EU gas supplies, with Ukraine responsible for transiting 80 percent of Russian exports to the union. It could also stymie EU efforts to promote reform in other post-Soviet countries and in Russia itself.
"If these things happen, the Russians will be able to say to everybody: 'Look, this is what you get for democracy'," a Ukrainian official said.