Ukraine: Why The Road West Will Be Rocky

Viktor Yushchenko based his presidential bid on a simple but powerful idea: that Ukraine's destiny lies with Europe, the Europe that believes in fair elections, transparent business dealings, and a free press. No surprise, then, that during a long and tumultuous campaign, Yushchenko repeatedly said that membership in the European Union and NATO would be high priorities in his administration.

That pro-West administration looks set to begin soon. In a rematch of a rigged election that initially deprived him of victory, Yushchenko handed government-backed candidate Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych a decisive defeat. The Ukrainian Central Electoral Committee on Dec. 28 declared Yushchenko the winner by 51.99% to 44.19%.

Divisive Issue

But that hard-won triumph doesn't mean moving Ukraine into the West's camp will be easy. The issue of EU and NATO membership, in fact, could split both Ukraine and Europe. In Ukraine, support for Western integration lies mostly in the Ukrainian-speaking west, where Yushchenko draws much of his support. Support for closer relations with Russia and other former Soviet bloc nations prevails in the Russian-speaking industrial east, which is Yanukovych territory.

Many in Europe, meanwhile, are reluctant to start the process that could bring Ukraine into NATO and the EU for fear of poisoning relations with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. "We can't allow a Ukraine which is anti-Russian into the EU," says a German foreign policy analyst. New EU members such as Poland, however, are already backing Ukraine's cause as another way to curb Russia's influence. "Poland will not only support Ukraine's integration into the EU, we will fight for it," says Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a Pole who is vice-president of the European Parliament. But, he adds, "it will take some time to convince our partners in Western Europe." In the U.S., the Bush Administration favors admitting Ukraine into NATO once requirements are met. But Washington would run the risk of straining relations with Putin in the short run. "This will be a big test of Bush's commitment to expanding democracy," says Jim Rosapepe, a former U.S. ambassador to Romania who serves on the boards of several European investment funds.

If Yushchenko does persuade Western nations to start membership talks, particularly in NATO, a new East-West struggle could ensue. "If Russia sees its influence in Ukraine as being ignored, it will obviously respond," says Mykhailo Pohrebinsky, a Kiev political analyst. One possible weapon: ramping up the price of oil and gas Russia sells to Ukraine.

That would hurt, but Ukraine could survive. Europe is now a major trading partner for Ukraine. Oleg Riabokon, a partner in Kiev's Magister & Partners law firm, expects Yushchenko's victory to fuel an investment boom: Stock prices in Ukraine have risen 30% since Nov. 21. Russia's market plummeted during the same period following news that the government was selling the main asset of oil company Yukos. Instead of viewing Ukraine as a clone of Russia, the markets are starting to see the country as European. Now Europe just has to follow suit.

By Roman Olearchyk in Kiev, with John Rossant in Paris

— With assistance by John Rossant

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