Just How “Pro-Russia” is Yanukovych?

yanuk011810.jpgYevgeny Kiselyov’s column in the Moscow Times brings up an important point I have been mulling over this weekend, right as Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions lurches toward a comfortable lead for the next run-off vote against Yulia Tymoshenko.  Exactly how much would his leadership change the country’s relations with Europe and the United States, or how different would they be from Tymoshenko’s administration?

Some of the most divisive issues are pretty much off the table.  NATO membership talks are completely stillborn with Washington’s reset policy, and it looks like short of openly declaring that accession will never be granted, the Obama Administration is probably wishing that Bush had never strung Georgia and Ukraine along this far.  With regard to EU membership, there is some saying about hell freezing over first which would apply.  The Eastern Partnership (EaP) appears aimless, and few in the West seem to be mourning the fall of the Orange Revolution.  Yet despite all lamentable failures of Europe to embrace Ukraine along with its flaws, it is not in the country’s long-term interests to surrender political sovereignty to Russia and isolate their economy from important political and trade links to the West … and Yanukovych knows this, and will have to fight hard to achieve international legitimacy, independent of Russia, if he hopes to stick around for very long (plus the Rada is going to be absolute chaos for whomever wins).

After the jump, a few of the reasons why Kiselyov thinks that a Yanukovych victory does not exactly translate into Russian control over Ukraine.

But it would be a mistake to assume that a Yanukovych victory wouldmean that Ukraine will wholeheartedly embrace Moscow. To be sure,Kremlin insiders affirm that Russian leaders would prefer to seeYanukovych become president, just as they did five years ago. TheKremlin considers him to be more predictable because he is tied to thepro-Russia sentiment of his supporters. But this is only part of thepicture. It is correct that Yanukovych’s main electoral base is theindustrially developed eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine,where 17 million of the country’s 37 million voters live and whereUkraine’s main economic potential and its pro-Russia contingent isconcentrated.

At the same time, however, it would be naive to believe that thoseregions are willing to embrace Moscow’s suffocating bear hug. All ofthe business interests of the financial and industrial magnates inUkraine’s eastern region are in the West. Rinat Akhmetov, the country’swealthiest man with a personal worth of $1.8 billion, is Yanukovych’smain sponsor. Akhmetov and most of the other oligarchs built theirfortunes in the metals and mining industries, sectors that have fewprospects on the Russian market, which has more than its share ofmetals and other natural resources that compete with Ukraine for exportmarkets.

Although the eastern half of Ukraine is the bastion of pro-Russiasentiment, polls show that they have no desire to reunite with theirnorthern neighbor. In other words, even a victory by pro-RussianYanukovych is unlikely to bring about a substantial change inRussian-Ukrainian relations. To be sure, Ukraine under Yanukovych wouldnot try to kick Russia’s Black Sea Fleet out of Sevastopol or speed upthe country’s accession to NATO. But it is important to remember thatas prime minister to former Ukrainian President Leonid KuchmaYanukovych signed the agreement for Ukraine to join the NATO MembershipAction Plan and his party supported the decision in the parliament. Atthe same time, Yanukovych is unlikely to make any major concessions toMoscow regarding one of the most sensitive issues affecting relations:the transit of Russian gas to Europe through Ukrainian territory. OnFriday, during an interview on my television program “BolshayaPolitika,” Yanukovych said Ukraine is paying too much for Russian gasand should renegotiate the terms of its contracts with Moscow. He alsosaid the Kremlin should pay “market prices” for the rights to base itsBlack Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.