Ukrainian voters will go to the polls Sunday to vote in the country’s first presidential election since the start of the Maidan uprising last November–and since sitting president Victor Yanukovich fled to Russia in February.
Ukrainians are both nervous and determined to make their votes count, and the turnout is expected to be the highest in 10 years.
The students who have continued to protest want an end to official corruption and the right to choose their own political future. In many ways, Ukraine is looking at the unfinished business of the Orange revolution.
That aspiration, however, will be very difficult to achieve, according to a panel of experts who convened at The Heritage Foundation yesterday.
Iryna Fedets, a native Ukrainian who is currently at Heritage as Atlas Corps Fellow and visiting senior policy analyst, noted that the two people most likely to win the presidency are old-style politicians: Russia-friendly former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and businessman and chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko. The more than 20 candidates produced by the Maidan protests are polling at only 3 percent combined.
The biggest elephant in the room will be Russia’s intentions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that he will respect the result of the election. Russia, however, is playing its own game at destabilizing Ukraine in order to maintain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet republics.
Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, noted that the most likely and least expensive option for Russia is to keep Ukraine unstable–in a peripheral position between Europe and Russia. He cited Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Heritage’s Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies, put the stakes for the election in stark perspective. In Russia’s behavior, Cohen said, we are seeing nothing less than a challenge to the post-Cold War order in Europe; borders are supposed to be inviolable, and a new kind of warfare is carried out by proxy militias and the massive use of information warfare.
That’s why Ukraine’s independence and future should be a matter of intense interest to the United States and to the rest of Europe.
Unfortunately, Western inaction and lack of a determined response has created a vacuum, and Russia is marching in to fill the space. Ukrainians are bravely fighting for their country, and the world should be watching closely.