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UKRAINIAN AND BELARUS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS: PRELUDE TO A CRISIS
IN THE WESTERN BORDERLANDS OF RUSSIA
An Immediate Aftermath of Elections
Dr. Jacob W. Kipp
Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS.
In his address to the Polish Sejm last week in Warsaw President Clinton pledged to
support the fledgling democracies of Central and Eastern Europe through a three-prong policy of
"supporting democracy, advancing free markets and meeting new security challenges." Clinton
described the looming security challenge in Europe as a struggle against "would-be dictators and
fiery nationalists . . . promoting ethnic and racial hatred, promoting religious divisions and
anti-semitism and aggressive nationalism." From these sources arise those challenges that
threatens the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the states of Central and
Eastern Europe as they go about the business of building democracies and free-market
economies. Clinton declared: "No democracy in this region should ever be consigned to a gray
area or a buffer zone, and no country should have the right to veto, compromise or threaten
democratic Poland's or any other democracy's integration into Western institutions, including
those that ensure our security." 1
This position assumes that consignment of a state or states to a gray area is a function of
the actions of another power. But the question of internal stability, i. e., the degree of popular
support that the state or states enjoy from their populations and their commitment to the
maintenance of their nation's independence, can be a function of internal factors tied to a
complex set of circumstances. One need only remember that although Gorbachev's referendum
on the preservation of a reformed Union won handily in the spring of 1991, the union itself was
swept away by very crisis induced by trying to reform the union, leading to the events of August
and the ensuing upsurge of nationalism.
The recent election results in Belarus and Ukraine seem to suggest that the victors in these
elections will seek closer ties with Russia. The prime question is with what Russia will they seek
those ties, i. e., Yeltsin's reformist-democratic Russia, Rutskoi's or Ziuganov's renewed Union
dominated by Russia, or Zhirinovsky's restored empire. The very process of defining with which
Russia these states will seek closer ties will create a tension within these societies between those
who view national independence as vital to their security [personal safety, status, and livelihood]
and those who would sacrifice some measure of independence to ensure increased social security
[increased income, job security, and economic stability]. In the case of Ukraine the issue is
entwined in the regionalization of national politics among a nationalist, western-oriented Galicia,
a Russian and Russified east and south, and a moderate central region with its core around Kiev.
The fate of Belarus and Ukraine will impact upon the security concerns of the Baltic states,
Poland and the other Visegrad states. It will have profound ramifications for Russian domestic
politics, putting on the agenda the question of a confederative or imperial approach to
The results of recent presidential elections in Belarus and Ukraine point to a political crisis
along Russia's Western borderland as new governments try to overcome economic collapse,
redefine relations with Russia, and seek to direct the anger and frustration among the electorate
which they mobilized to get elected. The anger and the frustration, which is real and genuine
among the mass of the population in both states, were aimed at three targets: organized crime,
corrupt officials, and economic mismanagement. In both countries nationalists, who came to
power promoting the end of the Soviet Union, were voted out on the basis of the poor
performance of their governments and the catastrophic decline in each national economy. In both
cases the electoral results came as something of a surprise. In Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko
emerged as a dark-horse candidate late in the process and was swept into office in a land-slide
victory. In Ukraine the reports of election results in the first round of presidential elections on
June 26, in which the incumbent, Leonid Kravchuk, emerged as the leader with a plurality of
38%, revealed a tight race. Analysts continued to predict a victory for President Kravchuk in the
run-off elections in July. In both the Belarus and Ukrainian elections there was considerable
evidence that the Russian government favored moderates and incumbents associated with the
decision to dissolve the union in December 1991.
Lukashenko's Election in Belarus
In Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko, a 39-year-old crusader against corruption and former
state farm manager, made a campaign against corruption into a mass protest, getting 80% of the
total vote. His opponent, the incumbent prime minister Vyacheslav Kebich got just 14% of the
final vote. Speaking on the outcome of the voting Stanislav Shushkevich, independent Belarus'
first president, said on Sunday: "People are fed up with government policies and the have chosen
the most radical destroyer of those policies."
Lukashenko is a national populist, whose style resembles that of Zhirinovsky: recognize
popular grievances, offer simple solutions, and focus public attention on those who have
conspired to create the problems, making it a struggle between the corrupt few and the people. In
a bitter personal campaign Lukashenko escaped the many charges leveled against him and
convinced the public that he was the victim of a conspiracy of the corrupt.
Like Zhirinovsky, he spoke of renewed toes between Belarus and Russia. Indeed, the reformist
press in Moscow, which early on labeled Lukashenko "the Belorussian Zhirinovsky" for his
combination of populist and extremist rhetoric, gained another reason to compare the two: "like
the Russian 'liberal-democrat' [he has] the ability to deliver electoral surprises." 2
"Presidential" Moscow [Yeltsin and his supporters, Chernomirdyn's government, Russia's
Choice, and other reformist elements] had favored Kebich as a moderate and competent
reformer. Kebich's political annihilation is another blow to moderate reformers and will be so
seen in Moscow. Lukashenko's overwhelming victory means that he will have a chance to
impose a government of his choice on the Belarus parliament. He will be likely to seek closer ties
with national-populist forces in Russia and promote closer union with them. Lukashenko already
declared the monetary agreement signed by Kebich and Chernomirdyn last year to be "a fig leaf
used to further Kebich's presidential campaign." While rejecting the reconstitution of the Union,
he has left the door open to some new formula for uniting the former Soviet republics, one that
would maintain the independent statehood of Belarus and the other successor states.3 The leader of the Russian Liberal
Democratic Party is reportedly pleased with the result of the voting in Belarus. One of the leaders
of that party, Aleksandr Vengerovsky, said that he liked Lukashenko because "he is an intelligent
person with good experience." Comments of other Russian politicians such as the Chairman of
the Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, Konstantin Zatulin, stressed Lukashenko's
What unites the electoral results in Belarus and Ukraine are the issues of economic
collapse, corruption, and popular frustration. What makes the dynamics of the elections and their
impact different is the centrality of ethnic issues for Ukraine. Belarus is a relatively more
homogeneous nation, while Ukraine's politics is dominated by ethnic divisions among the
eastern, central, and western regions of the country. As in other parts of Central and Eastern
Europe Communists and reformed Communists have emerged as political powers by
championing a return to order and stability.
This process in underway in Ukraine but with a difference, since the Communist Party
apparatus never lost power under Kravchuk. Instead, we have the industrial-technocrats and local
party officials replacing them. The old Supreme Rada, elected under Perestroyka, represented the
old party nomenklatura and spent its years in power feathering its nest. They fiddled while the
Ukrainian economy burned and crisis became collapse. In the end, voters could not identify with
and did not trust their elected representatives. In the spring of 1994, after a second round of
voting for parliament by far the largest single group of seats filled with candidates who declared
their party affiliation [193 out of the 328 seats filled to date] went to the Communists (86) with
left parties of various persuasions holding 124 seats, the center parties 62 seats, and the
nationalist right 5 seats. Public opinion polls taken at the same time suggested a radical decline in
public confidence in political institutions and leaders. [Presidency got only 13% and the cabinet
of ministers only 7% in that poll.]4 This
became a key factor in the final outcome of the recent presidential elections.
Kuchma's Election in Ukraine
The election of Leonid D. Kuchma, a former prime minister and military-industrial
manager, over Leonid M. Kravchuk, Ukraine's first elected-president and former Communist
apparatchik, by a margin of 52 to 45 percent confirmed the deep regional cleavage within
Ukrainian society between those who seek a unilateral, Ukrainian-national road and those who
want closer economic and political ties with Russia. The voter breakdown provided by William
Connor underscores the regional dynamics with the east [large Russian minorities and Russified
Ukrainians] joined by Crimea and Odessa in the south voting for Kuchma and close ties to
Russia. In Central Ukraine, including the Kiev region, the electoral results were much closer with
the balancing shifting between Kravchuk and Kuchma. Public opinion polling in the spring had
suggested that three issues would dominate the election: "economic crisis, relations with Russia,
In Kiev area and Western Ukraine potential voters identified as priority issues: the armed
forces, territorial integrity and support for religion. Western Ukraine and the south around
Odessa also supported economic reform as a high priority. In Eastern and Southern Ukraine and
Crimea the fight against Crime was given top priority.
Two issues are at the heart of Ukrainian politics: the definition of the state's nature:
ethno-national versus territorial, unitary versus federal; and the path of economic reform and
revival. Reactions to the results of the elections suggested just how strongly these issues are tied
to internal and external politics. Moderates from Central Ukraine spoke of their hope for a stable
and orderly transfer of power. Kuchma himself understands the danger of a geographic/ethnic
split within Ukraine and stated that he would address the danger. "If we act intelligently we can
overcome this split." The leader of RUKH -the Ukrainian nationalist organization with strong
roots in Galicia, Vyacheslav Chornovil, on the other hand, was cited by Interfax as saying that
his organization had no intention of cooperating with Kuchma and the new administration, while
the leader of the Crimean Tartars, Mustafa Dzhamilyev, said Kuchma's election could lead to the
further deterioration of the situation in Crimea. The leader of the Ukrainian Civil Congress of
Crimea, Serhii Litvin, said the same. Outside of Ukraine, the Yeltsin administration signaled its
support for Kravchuk by favoring the incumbent in the news coverage of Russian national
television. On he other hand, in the aftermath of the election, the leader of the Russian Liberal
Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, expressed pleasure at Kuchma's election.
While trying to reassure RUKH, the nationalist movement that began the political drive for
Ukrainian independence during Perestroyka, and the population of Eastern Ukraine that he will
not sacrifice Ukrainian independence even as a he seeks closer economic ties with Russia,
Kuchma will have to avoid the mine fields of the Black Sea Fleet, the status of Sevastopol, the
challenge to central authority implicit in Crimean President Yurii Meshkov's claims of greater
autonomy, and the tangle of ethnic relations in Crimea among Russians, Ukrainians, and
Crimean Tartars. The level of violence in Crimea has escalated since December last year and
involves bombings, assassinations, and armed attacks carried out by extremist elements of all
three ethnic communities against each other. Segodnya, a leading independent Moscow
newspaper, reported just days after the election that Ukrainian Ministry of Defense was involved
in a plot to kill Kuchma in case of his election as President of Ukraine. The article contained a
copy of a secret document supposedly passed on by the head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen.
Oleksandr Skipalsky, to the Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's armed forces, President Leonid
Kravchuk. The Ukrainian MOD subsequently denied the report and condemned the article as
"provocative sensational, and inaccurate."6 It attacked the Russian newspaper for engaging in a
provocation against Ukraine and its government. Whatever the truth of the story, its very
existence suggests a stormy connection between Russian and Ukrainian domestic politics.
Some analysts and politicians in Kiev are arguing that Ukraine, and especially Eastern
Ukraine,are such economic basket cases that Russia's government has no real desire or incentive
to push closer ties. This argument ignores the domestic politics angle and the ability of extreme
nationalists to use Russians in the near abroad to embarrass Yeltsin and his government. This has
been the case since the fighting around Bendery in Moldova in June 1992 and continues to be so.
Thus, ties between Russia and Crimea/Eastern Ukraine are not going to be decided by narrow
Moreover, for heavy industry and the military-industrial complex in Ukraine ties with
Russia offer the only prospect for short-term survival, given the criteria that the IMF and World
Bank have applied to economic reform and development in Central and Eastern Europe.
Moreover, ties with Western defense industries which have been developed in some Visegrad
states and Russia, where economic reform, marketization, and privatization have gone
hand-in-hand with defense-industry restructuring, have been delayed in Ukraine because of slow
base of economic reform in general. It is far easier to seek to revive the connections that existed
under the Soviet Union than to adapt the pieces of defense industry which Ukraine inherited to a
coherent defense-procurement program and relate it to a strategy for privatization and
In both Belarus and Ukraine the populous voted out of anger and frustration, and it
remains to be seen whether the new governments will be able to solve the problems of declining
production, falling wages, and hyper inflation. In both cases the problems of corruption and
crime were given significant play by the winners. In both cases it is quite unclear whether the
new presidents will be able to deal with these problems. Moreover, it remains to be seen how
Russia will greet these victories. While there is little or no support for the revival of the union as
empire in Belarus and Ukraine, there are groups who could look to economic ties associated with
private interests and market forces that would great closer ties warmly. There is, however, little
eagerness on the part of Russian leaders to assume the burden of funding the transformation of
the rust-belt industrial regions in both countries. In short, both sides have motives to avoid a
rapid and unplanned remarriage. Some observers are more pessimistic on this point. Ian
Brzezinski, an advisor to the Ukrainian government on security policy, suggested that economic
re-incorporation of Ukraine in to Russia would have dramatic consequences if Ukraine returned
to Russian control.
An economic Curzon line would be drawn in European affairs, the CIS would be
revitalized and economic sovereignty would be surrendered to Moscow. This would translate
eventually into political and military influence. Ukraine would be more involved with CIS
security affairs than NATO's Partnership for Peace it recently signed up for.
This would give legitimacy to Russian imperialists along the lines of Vladimir
Zhirinovsky who believe that Russia should re-build an empire. It would also add to regional
instability as it would tie Ukraine to a failing economy.7
The dilemma with Brzezinski's analysis is that Ukraine is already a failed economy since
the Kravchuk government undertook no major reforms. Russia in this case is, in fact, the model
for market economy reform. Brzezinski seems to suppose that re-incorporation would lead to a
rejection of Russia on political grounds. But if such re-incorporation were voluntary then the
West would be hard pressed to object to close Russian-Ukrainian ties based by market relations
and commercial trade. Moreover, the $4.2 billion in aid promised by the G-7 to Ukraine at the
recent Naples Summit seems to suggest a Western priority that is economic and not political, i.
e., get the national economy into reform process and restore production. Brzezinski is on safer
ground when he asserts that a Russia which re-incorporated Ukraine and Belarus would draw a
new Curzon line, but he misses the point in speaking about an economic line. The line will be
political and it will challenge the West's attempt to manage gradual integration of Central and
Eastern Europe via EU and NATO associate status. Neither move will be sufficient in light of a
Russia march west. Economics may drive the march but security guarantees will become the
language. And short of such guarantees the states of Central and Eastern Europe will slip more
and more into a gray area security vacuum and buffer zone against which President Clinton
warned in Warsaw.
The implications of the appearance of a gray zone in Central and Eastern Europe with a
zone of conflict and imperial re-incorporation just beyond it are stark. The re-nationalization of
security policy in Europe can be expected, as can pressure for a distinctly German approach to
the emerging buffer zone. Having failed to anchor Atlanticism in a new security system for
Europe, the US will be faced with the daunting task of re-generating the will for collective
defense, when the venue has shifted to a region that many West European states see as beyond
the limits of their interests and influence. In that case it will particularly difficult to generate
broad domestic support for a pro-active policy toward the region in response to imperial
reconstitution. While it is relatively easy to address responses to scenarios involving forced
re-integration with Russia in a new union or empire, it much more difficult to articulate a US
policy to deal with the most likely outcome: a domestic crisis within Ukraine over a policy of
economic cooperation and political cooperation with Russia, which would break on regional
lines and pit Ukrainian nationalists in the west against the large, pro-Russian elements in the east
and south. Such a situation will have a high risk of civil war and will raise fears in Central and
Eastern Europe to a fever pitch. It will much more ambiguous than overt Russian military
intervention and will place pressure on all parties to act but leave little room for compromise and
conflict management. Thus, prudent and timely consultations beginning with Germany and
extending to England, France and other NATO partners should begin immediately. Given
Poland's key role as a bridge to the East, such consultations should extend to include Warsaw's
views on the prospects for the unfolding of this crisis. The US should be ready to mobilize a
common approach to the issue of reconstitution among the Visegrad states, the Baltic troika,
Romania, and Moldova. US opinion leaders should also be brought into the process of
articulating and generating support for a policy of engagement in the sturrgle over the fate of the
1. "President Clinton [sic] Address to the Polish Parliament,"
(Warsaw, 7 July 1994), p. 8.
2. Galina Koval'skaya, "Fenomen Lukashenko," Novoye vremya, No.
26 (1994), p.10.
3. RE/RL Daily Report, No. 134, (18 July 1994).
4. "Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections, March/April 1994,"
Ukrainian Business Review, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Summer 1994), pp. 23-24.
5 . Ibid., p. 23.
6 . RE/RL Daily Report, No. 132, (14 July 1994).
7. "Interview with Ian Brzezinski," Ukrainian Business Review,
Vol 2, No 2 (Summer 1994), p. 28.
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