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The presidential election campaign officially began in Ukraine last Sunday
The election day is set for October. It will be the third presidential elections since Ukraine proclaimed independence in December 1991. Leonid Kuchma, a former premier and leader of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Ukraine, who was praised in the country as "a talented manager" won the first election in 1994. Five years later, he easily cut down the presidential ambitions of Pyotr Simonenko, the leader of Ukrainian Communists, and kept his chair. However, Kuchma's second term was marred by a series of scandals, some of which nearly cost him his post. He repelled the attacks but, in view of internal complications and dramatically deteriorating economic situation, Kuchma decided not to run for re-election this time. Instead, he is supporting Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, the former governor of Donbass, who also has the backing of the country's ruling political elite. His main rival is Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition candidate who has an impressive career behind him. Born into a family of rural teachers, he became board chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine in the mid-1990s and, after holding the post of premier for 18 months, joined the opposition and created the election bloc Our Ukraine in 2002. At the last parliamentary elections, the bloc won about 25% of the vote. Yushchenko's candidacy has been given extra spice by his wife Yekaterina Chumachenko, a US citizen with a wealth of experience in the congressional staff, the State Department, the Department of the Treasury, and the White House. It is obviously because of Yekaterina that some Russian and Western observers tend to present Yushchenko as a candidate supported by the US and Western Europe. Likewise, the working visit of Premier Yanukovich to Moscow and his meeting with President Putin in July are interpreted as proof of Moscow's support. Meanwhile, a closer look at Yushchenko's statements shows that he uses every chance to stress his exceptional desire to improve Russo-Ukrainian relations. The leader of Our Ukraine said more than once that Russia is "a unique and hence strategic partner" for his country. He is extremely sorry that Ukraine's exports to Russia have fallen from 35-38% to 18% after ten years of Kuchma's presidency. Moreover, he promises to turn back this "negative trend," if he is elected president. Though his election bloc calls for the early accession of Ukraine to the EU, Yushchenko does not think that this would create an unbridgeable gap between his country and Russia. The opposition candidate does not think it correct to ask where Ukraine is moving, towards Russia or Europe. The contrast is not correct, he argues; it is like asking you which neighbour on your apartment block floor you would like to make friends with. According to Yushchenko, Western Europe is a vast global market that has "the most solvent buyers" and is, hence, the focus of economic interests of both Russia and Ukraine. Yushchenko's statements should be taken with a grain of salt, though, but not because he can forget about his promises if elected president. Any future president of Ukraine risks becoming a figurehead because Leonid Kuchma is pressing for a constitutional reform that would make Ukraine a parliamentary republic. In this case, the government would be formed on the basis of the parliamentary majority, which Kuchma's supporters have now. The president would be elected by the Supreme Rada (parliament) or, judging by the latest amendments to the constitution, the presidential functions would be handed over to the premier. The amendments were approved by a majority of Rada deputies in June and forwarded to the Constitutional Court of Ukraine for consideration. To be adopted, they should be supported by two-thirds of MPs in September. Some Ukrainian politicians, and above all Viktor Yushchenko, are trying to present this initiative of Kuchma as a sign of mistrust of the incumbent president for his nominee, Viktor Yanukovich, and as an attempt to limit the powers of his successor. One way or another, the Kremlin believes that presidential elections in Ukraine are a major event that will be preceded by a fierce battle. So far, the ratings of both favourites of the race are around 20%, but Yanukovich has hardly begun his campaign, while Yushchenko has been working on it for about six months. It would be premature to say now which of the two candidates Moscow favours. Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation, has said that Russia would not like "to invest in uncertainty." This influential political scientist noted that it was sometimes extremely difficult to find political essence in Yushchenko's "soft, enveloping phrases." It is not clear, for example, if he is in favour of granting Russian the status of an official or state language and thus solve the problem of millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Despite the touching phrase about neighbours living on the same floor, Yushchenko has not made a stand on Ukraine's rapprochement with NATO and the Euro-Atlantic choice. A recent statement from the Yanukovich-Kuchma election headquarters sounded like a model of lucidity against this vague background. The statement announced the removal from the country's military doctrine of the provision on Ukraine's striving for NATO and EU membership. Russia is also seriously worried by numerous incidents of foreign interference in the presidential campaign in Ukraine. NATO has openly addressed its comments to the Election Commission of Ukraine, which is an unprecedented act unthinkable in any Western country. Besides, it is alarming that political envoys are shuttling between Kiev and the Russian emigres hiding in London and between Kiev and the former Yugoslavia. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili went as far as to predict, during his recent visit to Kiev, that the Georgian "rose revolution" would be repeated in Ukraine. Moscow would like to make a stake not on individual candidates but on the central idea they uphold. According to it, the mutual interests of Russia and Ukraine would be best served by close economic relations between the four countries united in the Common Economic Space.
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