Kramer outlined a number of differences between the first round that took place on 17 January 2010 and the elections that occurred in 2004. In that year, the choice was much more black and white, partly because the opposition came together and Yulia Tymoshenko agreed to yield to Viktor Yushchenko to run for president as the sole opposition candidate. Russia played a heavy handed role in these elections, unabashedly supporting Viktor Yanukovych, now the front-runner coming out of Ukraine's recent first round. Because there was also a strong level of engagement from the West, albeit in support of the electoral process as a whole and not in support of a single candidate, the 2004 election "pitted Russia against the West with Ukraine as an unfortunate pawn," said Kramer. Yushchenko's poisoning and the efforts by the party of power to steal the election all led to the Orange Revolution, elevating Yushchenko to the presidency.
Expectations rose considerably after the Orange Revolution, but were soon shattered as the Orange coalition fractured. Looking to this year's election, Kramer observed, "We don't know who is going to win in the next round of elections, and that is a very good thing." While many consider the Orange Revolution to have been a failure, Kramer asserted that it is the reason such free and fair elections are being held in Ukraine today; the revolution created an environment in which the media are the freest in the region, candidates run without fear, and voters' ballots matter. However, the general sense in this election, said Kramer, compared to 2004 was that people were going to the polls in order to vote against a candidate they didn't like, rather than to vote specifically for a candidate they favored.
The turnout for the first round of elections was 67 percent, slightly down from the 74 percent that came out to vote in 2004. Kramer asserted that while Yanukovych and Tymoshenko were the expected frontrunners, the surprise in the first round was the impressive showing of Serhey Tyhypko. Arseny Yatsenyuk, by comparison, came in a disappointing fourth, and Yushchenko was routed, coming in a distant fifth. None of these candidates, however, has endorsed either of the two remaining contenders.
Stereotypes and caricatures of both leading candidates are prevelant: Yanukovych is painted as pro-Russia while Tymoshenko is portrayed as pro-West. Having witnessed the first round of elections, Kramer stated that on the evening of election day, one exit polls showed Tymoshenko and Yanukovych neck and neck. However, the next morning revealed a double-digit gap between the two candidates, making it seem to most people that Tymoshenko had considerably less support. Nevertheless, Kramer maintains that "it is an enormous mistake to underestimate Tymoshenko. She has a steeper hill to climb but she is a much more charismatic campaigner." The outstanding question is whether Yanukovych faces a ceiling in his level of support or can gather enough votes to get him across the finish line.
Both of the candidates have been proponents of improving relations with Russia but at the same time maintaining Ukraine's strength and independence. Both would also like to oversee improved relations with the European Union and foster deeper processes of integration. NATO, on the other hand, has not been an important issue for Ukrainian voters, who are much more concerned with the economy, corruption, and energy. Kramer noted that regardless of which candidate wins, the election process itself is already a success for Ukraine. Praised for its election processes by the OSCE, the European Parliament, and a myriad of other observer organizations, the success of the first round is another accomplishment for the Orange Revolution. Kramer concluded by saying that regardless of which candidate wins, it important for the U.S. and the West to engage the new government right away. "Ukraine is important in its own right, not just as a source of competition with Russia."
By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute
- President, Freedom House