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Will his term see democratic ideals tossed aside, or will he surprise detractors, who call him "Moscow-leaning"?
And if Ukraine, the second largest ex-Soviet nation after Russia, reverts to old ways — realigning itself with the Kremlin and rolling back Orange Revolution freedoms — the other republics will take note. Belarus, whose authoritarian leader Aleksander Lukashenko follows a policy often at odds with Moscow and who developed a close working relationship with Yushchenko, will especially feel the pinch.
For Georgia, the change in power in Kiev bodes even worse. Mikheil Saakashvili counted Yushchenko as his most reliable supporter in his country’s 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia. Among other moves, Kiev tried to stop Kremlin warships from sailing to the Georgian coast from its Black Sea port of Sevastopol, where the Russian fleet is based. At the time of the war, Yanukovych spoke of recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s independence, though he now seems to be backing away from this position.
“Georgia is the most worried,” said Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Saakashvili had a very close relationship with Yushchenko.”
Yanukovych himself speaks of a multi-vectored foreign policy. In an editorial printed last week in the Wall Street Journal, he said that “a Yanukovych presidency is committed to the integration of European values” and he would “endeavor to build a bridge between [East and West], not a one-way street in either direction.”
Just as crucially, his closest advisers say that the president-elect is dedicated to democratic principles. “There are statements by Yanukovych that the Orange Revolution changed this country from the Soviet style of administration, Soviet style of rulers,” said Leonid Kozhara, Yanukovych’s main foreign policy advisor. “Now it is more democratic and there is a real and strong competition among political forces.”
But even if Yanukovych does not introduce more iron-fisted policies, the simple fact of his victory is viewed by many as a weakening of Orange Revolution principles. To many, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were democracy’s poster children; their defeat represents a discrediting of their values.
This view is nevertheless wrong, say observers. “The Ukrainians didn’t vote to undo positive political change,” said Samuel Charap, associate director for the Russia and Eurasia Program and the Center for American Progess in Washington. “You had a loser returning to power and elections where we didn’t know the winner in advance — that’s democracy.”
Still he thinks that some may take away the wrong lesson from Yanukovych’s triumph. “I hope that this doesn’t change the way that the region’s regimes treat their people, and how the people themselves view democracy,” he says. “I fear that may happen.”