On Sunday 17 January Ukraine holds its first presidential elections since the 2004 Orange Revolution. In the second installment of his blog, Andrew Wilson examines why Europe should care about the vote.

Why should we care about Ukraine?

 It's Friday, my first day in Kiev but also the last day of campaigning for this first round of voting. According to Ukrainian law the politicians have to stop talking at midnight, giving everybody a much-needed rest. 

 The law also bans Ukrainians from publishing opinion polls in the last two weeks of the campaign, but everyone is talkign about a possible rogue poll by the Russian agency VTsIOM. It gives Viktor Yanukovych, whose supporters rigged the last presidential election in 2004, a dramatic comeback story with 30.5% of the vote. The prime minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, has only 13.9%, and has been overtaken by a dark-horse candidate Serhiy Tyhipko on 14.4%. Rogue poll or not - and certainly few people here believe it - a similar result after Sunday's voting would see Tymoshenko sensationally knocked out, with the other two going through to the second round.

 I'll give a few pointers of what to watch out for over the weekend, but for now I'll focus on that fundamental question: 'Why should anyone else care about the outcome of these elections?'

  1. Geography.  Ukraine is right on the EU's doorstep. A problematic Ukraine - with growing gaps in living standards, good governance and the rule of law - will inevitably flow across borders. Ukraine could very well become ‘Europe's Mexico', but also with a strong, cunning power on the other side ready to exploit any political vacuum: The resurgent Russia has not been shy in exerting pressure on Ukraine, with last year's gas crisis the obvious example.
  2. Economics. Ukraine is feeling the effects of one of the worst recessions in Europe. Its budget is bursting at the seams, over-laden with monthly gas payments and pre-election pork-barrel. Projects like the 2012 European Football Championship finals, which Ukraine is set to co-host with Poland, take a back seat, and it could only pay its gas bill by the (extended) deadline thanks to IMF funds. An economy teetering on the brink of collapse on its eastern border will have broader implications for the EU and its member states. Financial meltdown in Ukraine will cause an influx of immigrations into member states and banks in several EU member states, notably in Austria and Italy, are heavily exposed to Ukraine's imploding economy.
  3. Energy. We are in the middle of one of the coldest Januarys in decades, putting energy resources - particularly gas - under strain. The EU consumes a lot of Russian gas, 80% of which comes through Ukraine's pipeline network. The 2009 gas crisis showed just how vulnerable many parts of the EU were to supply disruptions. When Ukraine failed to pay its December 2008 bill and Russia cut off the gas on New Year's Day, Europe lost almost a third of gas imports overnight and large parts of Eastern Europe suddenly faced severe shortages. Bulgaria, for example, struggled to secure heating for schools and hospitals, as thousands of households were left without heating as temperatures plummeted to -20C.

    But just as we were getting used to the idea of the annual New Year gas crisis, perhaps this year we should be more worried that there wasn't one. The assumption may be that the gas kept flowing in 2010 because Russian Prime Minister Putin and Ukraine's blonde bombshell, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, have some kind of private understanding. Tymoshenko is, to adapt the phrase Maggie Thatcher once used about Mikhail Gorbachev, someone Putin "can do business with". Tymoshenko's main opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, also competes for Moscow's favour. This brings us to the fourth reason why we should care...
  4. Russia.  Any secret, non-aggression pact between Ukraine and Russia should worry the West. Tymoshenko has gone quiet on NATO. She is amenable to negotiating the terms by which Russia's Black Sea Fleet may stay in Crimea after its lease runs out in 2017. She may abandon or go slow on the agreement Ukraine signed with the EU to reform its internal gas market.

 Ukraine is a reminder that there are many "Europes" over and above EU Europe. There is geographical Europe, UEFA Europe and Eurovision Europe. The EU Europe and Ukraine have an important but dysfunctional relationship. Even many of Ukraine's traditional friends, such as Poland or the Baltic States, suffer from ‘Ukraine fatigue', thanks to the increasing policy paralysis in Kiev. Many in Ukraine suffer from ‘Europe fatigue'. Ukraine feels that the EU is constantly telling it "now is not the time", either for a membership application or any form of deeper relationship.

  Whoever wins this election, it is obvious that EU-Ukraine relations need a 'reset'. The EU-Ukraine summit in December 2009 showed that no one is happy with the current situation. A functioning Ukraine, which can deliver on its own policy reform promises, could transform the region and EU-Russia relations. The upcoming election may also result in a still-malfunctioning Ukraine, which may benefit a resurgent Russia, but not the EU. 

For more...

In Part One of Ukraine Decides, Andrew looks at what went wrong after 2004's Orange Revolution. You can read Part One here

You can listen to a podcast interview with Andrew Wilson talking about the elections here. You can also subscribe to ECFR podcasts via iTunes or podhoster.com.

Andrew Wilson is available for press interviews and comment on the elections. Click here for our press advisory.


Read more on: Wider Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.