Ukraine's Political Crisis and U.S. Policy Issues

In 2004, many observers believed that Ukraine was at a key period in its transition that could shape its geopolitical orientation for years to come, in part due to presidential elections held on October 31, November 21, and December 26, 2004. In their view, Ukraine could move closer to integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions, real democracy and the rule of law, and a genuine free market economy, or it could move toward a Russian sphere of influence with “managed democracy” and an oligarchic economy. For the past decade, Ukraine’s political scene had been dominated by President Leonid Kuchma and the oligarchic “clans” (regionally based groups of powerful politicians and businessmen) that have supported him. The oligarchs chose Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as their candidate to succeed Kuchma as President. The chief opposition candidate, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, was a pro-reform, pro-Western figure seen by many observers as a man of high personal integrity.

International observers criticized the election campaign and the first and second rounds of the election as not free and fair, citing such factors as government-run media bias in favor of Yanukovych, abuse of absentee ballots, barring of opposition representatives from electoral commissions, and inaccurate voter lists. Nevertheless, Yushchenko topped the first round of the vote on October 31 by a razor-thin margin over Yanukovych. Other candidates finished far behind. After the November 21 runoff between the two top candidates, Ukraine’s Central Election Commission proclaimed Yanukovych the winner. Yushchenko’s supporters charged that massive fraud had been committed. They blockaded government offices in Kiev and appealed to the Ukrainian Supreme Court to invalidate the vote as fraudulent. The court did so on December 3, calling for a repeat of the second round on December 26. Yushchenko won the December 26 re-vote, with 51.99% of the vote to Yanukovych’s 44.19%. After several court challenges by Yanukovych were rejected, Yushchenko was inaugurated as President of Ukraine on January 23, 2005.

The European Union and the United States strongly denounced electoral fraud in Ukraine in the first two rounds, and hailed the largely free and fair conduct of the repeat vote. In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly backed Yanukovych and publicly congratulated him on his “victory” soon after the second round vote. Russian officials have charged that the United States and the European Union’s charges of electoral fraud were an attempt to bring Ukraine under western influence. U.S. policymakers must tackle such difficult issues as how to promote democracy in Ukraine, Ukraine’s possible troop withdrawal from Iraq, and U.S.-Russian tensions over Ukraine’s future geopolitical orientation.

The 109th Congress adopted legislation on the Ukrainian elections. H.Con.Res. 16 and S.Con.Res. 7 congratulated Ukraine for its commitment to democracy and its resolution of its political crisis in a peaceful manner, and pledged U.S. help to Ukraine’s efforts to develop democracy, a free market economy, and integrate into the international community of democracies. This report will not be updated.