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Choice of Coalition Partners Will Impact Ukraine's Future

(Washington, D.C. -- April 17, 2006) While the recent parliamentary election demonstrated that voter preferences have shifted within the Orange Coalition since the 2004 elections, Ukraine's overall political landscape has remained the same, according to two experts on Ukraine. Taras Kuzio and Jan Maksymiuk told an RFE/RL audience in Washington last week that President Victor Yushchenko faces a difficult decision in choosing coalition partners -- a choice that will determine Ukraine's foreign and domestic trajectory.

Maksymiuk, RFE/RL analyst for Ukraine and Belarus, said that the surprise winner of the election was former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose party tallied 5.6 million votes nationwide -- up from 2 million in 2004. In contrast, he said that Yushchenko's support decreased significantly from 2004. Tymoshenko, Maksymiuk said, was perceived by the electorate as more committed to the ideals of the Orange Revolution than Yushchenko. Kuzio, a Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, agreed, tracing the roots of this perception to September 2005, when Yushchenko relieved Tymoshenko of her duties as Prime Minister and, in order to secure parliament's confirmation of his choice to replace Tymoshenko, signed an agreement with opposition leader Victor Yanukovych.

Both Kuzio and Maksymiuk noted that geography, more than ideology, defines Ukraine's political landscape. The oblasts in which parties associated with the Orange Revolution dominate can be found in Ukraine's west and central regions, including Kyiv, while the "blue" regions aligned with Yanukovych are located in the south and east of the country.

Yushchenko, according to Maksymiuk, faces an unenviable dilemma: "One coalition is bad, the other is worse." Maksymiuk said Yushchenko could partner with Tymoshenko, who has personality conflicts with some of Yushchenko's ministers and who may insist on returning as Prime Minister. By doing so, she would position herself as a rival to Yushchenko in the 2009 presidential elections. By contrast, a partnership between Yushchenko and Yanukovych may lead to a worse result and, according to Kuzio, "the end of Yushchenko's political career." One potential consequence of partnering with Yanukovych, according to Kuzio, is that talks on NATO accession could be derailed. Furthermore, Kuzio said that such a coalition would compromise Ukraine's relationship with the United States and European Union. Though both analysts endorsed Tymoshenko as the optimal coalition partner, neither ventured to speculate what Yushchenko's decision would be.