08 February 2010
Officials in Georgia are downplaying speculation that the apparent victory of the pro-Russian candidate in Ukraine’s presidential run-off will have negative repercussions for Tbilisi. But local analysts are predicting the Ukrainian result could cause a major shift in regional politics.
The outcome of the run-off remains unofficial. With virtually all ballots counted, the pro-Moscow candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, was holding a slim lead over Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, widely seen as Western in her orientation. Monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that the voting was conducted in a largely free-and-fair manner. Tymoshenko, who is widely seen as a geopolitical ally of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, has refused to concede defeat until all votes have been counted and verified, local media outlets reported.
Saakashvili has tried to strike a constructive note over the past several weeks, as it became increasingly likely that Yanukovich, whose tainted electoral victory in 2004 was overturned by the so-called Orange Revolution, was headed to victory in the 2010 race.
“However the election turns out, Georgia will remain Ukraine’s friend,” Saakashvili told a Ukrainian audience via a live link-up during a February 7 talk show on Ukrainian television, the Interfax news agency reported.
During her weekly February 7 press briefing, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze echoed that line, saying it was too early to guess about potential post-election policy twists. But Kalandadze pointed to the two countries’ tight strategic relationship and pledged that Tbilisi would continue to cooperate with any government elected in Ukraine.
Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine has played an important role as a strategic partner and regional ally for Georgia. For the past five-plus years both countries have attempted to distance themselves from Moscow’s influence, and both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union have often tied the two countries together in reform efforts and expansion plans.
Personal relations also run deep: Outgoing Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is godfather to Saakashvili’s younger son, and Saakashvili graduated from the Kiev University Institute of International Relations.
A recent scandal involving an estimated 2,000 non-registered election observers from Georgia underscored the emotional nature of those ties. Yanukovich supporters accused Georgia of trying to intimidate likely Yanukovich voters and therefore influence the election’s outcome. The allegation surfaced after Ukrainian media outlets published alleged recordings of telephone conversations between Saakashvili and Tymoshenko.
The Georgian government and Tymoshenko have denied the allegations, but Georgian observers stayed away from the second round of elections on February 7.
Political scientist Tornike Sharashenidze said that, regardless of the winner, the Ukrainian vote’s outcome would not pose an immediate security risk for Georgia. He added that if the new government in Kyiv is pro-Russian, the United States and Europe might refocus attention on the South Caucasus. “If Ukraine becomes pro-Russian, American and Western influence will be much more focused on the Caucasus and Georgia than it was before,” he said.
Giorgi Khutsishvili, one of the founders of Tbilisi’s International Center on Conflict and Resolution, suggested that the election could serve as a wake-up call for Saakashvili’s administration. “Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko have expressed willingness to compromise with Moscow during their campaigns — a development that reflects a changed political environment in the region that Georgia cannot afford to ignore,” he said.
Aside from the likely victory of a pro-Russian presidential candidate in Ukraine, Tbilisi now faces a US administration that is eager to find a common language with Moscow. Khutsishvili suggested that Tbilisi would have to moderate the stance that it has taken with Russia since the two countries fought a brief and lopsided war in 2008.
Khutsishvili stressed that the Georgian government has two options: start talking with Russia without preconditions, or face an even more insecure future. “As Georgia continues pushing its policy of pretending nothing has changed over the past two years, the election in Ukraine makes Georgia more vulnerable,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.
Copyright (c) 2003 Open Society Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the Open Society Institute, 400 West 59th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA, wwwEurasiaNet.org. or www.soros.org.