Russia: November 29, 2004

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The presidential election in neighboring Ukraine last week was widely acknowledged to be rigged against the pro-West candidate, financial expert Viktor Yushchenko. Millions of Ukranians took to the streets over the next week, protesting the stolen election. The government appears to be backing down. Russia backed the establishment candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who, according to exit polls, got only about 43 percent of the vote (Yushchenko got over 50 percent.) Russia backs Yanukovych because he is pro-Russian (he speaks Russian better than Ukrainian) and belongs to the old guard of pro-Russian communist politicians who took over in many areas when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. During the centuries of Russian control, the senior government officials in Ukraine tended to speak Russian, or Ukrainian with a Russian accent. The old Communist Party hacks were better at appearing to run a government than actually doing it. As a result, the Ukrainian economy is a mess, and the government is less efficient, and more corrupt, than it was in the old Soviet Union days. Moreover, the majority of Ukrainians not only want better government, but also more economic ties with the West, and less with Russia. Ukraine became part of the Russian empire in the 17th century, and never completely accepted that arrangement. About 22 percent of Ukrainians are actually Russians who migrated to eastern and southern Ukraine over the years. The two languages are sort of like French and Italian, but not as far apart. Ukrainian or Russian speakers dont have to spend too much time with each other before they can understand the other language. Learning to speak the other language takes longer, and Russian speaking Ukrainians often dont bother, or speak it with a pronounced (and unpopular) Russian accent. Russia sees Ukraine as part of Greater Russia (most Ukrainians disagree) and eventually want to see Ukraine merge back into Russia. This is a popular idea in Russia, and the Ukrainians know it. But the Russians will probably not go to war over it. Russia could invade Ukraine, but it would be a messy, low tech war, because the Russian armed forces are in such a sorry state.

 

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