Likely Yanukovych victory alters the balance of power in eastern Europe

Yanukovych victory may redraw spheres of influence in eastern Europe. Afghan police detained after killing of children. North Korea frees American missionary. Iranian president calls for enrichment work to begin. French police in scuffle with migrants. All this and more in today's update.
Maddy Fry
8 February 2010

In a remarkable turnaround, Victor Yanukovych looks set to return to power in Ukraine after being ousted in 2004 following the peaceful ‘Orange Revolution’ that saw the presidency handed to Victor Yushchenko. Yushchenko brought hope that the country would adopt crucial reforms, but after five years of political instability, his popularity ratings had reached pitiful levels. The hope of 2004 has given way to bitter disillusionment. If returned to power, Yanukovych has sworn to bring about a change in Ukraine based on greater respect for law and order.

Although he is thought to have so far won near to 48.3% of the vote, Yanokovych’s main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, a central figure in the 2004 orange movement, is refusing to heed calls to concede defeat. So far,she is estimated as having gained 46.1% of the vote, which gives  Yanukovych a lead of less than 3%. She has therefore urged her supporters to take to the streets if she does not win. She claims that demonstrations would be even greater than the ‘Orange Revolution’ of five years ago.

The openSecurity verdict: Although Victor Yanukovych was originally declared the winner of the 2004 elections, he was accused of vote-rigging, leading to mass street demonstrations which were only calmed by the Supreme Court's call for a second vote. Given the disillusion that has since gripped the country, it is unlikely that 2004's mass protests will be repeated short of strong evidence of electoral malpractice. The long-term security implications of the election however, will be no less significant.

Despite attempts by Yanukovych to mark out his independence from the Kremlin, he remains Moscow's favoured candidate. The crisis since 2004 has left the presidency bereft of significant powers, much to Yushchenko's chagrin, and the weakness of the presidency may dilute the impact of Yanukovych's election. Still, Russia is likely to gain a greater influence in the country, if not at the top, then in the Russian speaking regions to which Yanukovych has promised greater autonomy. Ukraine's westward drift, which many thought would culminate in EU and NATO membership, is likely to be reversed. Russia's black sea fleet, which has maintained a contested anchorage at Sevastopol since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, will be more secure.

The American reaction to the election is likely to be more cautious than that of 2004, when vocal, and allegedly material, support was given to the Orange camp. Coupled with the shelving of missile and radar installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, this loss of an ally, however impotent, may signal the decline of American influence in eastern Europe. All the more hurtful will be the fact that Yanukovych has successfully campaigned on the back of significant anti-western sentiment, fueled by resentment at Ukraine's increased dependence on the IMF during Yushchenko's presidency and the fallout from a financial crisis with its origins in the US. It is doubtful that Russia will feel obliged to offer significant concessions in return for the US's retreat.

Afghan police detained after children killed

Police accidentally shot dead seven Afghan boys in the town of Spin Boldak in the southern Kandahar province at the weekend. They were said to have been mistaken for terrorists attempting to cross into Afghanistan from neighbouring Pakistan, but were in fact collecting firewood. The shootings follow increasingly vocal calls to prevent the lightly regulated crossborder movement that facilitate the Taliban's insurgency in both countries. The shootings are likely to add to Karzai's concerns that civilian casualties at the hands of the Taliban, Afghan security forces and NATO are diminishing support for his administration and for foreign intervention.

North Korea frees American missionary

The Californian missionary and human rights campaigner Robert Park has returned to the USA after being arrested by the North Korean authorities on Christmas Day 2009. He was detained after being caught trying to cross the border from China with a letter addressed to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The government in South Korea estimates that the regime in Pyongyang currently holds over 100,000 political prisoners, a situation that Park is thought to have been protesting against. Park’s family were said to have only been informed of his plans fourteen hours before he set off. He claims to have not received any ill-treatment during his time in custody and insists that his previous view of North Korea was made biased by Western ‘false propaganda.’

Iranian president calls for enrichment work to begin

The Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation has been told by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to start the process of enriching uranium for the creation of nuclear fuel. Although the leader maintains that ‘the doors of interaction are still open,’ the move has prompted further concerns that opportunities for international dialogue are diminishing. Although there were hopes that Iran might agree to send some material abroad to be made into fuel, his latests announcement is understood as an attempt pacify critics of his hinted acceptance of the UN deal.

The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, has called for the international community to stand together in exerting pressure on the regime in Tehran to discard its nuclear programme, expressing hope that in time more stringent sanctions might work. Iranian officials insist that they are ready to accept Western proposals, but that the latter are complicating the procedure by trying to ‘make a crisis’ where none exists.

French police in scuffle with migrants

The migrants’ rights group ‘No Borders’ recently set up a place of refuge in Calais for migrants trying to enter the UK. French riot police were called in to erect barriers around the entrance to the shed where 90 migrants had taken residence. Those within were allowed to leave but not to regain entry. The shed was rented by the group ‘SOS Support for Undocumented Workers’ in order to allow members of ‘No Borders’ to turn it into a shelter. Many pro-migrants groups have criticised the recent attempts by the UK and French governments to clamp down on illegal cross-border migration, insisting that their treatment of migrants and asylum seekers is inhumane.

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