By Elizabeth Piper - Analysis
KIEV (Reuters) - Russia’s conflict with Georgia has increased divisions between Ukraine’s leaders over whether to steer the country to the West or towards Russia, drawing battle lines for the next presidential election.
President Viktor Yushchenko, lagging in polls less than 18 months before the election, has called for closer ties with the West and attacked his former “Orange Revolution” ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, for staying silent on the conflict.
Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, who eventually lost a presidential election to Yushchenko in 2004, has criticized the president, saying former Soviet Ukraine must remain neutral and not be drawn into a dispute with Russia.
Analysts said Tymoshenko hopes to make political gains by balancing Russian and Western interests, replacing her usually anti-Russia rhetoric with careful statements aimed at winning friends in Moscow and major European capitals.
They are positioning themselves for the election in 2010 and adopting strategies that highlight the political fault lines in a country divided between the Western-leaning Ukrainian speakers and pro-Russian regions in the east and south, they said.
“Tymoshenko is the arch-pragmatist, whereas both Yanukovich and Yushchenko’s positions are much more positions of principle. I think you have to interpret her silence as an effort to gauge where the swing voters are on this issue,” said Geoffrey Smith, a strategist at Renaissance Capital.
“What this is about is the long-term view that to launch a successful presidential bid in Ukraine requires you not to make an enemy of Russia. She’s obviously looking back to 2004 and thinking I really don’t want to be fighting next year’s campaign against a headwind from Moscow.”
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, once united in overturning a Soviet-style leadership in the 2004 Orange Revolution, have fallen out.
Sparring over almost all policy decisions since Tymoshenko returned for her second spell as prime minister in December has stalled reforms, privatization has come to a halt and annual inflation has climbed to highs of 30 percent.
Yushchenko has stuck by his belief that Ukraine, a country of 47 million squeezed between Russia and the West, should enter the NATO military alliance and European Union.
But Tymoshenko, who signed up to the policies, now has eased off on her enthusiasm for NATO membership, mindful of the alliance’s unpopularity in Ukraine. All politicians have agreed that NATO membership should be put to a referendum.
And Yushchenko’s circle has accused Tymoshenko of being a “traitor” by failing to support Georgia in its conflict with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Tymoshenko eventually said she supported Georgia’s territorial integrity but chose her words carefully to soften any blow to Moscow.
“Only the president has forcefully put his position forward and ... he has taken this and that measure to complicate relations with Russia,” analyst Oleksander Dergachev said.
“Tymoshenko has more or less taken the position not to get directly involved and her priority is to find a peaceful resolution.”
Recent opinion polls give Tymoshenko 24 percent backing -- enough to win a presidential election if it were held now -- and put Yanukovich on just over 20 percent. Yushchenko trails on about 7 percent.
With the economy likely to sway voters as well as foreign policy, Tymoshenko is trying to shake off the reputation she had as an unreliable economic partner during her first spell as prime minister in 2005, when she suggested revisiting state sell-offs and interfered in markets.
“The last couple of months, in the West she is winning more points as a politician in relation to domestic events and deteriorating relations with the president,” Dergachev said.
“She has attracted more attention from Western partners who are increasingly disappointed with Yushchenko, and she is concentrating more on bringing about reform than he is.”
Political analysts said Yanukovich, whose support base lies mostly in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and was prime minister in 2006-2007, could have problems widening his electoral appeal.
The election, said Dergachev, could be Tymoshenko’s to lose. “But she has to navigate a very difficult path.”
Editing by Myra MacDonald