The election victory of the pro-Western Orange parties in Ukraine, spelling the return of a glamorous former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was overshadowed last night by a signal from President Putin that he is unwilling to abandon his hold over the neighboring Russian regime.
Ukraine finds itself on the new ideological fissure line dividing East and West following the collapse of the Soviet Union and constantly feels the brooding presence of Russia on its eastern border.
Mr. Putin, who has used Russia's oil wealth to reignite many of the anti-Western passions of the Cold War, made clear that when he stands down as president at the election in March, he is prepared to head the government of the United Russia Party, a prospect he considers "entirely realistic."
The hopes of President Yushchenko of Ukraine of settling once and for all whether his country is to embrace the West wholeheartedly by joining the World Trade Organization and speeding up its integration into the European Union remained uncertain, however, despite the ringing endorsement voters gave to the pro-Western parties, his Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense Bloc, which won 15% of the vote, and Mrs. Tymoshenko's Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko, gaining 31.91%.
Mr. Yushchenko's archrival, Viktor Yanukovych, who leads the pro-Russian Party of Regions, which won 32.45% of the vote, said he could still stitch together a majority in the Ukrainian Parliament by doing deals with small parties, including the communists. "We won, and I am convinced that we will again form a government of national trust and unity," he said.
The country now faces weeks of political infighting, behind the scenes machinations, and accusations of vote rigging tested in the courts.
Supporters of Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004, which ousted Mr. Yanukovych from the presidency after days of street demonstrations in Kiev amid allegations of widespread voter fraud, were confident that Mr. Yushchenko would today invite his former partner in power, Ms. Tymoshenko, to form a coalition government in concert with his own party.
"I believe no one can diminish or deny the victory Ukraine has scored," Ms. Tymoshenko said yesterday. "Everything will work out. In a matter of weeks we will hold our first government news conference."
The news from Moscow of Mr. Putin's reluctance to retire gracefully after eight years in the Kremlin quickly cast a pall over the new wave of optimism in Ukraine. Mr. Putin has allowed his name to head the United Russia ticket without joining its ranks, which under Russia's proportional representation list system will guarantee him a seat in Russia's lower house of Parliament, the Duma.
His election as a member of Parliament, however, could be merely a prelude to his return to power, this time as prime minister. "As far as heading the government is concerned, this is quite a realistic suggestion, but it is still too early to think about it," Mr. Putin told a United Party congress yesterday.
Earlier this year Mr. Putin explored the possibility of extending his period as president, which the Russian constitution limits to two four-year terms, but he appears to have settled on a new gambit. He may well cede powers from the presidency to the premiership before he leaves office, therefore setting himself up as the beneficiary of a new powerful office of the prime minister.
Mr. Putin's robust approach to the West has helped him maintain high popularity figures, with 80% approving in recent polls, which in turn makes him a powerful political force. United Russia currently holds two-thirds of the seats in the Duma, and with Mr. Putin as its unofficial leader it can be expected to maintain its dominating presence after the December elections.
Mr. Putin's announcement yesterday also offers an explanation for why he elevated his loyal but weak ally Viktor Zubkov to the premiership last month. If Mr. Zubkov puts himself forward as Mr. Putin's preferred presidential candidate in March, Mr. Putin will retain control of Russia by having switched roles.
The continuation of Mr. Putin at the top of Russian politics is hardly welcome in some quarters of Ukraine. He has openly supported Mr. Yanukovych, whose party support comes from the eastern and southern areas of the country, inhabited largely by Russian speakers.
Last year Mr. Putin showed his displeasure at events in Ukraine by shutting off the supply of Russian gas, seen in the West as an indication that Russia will use all the resources at its disposal to ensure the compliance of its neighbors, and a warning to the European Union, which is dependent on Russian gas, that he is prepared to use energy as a weapon in any dispute with the West.
Ms. Tymoshenko showed little indication that she is prepared to kowtow to Mr. Putin, conspicuously taking a congratulatory telephone call from one of Mr. Putin's enemies, Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili. As a precaution, however, she was also quick to announce yesterday that as prime minister she intended to maintain "well-balanced and friendly relations" with Russia.