With most of the ballots counted, Viktor Yanukovich, who lost the election in 2004 as the Orange Revolution captivated the world, will likely be the winner of the presidential election in Ukraine. In a new Q&A, Mark Medish assesses the significance of the results and how Yanukovich’s presidency will influence Ukraine’s relations with Russia and the West. Medish believes that the “biggest risk for Ukraine's independence and security is a continuation of divided government and policy paralysis.”

What is the significance of Viktor Yanukovich’s declared victory in Ukraine’s presidential election? After eventually losing in 2004, how was Yanukovich able to comeback and win this election?

The comeback is far less dramatic than suggested by recent Western media coverage. Far from being rusticated after the controversial 2004 ballot, Yanukovich has remained a major player on the Ukrainian political scene. It is worth remembering that Yanukovich became prime minister for the second time in late 2006—in cooperation with his former rival President Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovich's Party of Regions has done well in general elections (for example 2006) and enjoys a solid plurality in the Rada (parliament).

Tensions ran high during the final days of the election. What is the likelihood of post-election protests?

The presidential run-off was much closer than Yanukovich's camp expected and the close result is surely tantalizing for Yulia Tymoshenko. However, absent independent findings on ballot rigging, it is hard to see how she could prevail either in the courts or on the streets. To the contrary, given all the negative history in 2004, it is impressive that Ukraine conducted free and fair presidential elections in 2010.

What will Yulia Tymoshenko do next? Will she stay on as prime minister?

Under the Ukrainian constitution, there is no automatic connection between presidential and general elections. Tymoshenko remains prime minister. It is safe to assume that Yanukovich will seek to consolidate his party's electoral position in the parliament. This means he will seek new coalition support for his program in the current Rada. Failing such cooperation, he could call new Rada elections this spring.

In 2004, the leaders of the Orange Revolution pledged democratic reforms and closer ties with the West, but the government has been mired in infighting and unable to tackle corruption. What ended the promise of the Orange Revolution?

The Orange Revolution has a decidedly mixed report card. On one hand, it stood for “people power" and for a decisive popular protest against the corruption and mediocrity of the country's political class since the fall of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the "revolution" failed to deliver systematic institutional change. Perhaps most striking was the fact that most of the key leaders of the Orange movement, including Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, had served in the previous governments. Indeed, there were very few fresh faces.

In the end, the bitter personal infighting that soon developed between the Yushchenko and Tymoshenko camps robbed the Orange Revolution of its chances to cement a progressive legacy for Ukraine. This is a tragic story of self-inflicted wounds. Nevertheless, Ukraine is a more mature democracy for having gone through the Orange boom and bust.

How will the results impact Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and its relationship with the West?

Ukraine's Western orientation should remain strong. Ukraine is historically and culturally part of Europe, albeit Europe's East. At the same time, Ukraine also has strong Russian-oriented identities. A tactical error of the Orange period was, in a sense, to put status over standards. Thus rapid NATO membership was seen as more important than substantive security cooperation, which does not require membership. The push for membership helped turn Russia into an active opponent. 

In the coming period, the United States and European Union should redouble bilateral and coordinated efforts to engage with Ukraine on a broad range of issues on a long-term basis, foremost trade expansion, investment promotion, and support for key economic reforms. Support for Ukraine will be an early test of post-Lisbon EU "neighborhood" policy. 

During the campaign Yanukovich tried to demonstrate his independence from Moscow. How will relations with Russia change under new leadership?

Ukrainian leaders have consistently seen their country's interests in avoiding false choices between the West and Russia and therefore balancing the two. Yanukovich can be expected to avoid unnecessary antagonism vis-à-vis Moscow. Much will depend in turn on the Kremlin's response.

A reduction of tension over issues such as gas transit agreements and Russia's Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol would give Ukraine breathing space to move forward with much-needed economic reforms. But if Moscow overplays its hand, Ukraine will be plunged into further paralysis and possibly instability, which is in nobody's interest.

How will the incoming president address the country’s economic problems?

Yanukovich has signaled his commitment to resume the suspended $17 billion (USD) program with the International Monetary Fund, which foundered in late 2009 due mostly to persistent conflicts between the Tymoshenko government and President Yushchenko, whose camp has dominated the central bank and blocked cooperation in the Rada. Following through on this commitment is essential for Ukraine to get back on a GDP growth track. 

Among other things, Ukraine must resolve its banking sector crisis in an orderly, responsible fashion and move forward with energy sector restructuring. The biggest risk for Ukraine's independence and security is a continuation of divided government and policy paralysis.