KIEV, UKRAINE—The apparent victory of Russia’s preferred candidate in the Ukrainian presidential race may be a relief to Vladimir V. Putin, who has long sought to discredit his neighbor’s raucous democracy and its drift to the West.
But it comes with a catch: The election won by the candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovich, was highly competitive, unpredictable and relatively fair — just the kind of major contest that has not been held in Russia since Putin, the prime minister, consolidated power.
On Monday, for example, European election monitors praised Sunday’s election, calling it an “impressive display” of democracy.
Ukraine’s election, in other words, did not follow the Kremlin blueprint and, if anything, seemed to highlight the flaws in the system in Russia. As such, it presented a kind of alternative model for the former Soviet Union.
The official tally released Monday showed that the opposition leader, Yanukovich, defeated Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko by three percentage points, giving him a comeback from his loss in the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Tymoshenko helped spearhead the Orange Revolution, which first brought Western-style democracy to Ukraine. While her defeat might indicate a rejection of the revolution, the fact that the country carried out a contentious presidential election that was widely considered fair suggests that the Orange legacy has endured.
Olexiy Haran, professor of comparative politics at Kiev Mohyla University, said that many Ukrainians were disappointed in the Orange Revolution, given the political tumult of recent years, but they nonetheless appreciate what it has sown.
“Ukrainians did not gain much of what they were promised in the social or economic spheres in 2004, but at the same time, they are enjoying democracy,” Haran said. “They can criticize, they can watch television political talk shows with enthusiasm. They have real choices.”
The Ukrainian model may have particular resonance now with recent rumblings of discontent in Russia. Late last month, anti-government demonstrations in Kaliningrad, a region in western Russia physically separate from the rest of the country, drew thousands of people and seemed to catch the Kremlin off guard. Some protesters chanted for Putin’s resignation, complaining about higher taxes and an economy weakened by the financial crisis.
And last week, a prominent politician from what had been perceived as a puppet opposition party unexpectedly turned on the Kremlin and lashed out at Putin’s domestic policies. “Is opposition and criticism dishonest?” said the politician, Sergey Mironov. “In a civilized society, this is the duty and goal of the opposition.”
It is highly unlikely that Russia will soon have Ukrainian-style openness. The question is, what will be the long-term impact across the former Soviet Union if Ukraine can follow its successful election with a relatively peaceful transition to a Yanukovich administration?