Tony Halpin in Moscow
The Kremlin has wasted no time in embracing Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President-elect, even before he has been sworn in.
President Medvedev issued an invitation to the conqueror of the pro-Western Orange revolution to visit Moscow in which he called the election victory a demonstration of Ukraine’s desire “to end the historically doomed attempts to sow discord between the people of our countries”.
Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, has already proposed greater “integration” of Ukraine into the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Viktor Yushchenko, the outgoing President, showed little enthusiasm for this Russian-dominated group of former Soviet republics, preferring to seek integration with Nato and the European Union.
Yuliya Tymoshenko, Mr Yushchenko’s former Orange ally, is determined to challenge her defeat in the presidential poll, alleging widespread ballot fraud. But the rest of the world has accepted the outcome and Mr Yanukovych’s inauguration is set for February 25.
On the face of it, the Kremlin’s Orange nightmare is ending and Russia has achieved its goal of restoring a sphere of “privileged interests” in the region despite the West’s insistence that there is no such thing. Yet Mr Putin remains oddly nervous of the Ukrainian example.
After the first round of voting last month, when 18 candidates competed in an election hailed for its fairness by international observers, Mr Putin told top government officials that there should be no “Ukrainianisation of political life in Russia”.
He was making a gibe at the deadlock and division that have characterised Ukrainian politics since the 2004 revolution. Where he sees chaos, however, others see democracy, with the balance of political forces accurately reflecting the division of opinion across the country.
That Ukraine is split between its partly Catholic, pro-European west and its largely Orthodox, pro-Russian east is no surprise. The divide was clear in the presidential election, with Mr Yanukovych winning overwhelmingly in the east and Mrs Tymoshenko doing best in the west.
The average voter has accepted that their bitter contest ended with a narrow victory for Mr Yanukovych. Disputes will continue to be aired vigorously on television, where there is genuine free speech, and people remain free to make their voice heard in street protests.
There will be much symbolism attached if Mr Yanukovych makes Moscow his first foreign destination as President, but he will arrive at the Kremlin as the leader of a democracy. He will face far greater public scrutiny and political pressure at home than anything his hosts are used to.
So Mr Yanukovych is contaminated with the “Orange virus” because, unlike Mr Putin, he cannot govern by diktat. If he fails to deliver on agreements, he will have to explain that it is because there is too much political opposition, an alien concept in the Kremlin.
The Kremlin may embrace Mr Yanukovych as one of its own, but the more Russia engages with Ukraine, the greater the contrast between political freedoms in Moscow and Kiev. Amid growing signs that Russians are unhappy with their politicians, Mr Putin may have reason to be nervous about Ukraine after all.