By Ilya Khineyko
Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, the first leader of the post-Soviet Russia, passed away on Monday, April 23. Political leaders around the world paid their tributes to the deceased Russian leader, stressing the key role he played in the demise of communism as well as his subsequent efforts to bring about a market economy and democratic reforms in Russia. Both, Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko have sent letters of sympathy to the current president, Vladimir Putin, and Yeltsin’s family. Leonid Kuchma also issued a statement of condolences. The spirit of their messages did not differ substantially from the sentiments expressed by other politicians as Kuchma praised Yeltsin’s commitment to democratic change while Yanukovych and Yuschenko called Yeltsin “a great statesman.” However, it seems that to many Russians and some foreign observers, Yeltsin’s legacy is mixed and will remain a subject of vigorous debate for the foreseeable future. Yeltsin has been criticized, even hated, by those who blamed him for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Russia’s prestige on the international scene, as well as the cruel nature of Russian economic reforms in the 90s. Further, liberal critics of Yeltsin have pointed out that his commitment to democracy was a dubious one. They point out that it was Yeltsin who laid the foundations of the system of oligarchic capitalism, which bequeathed the more authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin, his official successor. Russia’s relationship with Ukraine is a relatively small party of his legacy. Yet, in many ways Yeltsin’s attitude towards the Ukrainian question reflects the ambiguities of his rule as a whole.
It would be an exaggeration to proclaim that Yeltsin was a friend of Ukraine. His acceptance of Ukrainian independence was more of a pragmatic nature. A savvy politician he was determined not to follow the path of Slobodan Milosevic in an attempt to forcibly bring the breakaway republics, such as Ukraine, back to the fold. Yet, Yeltsin’s participation in the Belovezha agreement in 1991 troubled him throughout his presidency. He felt tremendous guilt for the fact that it was under his watch that Russian ‘lost’ Ukraine and Belarus. Russia’s active participation in the Commonwealth of Independent States and especially the tireless and mostly futile efforts to create a Union of Russia and Belarus were the way to assuage this guilt. Thus, in many ways Yeltsin would always remain hostage to the Russian imperial sentiment, which was becoming especially powerful towards the end of his rule. Paraphrasing Yulia Tymoshenko’s words from her upcoming Foreign Affairs manifesto, Yeltsin was certainly not the ruler who could make Russia “concentrate on the development of her own territory.” At the same time, on many occasions Yeltsin demonstrated his categorical rejections of overtly expansionist moves towards Ukraine that could have turned the post-Soviet space into another Yugoslavia. When his own press secretary, Pavel Voshchanov, publicly declared that in the wake of independence declarations by other Soviet republics, Russia was reserving the right to raise the border issue. Yeltsin was quick to denounce him and sent Vice-President Rutskoy to Kyiv in order to reassure Leonid Kravchuk that Russia had no intention of opening a Pandora’s Box of territorial disputes.
In the first post-independent years, the most serious threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity came in the form of a pro-Russian separatist movement in Crimea. Although, Russian public opinion was uniformly in favor of Crimean irredentism, Yeltsin refused to support it, which eventually enabled Leonid Kuchma to defeat the Crimean separatists led by Crimean president Yuri Meshkov (who subsequently was forced to resign) and make the peninsula a de-facto Ukrainian territory in 1995. Skeptics have pointed out that Russia’s lack of support for the Crimean separatists was more a matter of political expediency. They argue that it would have been politically unfeasible for Russia to support the pro-Russian movement in Crimea while dealing with a separatist threat of its own in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. However, given that most Russians at the time would have enthusiastically supported such a move, it required some political backbone not to succumb to this temptation for an easy political gain. It should be remembered that in the second half of the 1990s Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov spearheaded a very public campaign against the Ukrainian status of the city of Sevastopol in an apparent effort to boost his presidential ambitions.
The division of the Black Sea Fleet was another contentious issue in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Ultimately, the two sides managed to work out a suitable compromise.
There is hardly any doubt that one of the most important accomplishments of the Yeltsin era was the fundamental Russian-Ukrainian Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership signed in May 1997. The Treaty’s most important provision was Article 2, which reaffirmed “the inviolability of the existing borders” between them. Yeltsin signed it in spite of some stiff opposition in the Communist-controlled Russian State Duma, which refused to ratify it for the next two years.
During the Yeltsin years, except for the Crimean issue, official Russia largely remained uninvolved in domestic Ukrainian affairs. Although during the 1994 presidential elections Russian political elites did not hide their enthusiasm for the candidacy of Leonid Kuchma, who was then perceived as a pro-Russian candidate, there is little evidence to suggest that Russia inferred in the Ukrainian electoral process. This of course stands a sharp contrast to the Russian behavior in 2004 when all imaginable political resources, including the popularity of Vladimir Putin, were thrown in support of Viktor Yanukovych.
Yet, Yeltsin’s legacy in Russian-Ukrainian relations has its down sides. Even during the first half of Yeltsin’s presidency when Russia’s relations with the West were still quite amicable, Russia vigorously opposed Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. After the fallout with West over the Kosovo conflict that opposition only stiffened and would be carried over to the Putin era. Perhaps, even more important is the fact that Yeltsin’s oligarchic capitalism reigned supreme in Russian-Ukrainian economic relations as well, particularly in the energy sector. The shady Rosukrenergo, which emerged in the outcome of the most recent Russian-Ukrainian energy dispute, can be considered a distant cousin of Itera, which similarly controlled Russian energy supplies to Ukraine during the Yeltsin era. Gas blackmail as an instrument of Russian foreign policy towards Ukraine was not invented by Putin. It was first practiced under Yeltsin in August of 1993 at the Massandra summit when Russia used the issue of energy debt to force Ukraine to agree to the Russian control over the Black Sea Fleet.
Looking back at the Yeltsin era one striking difference can be observed. Back then, Russia was perceived by many in the West to be further ahead on the path of democratic development and economic reforms than Ukraine. Since then, Russia and Ukraine have been following different roads. More than seven years after December 1999, when Yeltsin stepped down as Russian president, the situation seems to have been reversed. This is perhaps the most important historical lesson to be remembered.