By Ilya Khineyko
It seems that the two neighbors do not have much time for each other at the moment. Russia is trying to deflect criticism over her stance in international affairs and human rights record at the G-8 summit in Germany. Meanwhile, Ukraine is at the beginning of a new election campaign and trying to recover from a prolonged political crisis. That is why Viktor Yushchenko’s insistence that “Ukraine has not done anything to complicate Ukrainian-Russian relations” is slightly surprising. However, given recent developments an escalation of tensions between the two countries does indeed seem probable.
On June 4 Vladimir Putin opined the lamentable state of democracy in Ukraine. The self-described “last pure democrat” told an assembled group of Russian and foreign journalists that the “Ukrainian lads [khloptsy]” had disappointed him and that Ukraine was descending into “total tyranny” due to “the flagrant violations of the Constitution and of all the laws.” (Full translation of Putin’s remarks on Ukraine can be found here)
Viktor Yushchenko’s statement was not, however, a reaction to Putin’s derisive remark but rather a reference to an incident in St. Petersburg involving Mykola Zhulynsky, head of Ukraine’s presidential commission for citizenship and chief of the council for culture, who was denied entry to Russia on June 6. The incident occurred after Ukraine had barred a well-known Russian intellectual figure and leader of the pro-Kremlin nationalist Union of the Eurasian Youth, Aleksandr Dugin, from visiting the city of Simferopol in the Crimea. According to the Russian ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin, who stressed that he was not consulted, “[the decision to deny entry to Zhulynsky] did look like a payback.” Although in the recent past Ukraine has denied entry to a number of Russian public figures, such as Konstantin Zatulin and Gleb Pavlovsky, Russia has rarely resorted to such swift, and seemingly arbitrary, retaliatory measures. Ukrainian observers have pointed out that while Aleksandr Dugin is well known for his incendiary attitudes towards the Ukrainian state, Mykola Zhulynsky is much more moderate figure whose visit to Russia was a completely private matter.
The timing of this diplomatic spat appears quite significant if one takes into account the larger picture. Ten years ago, on May 31, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma signed the so called Grand Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and Ukraine, which is set to expire this year. Although prolongation of the treaty seems very likely, the two sides have been engaged in negotiations regarding its various aspects, including the status of the Russian Black See Fleet in Crimea. Recently, Russia refused to abide by a Ukrainian court decision to bring under Ukraine’s jurisdiction a radio-navigation station in Kherson oblast, declaring that it was a matter for international law. The term of the lease for the Russian naval base in Sevastopol expires in 2017 and the Russian side would likely try to extend it.
This issue, however, seems a minor point of contention compared to the dramatic event in energy relations. The Ukrainian news portal Glavred has published a leaked draft of a document that purports a radical change in the rules of Russian-Ukrainian gas trade in favor of Russia. Glavred points out that according to the document Russia would effectively monopolize gas transit through Ukrainian territory until 2030 by issuing guarantees for the transit a certain amount of Russian gas annually. Also, it would allow Russia to treat the issues of transit and supply rates separately, contrary to the previously expressed insistence of the Ukrainian side that they should always be discussed together. Possibly the publication of this document was engineered by those in the Ukrainian halls of power who want to ensure that such plans never become reality. In this case, no such document may actually exist. However, regardless of the veracity of such plans, it seems increasingly likely that this summer might be marked not only by an election campaign but also by important developments in Ukrainian-Russian relations during the upcoming summit in St. Petersburg.