Divided nation is its own worst enemy in countering Russia


by David Marples, Special to Kyiv Post
Sep 03 2008, 23:31

Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations may signal the demise of Georgia. It also raises serious questions about future relations with Ukraine.

That threat cannot be dismissed as fanciful or far­fetched as in the past. Russia’s foreign policy in what it calls its “near abroad” has changed dramatically in the past month. Borders are no longer sacrosanct, and Russia has not hesitated to use its monopoly of gas supplies to Ukraine as a political weapon in the past. Ukraine is not blind to the new situation, but it is, in many respects, unprepared for the different forms of potential conflict.

The critical area is Crimea and, in particular, the port of Sevastopol. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko refused to extend the lease on the port to the Russian Black Sea fleet beyond 2017, he ignited a new conflict with the northern neighbor. Yushchenko has also demanded that the annual rent Russia pays for its two bases, $98 million, be increased significantly.

Last month in Sevastopol, there was a substantial protest of ethnic Russian members of the Russian Bloc, the most powerful political party on the peninsula. Led by Vladimir Tyunin, they were demanding that Crimea become part of the Russian Federation.

That demand is hardly new. In the early 1990s, former Crimean president Yuri Meshkov ignited a similar movement and promised a referendum on the issue. The Ukrainian government acted firmly to quell the separatists and abolished the post of Crimean president.

Rumors abound that Russia is issuing passports to the majority group of ethnic Russians, just as it did to South Ossetians and Abkhazians in Georgia. Prominent Russian statespersons, including Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, frequently visit Sevastopol and demand that it be returned to Russia.

Added to the mix are the Crimean Tatars, deported by Josef Stalin in 1944-­45, but permitted to return under Gorbachev and now comprising about one­sixth of the population. The relationship between the Tatars and the government in Kyiv is amicable, but relations with Russians who own most of the former Tatar lands and property are volatile.

In 2004, when the Orange Revolution took place, eventually bringing Yushchenko into office, two regions of Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk – threatened to leave Ukraine with support from Russia. The two regions, centers of the coal, steel and chemicals industries, provided overwhelming support to the candidacy of former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych. They have large populations of ethnic Russians comprising majorities in the major cities.

Since the population as a whole is Russian speaking, there is no ethnic tension. But the Regions Party, which dominates eastern Ukraine, has a radically different perception of the country than the Orange parties currently in office. It is backed by Ukraine’s richest and most powerful oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, and supports warm relations with Russia and close ties with the European Union, while strongly opposing Ukraine’s request to join NATO and Yushchenko’s support for Georgia.

After Russia’s brutal defeat of Georgian forces, both Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko visited the Donbas (to Donetsk and Luhansk respectively). They were not co­ordinated visits, but the timing seemed notable. Both leaders wished to ensure that they have a voice in a formerly hostile voting area.

Today, the key issue is the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have indicated that they are prepared to revise formerly recognized borders. The Russian government is willing to support and sow disaffection in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, as well as in the Prydnistrova region of Moldova.

However, Ukraine tends to be its own worst enemy. Though its government has requested NATO membership, most residents oppose it. The Regions Party insists that no membership can take place without a referendum, the result of which hitherto has been a foregone conclusion.

Despite two recent elections, the Ukrainian parliament is so badly divided that it could not even pass the 2008 budget before the summer recess. Yushchenko has undermined every reform initiative of Tymoshenko. In turn, the ruling Orange coalition’s majority is down to two seats.

Perhaps most revealing of Ukraine’s predicament is the low standing in the polls of the president and his party. A poll conducted between Aug. 8 and 24 found that, had a parliamentary election been held at that time, 23.4 percent of respondents would have backed the Tymoshenko Bloc and 20.3 per cent the Regions Party. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and People’s Self­Defense Coalition and the Communists had 4.6 percent.

In terms of the popularity of the potential presidential candidates for the 2010 election, Tymoshenko leads with 24 per cent, followed by Yanukovych with 20. Yushchenko’s 7 percent makes him the least popular leader in Europe at a time when Ukraine’s economy is as strong as it has ever been.

Ukraine’s politicians need to focus on priorities. A coalition government to ensure internal unity seems to be a logical first step. Yushchenko cannot lead Ukraine without public support as the country enters its 18th and most critical year of independence.

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About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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