PROSPECTS FOR ‘PUTINISM’ IN UKRAINE


David Marples and Myroslava Uniat

Late July and early August provided examples of the application of “Putinism” in Ukraine: a foreign policy based on a combination of rudeness and pressure. The Russian president made a visit to Kyiv, which was calculated to bring to heel Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych and dissuade Ukraine from signing the Association Agreement with the European Union at the November summit in Vilnius.

Vladimir Putin’s diplomacy is sometimes skillful and calculated. But with regard to Ukraine, it appears crude and blinkered. It failed manifestly in 2004 when he tried to influence the Ukrainian presidential elections, on the eve of the Orange Revolution. In the 2010 elections he was more careful. But today he appears to have reverted to his former policy of overt pressure and persuasion, now accompanied by a contemptuous attitude to his Ukrainian counterpart Yanukovych.

Putin visited Kyiv on July 27 and 28, and behaved like a headmaster dealing with errant pupils.. Ostensibly, he came to take part in the celebrations of the 1025th anniversary of Kyivan Rus’, along with Russian Patriarch Kirill I, a man who frequently delves into secular affairs—in 2010, for example, he effusively congratulated Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka for his electoral victory, despite its electoral improprieties. Putin and Kiril emphasized Slavic unity and the common past of the East Slavic nations. The celebrations culminated with a visit to the Kyevo Pechers’ka Lavra monastery and a procession carrying the cross of St. Andrew, the Apostle of Jesus Christ believed to have introduced Christianity to Eastern Europe (http://rt.com/news/russia-ukraine-christianity-celebrations-670/).

Also in Kyiv, the Russian president attended a round-table conference entitled “Orthodox-Slavic Values: the Foundation of Civilized Choice of Ukraine” (http://ura-inform.com/ru/society/2013/08/01/argumenty-i-fakty-putin-i-medvedchuk-schitajut-chto-soglashenie-s-es-ne-smozhet) organized by the Ukrainian Choice Movement, led by Viktor Medvedchuk, the former head of the presidential administration for Leonid Kuchma. A powerful oligarch, Medvedchuk supports Ukraine joining the Common Economic Space customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakkhstan. He is an active opponent of the Association Agreement with the EU.

While Putin’s presence at the conference was not entirely unexpected, it contrasted with his peremptory chat with Ukrainian president Yanukovych. The bilateral meeting between the two presidents lasted for only fifteen minutes and contained only platitudes on the part of Putin about a common motherland and past cooperation (http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2013/07/27/6995061/). Former Regions Party deputy Taras Chornovil feels that Putin’s presence at the meeting organized by Medvedchuk indicates his aversion to dealing with the Ukrainian president, who is “a nobody” to him. In Chornovil’s opinion, such behavior was more likely to push Ukraine toward the EU than herald a return to the Russian camp (http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2013/08/8/6995688/).

The celebrations were marked by dissension. Members of the Svoboda Party protested the visit of the two Russian leaders, as did Femen, whose leader Anna Hutsol received a savage beating from a man in a Kyiv cafe on this same day, the latest of several attacks on members of the protest group over the course of the week. Yanukovych’s speech appeared defensive and he seemed irritated that the guests would use a spiritual occasion for political purposes: “We will not allow the use of churches and religious organizations by some political powers to serve their own narrow interests” (http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-russia-belarus-moldova-serbia-kievan rus/25058270.html).

The following day, the Kyiv Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church organized its own commemoration with a procession and prayer service on St. Volodymyr’s Hill and the Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret encapsulated the event as follows: “Yesterday at this location the Patriarch of the Moscow Orthodox Church prayed for the leaders and representatives of the government, and today the Kyiv Patriarchate gathers to pray for the Ukrainian people” (http://www.pravda.com.ua/inozmi/svoboda/2013/07/30/6995198/). The implication was clear: the event attended by Putin and Kirill had little to do with Ukraine and Ukrainians.

Russia’s response was prompt. On July 29, Russia placed a ban on imports of Ukrainian chocolate, affecting four “Roshen” factories owned by the pro-European oligarch and former foreign minister Petro Poroshenko (http://www.pravda.com.ua/inozmi/svoboda/2013/07/30/6995198/). On August 8, the ban was expanded to all Roshen confectionary, along with cheese, reportedly because of the antibiotics contained in Ukrainian products. As pointed out in one report, however, Russian factories owned by the same cheese producers were operating as normal (http://economics.unian.net/rus/news/174269-chem-zakonchatsya-ukrainsko-rossiyskie-torgovyie-voynyi.html).

The Russian measures seem blatantly political in nature. They are reminiscent of the 2009 ban on Belarusian dairy products at a time when Belarus resisted deeper integration with Russia (http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=35386#.Ugfu2WSk9Q0). This is not to say, however, that Russia has no leeway. Despite the failure of “Putinism” and its overt pressure on this occasion, other problems may lie ahead for the Ukrainian leaders. Support for the Russian-led Customs Union is evident in some quarters, in addition to the above-mentioned Medvedchuk and his Ukraine’s Choice movement. The Communist Party of Ukraine can be expected to provide solid backing, but more important, pro-Russian factions within the Regions Party are also emerging—they comprise a majority of around 57% (http://www.interfax.co.uk/ukraine-news/poll-42-of-ukrainians-support-entry-to-eu-31-prefer-customs-union/).

One such supporter, Regions’ deputy and Dnipropetrovsk businessman Oleh Tsar’ov, declared in an interview with the American Forbes magazine that in his view the six points of the EU Association Agreement are in conflict with the Constitution of Ukraine and that theoretically a group of Regions’ deputies could appeal to the Constitutional Court concerning its legality. In addition the Customs Union would provide important benefits, including loans to offset Ukraine’s substantial budget deficit (now at $2.7 billion) and offset the costs of expensive energy imports. Tsar’ov also noted that Russia previously had expressed willingness to create a reserve fund of $15 billion for Ukraine if it rejected the EU package and created a consortium with Russia. Further, if the Ukrainians went ahead and signed the agreement in Vilnius, Russia would impose a total ban on Ukrainian products prior to the 2015 presidential elections (http://www.unian.net/news/588064-v-pr-zayavlyayut-chto-shest-punktov-soglasheniya-s-es-protivorechat-konstitutsii.html).

Tsar’ov’s comments demonstrate that opinion in Ukraine is divided on its future direction. Its leaders can reject outright the bullying of Putin and Kirill—it is difficult to refer to their visit in any other terms. They can also use the Association Agreement as a means to increase their fading popularity. On the other hand, the economic situation poses serious concerns. Tsar’ov correctly noted Ukraine’s lack of GDP growth, and its dire need for loans. In his view also, there is no guarantee that under the agreement’s terms, the EU would open up its markets to Ukrainian products (http://www.unian.net/news/588064-v-pr-zayavlyayut-chto-shest-punktov-soglasheniya-s-es-protivorechat-konstitutsii.html).

Putin’s visit to Ukraine has demonstrated the official Russian view: Ukraine faces a choice between two options and that it can no longer choose a middle route between them. Putin perceives Ukraine as a neighbor of common heritage, and with the same spiritual and historical roots. But more important he needs Ukraine as a geo-strategic partner firmly in the Russian orbit. Thus far his policies have had little impact. But he has some powerful economic weapons at his disposal and, equally significant, support from some influential oligarchs in the Ukrainian parliament.

Yanukovych in turn faces several dilemmas. He cannot afford to alienate Russia completely. He is under pressure from prominent Europeans to free former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, most recently from the Chairman of the European Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs Elmar Brok, who has called the latter’s sentence an example of selective justice (http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2013/08/6/6995552/). And he must fend off critiques from within his own party members who favor closer integration with Russia.

To date his strategy has been to support the Association Agreement while keeping doors open to Russia and strengthening internal control over Ukraine. It has worked in part, but the economic downturn and the deteriorating relationship with Russia, as well as the personal coolness toward him of Putin, suggest that its days are numbered.

About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

One comment

  1. Pingback: Ukrainian Independence and the Tricky 22nd | It's about Ukraine, Russia... (mostly)

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