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Analysis & Opinion
25.08.08 Who Is Not With Us, Is Against Us
By Roland Oliphant

While the echo of this war has reverberated all throughout the former Soviet space and the CIS, nowhere has the fallout been felt as strongly as in Ukraine. The obvious parallels with Georgia in its troubled relations with Moscow (rulers brought to power by a “colored revolution,” aspirant to NATO and EU membership, a large Russian speaking population, potentially explosive tensions with Russia over Crimea and Sevastopol) have made it a center of attention. Unlike Georgia, however, in Ukraine the conflict in the Caucasus has proved a catalyst for division rather than unity.

Yushchenko was quick to show solidarity with Georgia, flying to Tbilisi to be photographed alongside Mikheil Saakashvili and threatening not to allow ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which took part in operations off the Georgian coast, to return to their base at Sevastopol. Meanwhile, say Yushchenko’s supporters, his prime minister and former orange revolution ally Julia Tymoshenko has been suspiciously silent. So silent that some in the president’s camp accused the prime minister of “betraying the national interest.” Later, Yushchenko’s deputy chief of staff Andriy Kislynsky made more specific allegations: seeking Russian support in the 2009 Ukrainian presidential elections in exchange for taking a passive position on Georgia.

The accusations may or may not be based on fact. Kislynsky said materials were being passed to the state prosecutor’s office that would prove Tymoshenko’s treason, but as Andrew Wilson, senior fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations cautioned, “Ukraine has a grand tradition of black PR.” Either way, the linking of Tymoshenko’s betrayal with the election is revealing. The rivalry between president and prime minister has a long history, and it is no secret that both are focusing on next year’s presidential race. “Of course it is Yushchenko’s ambition to be president for a second term, and Tymoshenko’s ambition to become president too. And these accusations about Tymoshenko’s contacts with Russia – it’s not serious,” said Marcin Wociechowski, an expert on Ukraine for the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza daily and former member of the Polish-Ukrainian committee.

The focus on the presidency offers another explanation for Tymoshenko’s apparent reticence. “She has done the same thing before on other NATO issues, for the very understandable reason of where her electorate is and where she wants to expand it. She’s the single Ukrainian politician best placed to bridge regional divides – particularly between the nationalist west and the largely Russian speaking south,” said Wilson. Taking a “carefully nuanced position” on Georgia and other issues likely to rile Russia or Ukraine’s Russian population thus makes political sense.

Despite Kislynsky’s accusations that Tymoshenko’s pragmatism has finally crossed “the boundary where political battles end and the betrayal of national interests begins,” there is a sense that behind the public acrimony, the war in Georgia has actually scared Ukraine’s elite into pushing for NATO membership even harder.

“I think before the Georgian war, Tymoshenko was sceptical about joining NATO,” said Wociechowski. “But after the war, her advisors said Ukraine can no longer be in this zone of insecurity between the East and the West. That suggests she is finally for joining NATO.”

“On balance,” agreed Wilson, “It seems to have pushed things in that direction. Depending, of course, on the other side of the coin: are NATO and the European Union prepared to offer slightly more?” At a NATO summit in Bucharest in April the alliance promised Ukraine membership at an unspecified future date. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko will now be looking for something more concrete.

That would be a significant shift. Caught between the pro-Western sentiments of its elite and the more pro-Russian sympathies of much of the general public (not to mention dependency on Russian gas), Ukraine has traditionally trodden a careful path between East and West. But with the war in Georgia, said Wociechowski, “the era of two vectors in Ukrainian foreign policy is over.”

It is not clear, though, how the Russian vector will be closed. Ukraine still relies on Russian gas, and is vulnerable to other levers of Russian influence. Other measures, such as Yushchenko’s decree demanding prior notification of movements of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, may prove not only unworkable but also counterproductive. Following the decree, Russian ships nevertheless returned to Sevastopol from operations off Georgia, apparently unhindered. As Wilson pointed out, that has given rise to the fear in some quarters that “Ukraine might be worse off having drawn attention to the fact that it can’t actually control the movements of the Black Sea Fleet.”

Actually, there is some evidence that both sides understand that their room for maneuvres is limited. “Yushchenko may not have been quite as carefully nuanced, but what he said in Tbilisi on the 12th was more solidarity with Georgia than direct criticism of Russia,” Wilson noted. Waclaw Radziwinowcz, Kiev-based correspondent for Gazeta Wybrcza who was in Tbilisi at the time, said that Yushchenko behaved visibly more cautiously than Polish President Lech Kaczynski. “He let Kaczynski make the cruder statements,” he said.

That common moderation seems to belie the claims, implicit in the recent accusations against Tymoshenko, of a great policy gulf between her and the president. It also underlines the difficulties of Ukraine’s position.

While the hands of the Ukrainian leaders are thus bound by current realities, much will depend on how far Russia is prepared to go to stop it from entering NATO. Moscow has plenty of potential levers. The continued presence of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol is one. NATO countries may not host non-NATO military bases, and the impotence of Yushchenko’s decree has revealed just how difficult it will be to evict the Russian fleet.

But the lease on Sevastopol only runs until 2017, and Yushchenko, at least, says he will not renew it. That may prompt the Kremlin to look for other measures. A particularly ruthless Russia could challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty over the historically Russian (and largely Russian populated) Crimean peninsula. Pronouncements by prominent Russian politicians, including the mayor of Moscow, about the “unresolved” status of Sevastopol have already stoked tensions.

Then there is the gas. Russia famously turned off the taps in 2005, and Ukrainian politicians remain acutely aware of their reliance on subsidized Russian energy. Gazprom has been loudly announcing its intention to charge world prices to all its formerly subsidized CIS clients since last year, making gas a particularly touchy subject in Kiev (both sides have fallen foul of this. In 2006, Yushchenko was connected with RosUkrEnergo and an unfavorable gas deal with Russia; last week another Yushchenko staffer, Alexander Shapak, accused Tymoshenko of entering into a “gas conspiracy” with Moscow – under which price rises would be delayed until after the election).

It is unclear how far Russia will go in using any of these tools, but as long as Ukraine’s leaders are determined to join NATO, it is likely that it will use them to some extent. “For Moscow they are the same,” said Wociechowski. “Except Tymoshenko is much smarter than Yushchenko. She will do it with less aggressive rhetoric.” That may be unfair, but whoever becomes Ukraine’s next president (and at this point polls suggest that it will be Tymoshenko) they will need every ounce of guile he or she can muster to navigate Ukraine out of the “insecurity zone.”
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