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Analysis & Opinion
05.03.10 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Ukraine’s New President
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Anthony Salvia, Alexandre Strokanov, Igor Torbakov

Ukraine has just had a successful presidential election, choosing Viktor Yanukovich, the leader of the Party of the Regions, as its fourth president. He has promised to embrace relations with Europe while simultaneously renewing ties with Russia, but it is not clear how he will achieve this goal. What will be Ukraine’s foreign policy under president Yanukovich? How will he negotiate the intricate gas-transit relationship with Russia’s Gazprom? How far will Yanukovich move toward Russia? Will he seriously pursue economic integration projects with Russia, like joining the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space? Will he continue on a path toward Ukraine’s membership in the EU?

Yanukovich won by a very small margin, leading his rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, by slightly over three percent of the vote. He also won by garnering substantial majorities in just nine out of Ukraine’s 27 regions.

His victory once again demonstrated a clear regional division within Ukraine, with voters in eastern and southern parts of the country supporting Yanukovich and his Russia-friendly agenda, while voters in the western and central regions of the country voted overwhelmingly for Yulia Tymoshenko and her pro-European agenda.

Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko ran on a pledge to improve relations with Russia, which suffered serious disruptions due to president Yushchenko’s provocative policies.

But Yanukovich went much further than that, promising not to seek Ukraine’s membership in NATO, delegate to the regions the right to make the Russian language official, join the Customs Union or the Single Economic Space with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, privatize the Ukrainian natural gas transportation network with Russian participation, and even join Russia in building the Nord Stream gas pipeline.

All those promises undoubtedly helped secure the vote for Yanukovich in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, and thus proved crucial to his electoral victory. But they also limited his freedom to maneuver as president.
To succeed Yanukovich needs to unite the country behind his policies, and that means winning over western and central Ukraine by going slow on his pro-Russian agenda. But neither can he afford to alienate his electoral base in the east and the south by going wobbly on his promises to address the concerns of the Russian-speaking voters.
In one of his first interviews since the election Yanukovich said that he would not be a “Russian puppet” and will pursue policies that would put Ukraine’s interests first. As if to prove the point, Yanukovich made his first international trip as president to Brussels for meetings with the EU leaders. His visit to Moscow, on a personal invitation by President Dmitry Medvedev, came three days later.

What will be Ukraine’s foreign policy under President Yanukovich? How far will Yanukovich move toward Russia? Will he seriously pursue economic integration projects with Russia, like joining the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space, or will he just imitate such moves in order to negotiate preferential terms for Russian energy imports and market access for Ukrainian steel and other industrial products? Will he seek Russian financial support in clearing Ukraine’s financial mess and helping it service its ballooning external debt? Will he abandon the course toward NATO membership and solidify the national consensus behind a non-aligned status for Ukraine? What does he mean by endorsing Russian president Medvedev’s proposal for a new European Security Treaty? Will he continue on a path toward Ukraine’s membership in the EU, now that the European Parliament has just encouraged Ukraine to apply for it? How will he negotiate the intricate gas-transit relationship with Russia’s Gazprom? Will he open the Ukrainian gas transportation network to Russian and European investment? Will he be able to avoid the sporadic gas wars with Moscow? What will Yanukovich’s relationship with Washington be like?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

Forecasting is not my favorite activity due to the fact that historians are trained to talk about the past rather than the future. However, questions were asked and I will express my humble opinion on them.

First of all, anybody who is dealing with Ukraine, and especially anyone trying to lead Ukraine, must understand that in reality there are at least two countries: Western Ukraine, as well as Eastern and Southern Ukraine. This was proved again in the most recent elections, and it ties the hands of anybody who is trying to move sharply in one or another direction, orienting Ukraine in global politics.

However, even in those two culturally different parts of Ukraine people want to see a well functioning state, to have jobs in their towns and be able to maintain living standards at least on the level of what they had in the Soviet times.
When a leader is unable to provide them with this minimum they vote him out of office, as happened to former President Viktor Yushchenko. Almost all of Ukraine, or at least 94 percent of those who took part in the first round of the presidential elections, voted against him.

Yanukovich certainly understands this reality and will try to act better than his completely failed predecessor. “The Orange plague” killed itself due the fact that its leaders primarily focused on fights among themselves, which locked the country into a permanent political crisis and completely abandoned the economic modernization that the country needed most of all. Today the Soviet-era economic foundations of Ukraine have eroded to such a level that continuation of “Orange politics” could lead to the collapse of Ukraine as a state.

Already Yanukovich’s first step in power shows that he might be much more successful. I am talking about his plans to pass the issue of the status of the Russian language to the provincial level, where it really belongs, and which will greatly satisfy eastern and southern regions without really affecting western regions.

As for foreign policy, there are some obvious things here and some that will require time for clarification. NATO membership is absolutely out of the question during his presidency and those who were sent to Ukraine to instill love for this military bloc in Ukrainians may certainly pack their bags and go back to Washington or wherever else they came from.

Yanukovich will agree with and support certain Russian foreign policy initiatives that do not contradict Ukrainian national interests. Medvedev’s proposal for a new European Security Treaty is just one of such examples that may benefit Ukraine as much as Russia.

However, the most interesting aspect of Ukrainian foreign policy is in its economic dimension and its potential membership of the EU, or the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, in this question not everything depends on the wishes or preference of Ukraine.

The European Union is entering in its own tough times economically and will be preoccupied with the issues of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain (the PIGS states), and the new Eastern European members that will inevitably cause even more concerns in the future. All of these will simply make Ukrainian membership out of the question in the current situation. It is also obvious that with an economy that contracted 15 percent in 2009 Ukraine is not ready for EU membership by any of its standards, and to become ready it must first of all improve its economy.

So, how can Ukraine improve its economic position and modernize its own economy without cooperation with the countries of the Customs Union, which are actually major trade partners of Ukraine? “Stupid economy” may eventually show whether it will be more economically beneficial for Ukraine to be with EU or with partners to the east of Ukraine. It certainly depends on how efficient the Customs Union turns out to be; it has the potential to become a well functioning and mutually beneficial organization, but it could also share the fate of the CIS.

Then again, if the EU and the Customs Union can cooperate successfully and dynamically, the question of making a choice may simply be dropped off the agenda.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

When seeking the Ukrainian presidency, Victor Yanukovich promised to pursue closer ties with Russia and elevate the status of the Russian language and culture in the country. It is likely that he can deliver in the latter area, but what he can accomplish in the former is less clear (as are the benefits of doing so).

While the use of the Russian language in Ukraine has political overtones to some, principally in Western Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora, to many people the Russian language is merely a lingua franca. From that point of view elevating its status is merely a way to show that Ukraine is a bilingual state consisting of ethnically pure Russians and Ukrainians, persons of mixed origin, and national minorities.

Upon independence, for example, all legislative and regulatory acts were officially published in both languages, but with the passage of time the latter were available only in Ukrainian. This occurred despite a significant segment of the population in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine (which for hundreds of years were Russian lands) who do not know the Ukrainian language. The situation is made worse by the refusal of some to examine dispassionately national histories and myths in the lands currently forming Ukraine.

At present Russia has little to offer Ukraine other than energy and raw materials. Russia has its own fiscal problems and cannot produce products that can compete in the world market. Russia cannot afford to support Ukraine economically and most Russians in any event do not want to. At the same time, the Russian leadership fears a Western-looking Ukraine that might be a dependable ally (or at least not a friend of NATO’s). It also wants to permanently maintain its naval base at Sevastopol.

From a practical standpoint, Russia represents an existential threat to Ukraine’s existence, so ignoring Moscow’s national security concerns is done only at great peril (Ukrainians watched with considerable interest the Georgian-Russian conflict). Whether Yanukovich is someone who understands that Ukraine will not benefit if it provokes Russian suspicions, or is simply a potential Quisling to Russian expansionism, is difficult to predict. There is general agreement, however, that Ukraine is too large to swallow whole if the Ukrainian population is opposed to the concept.

I anticipate that Yanukovich’s position will weaken with the passage of time. The Ukrainian president’s power is limited and the benefits of better ties with Russia will not dramatically change the lives of most Ukrainians.

Importantly, he will not have a working majority in the Rada. If in the initial period of his presidency, Yanukovich is not successful, both Sergey Tigipko, who came third in the first round of the presidential election, and Yulia Timoshenko will remain on the Ukrainian political scene and have a say in national policy in all areas. The Ukrainian president will have to be open to bargaining and compromise.

The EU finds itself in a weakened economic condition, illustrated by the decline in value of the euro. Helping Ukraine is a lower priority than stabilizing its older members, such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, and those states that would require less assistance (albeit they are of less strategic importance than Ukraine), such as the Baltic States, Bulgaria, and Romania.

If the EU could not effectively support Yushchenko, it will be less inclined and less likely to support president Yanukovich. Ironically, he may have to make more of an effort to please the EU than his predecessor, but will receive less in return. On the other hand, the EU/NATO countries do not want to treat the legitimately elected president of Ukraine, or his country, as a pariah.

Over time, president Yanukovich is likely to discover that he does not want to be taking orders from Moscow. Hence, he will probably have to moderate his policies once in office or find his initiatives largely failing both at home and abroad. Don’t be surprised if the new president increasingly wraps himself in the Ukrainian flag when out in public.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

It is remarkable that the choices perceived for Ukraine are stated as an “either-or” proposition. Either join the EU (and NATO) etcetera – or improve ties with Russia. In such a model, Ukraine is viewed as an appendage, a subordinate region which must define itself by attaching to one of two distinct and opposing geopolitical alternatives. The “either-or” model very significantly positions Russia and the EU as opposite and mutually exclusive choices. Such contraposition is false – Russia and the EU are on a trajectory of collaboration. Improving relations with Russia does not imply for Ukraine a distancing from the EU or a loss of benefits from friendly relations in the Western direction.

Natural gas transit issues are an excellent illustration. Yushchenko and Timoshenko repeatedly disrupted winter supplies of natural gas to Europe – evidently due to irrational and profound hostility toward Russia. In the longer run Ukraine not only lost revenues, but also provided impetus for the now active projects to bypass the disruptive region with alternate transit pipelines (North Stream and South Stream). Had Yushchenko-Timoshenko maintained constructive relations with Russia, Ukraine would have benefitted as well from good relationships in both the east and the west directions of the compass. Instead, the Ukraine’s previous government managed to antagonize both of its key counterparts.

Timoshenko also campaigned on the platform of repairing relations with Russia. Therefore, voters in Western Ukraine made their pro-Timoshenko decisions not on the basis of her attitude toward Russia (in principle analogous to Yanukovich’s) but for other reasons, not tied to the “Russian question.” The east-west “split” in Ukraine involves much broader factors than simplistically the relationship with Russia. For example, religion (Eastern Orthodox versus Eastern Rite Roman Catholic) is a powerful influence. Highly significant are the facts of collaboration with the Nazis, endemic in Western Ukraine, compared with resistance to Nazi occupation prevailing in most of the rest of that country – and the participation of anti-Nazi non-Western Ukrainians in the liberation of Europe from Hitler.

The fundamental truth of Ukraine is that any effective government there must recognize the vitality of historical and ethnic bonds between modern Ukraine and Russia. There are nearly 1,000 years of shared history – Ukraine has been an integral part of the “bigger narrative” of Russian history for a very long time. At one time U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan pointed out that separating Ukraine from Russia was as questionable as separating the state of Pennsylvania from the United States – and he chose his analogy carefully: Pennsylvania is the cradle of American existence as a sovereign nation, just like present-day Ukraine was for Russia centuries ago.

In the present, Ukraine does not need to reduce its sovereignty by establishing closer links of collaboration and mutual benefit with Russia. It would actually be very foolish to discard 1,000 years of common past – which can be the basis for very productive “win-win” economic and cultural synergy between the two countries.

Membership in the EU and NATO is an idea supported by a very small and very unpopular fraction of the Ukrainian political class. There is clearly no significant real benefit from either membership. And for both the EU and for NATO Ukraine is not an acquisition with a strong marginal benefit – in fact, considering the current troubles contributed by weaker EU members (like Greece), one must wonder whether Brussels really wants to add yet another potentially troublesome member country.

As to relations with Washington – geography will assert itself. Brussels and Moscow are a lot nearer to Kiev than Washington, DC.

Anthony T. Salvia, Executive Director, American Institute in Ukraine:

The election of Viktor Yanukovich sets the stage for a new rapprochement with Russia, ending five years of official Ukrainian hostility, and putting paid to Western-led efforts to ensnare Russia in what Sergei Tigipko has called a “cordon sanitaire,” as if the Cold War had never ended.

Yanukovich's call for official neutrality is clearly in the interests of Ukraine, Europe and the United States. All are in a state of economic distress with no end in sight. All face similar long-term strategic challenges stemming from the rise of Islamic extremism and Asian economic power. None benefits from NATO blithely handing out defense guarantees it cannot possibly honor, a practice, which, over time, would only eviscerate the alliance.

Ukraine, Europe and the United States have a vested interest in affecting a new entente with Russia—the logical end of the North Atlantic Treaty—and the bridging of Europe’s debilitating, centuries-old east-west divide.

Upwards of 80 percent of Ukrainian voters supported candidates in the first round who called for dramatic improvement in Kiev's relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, the incumbent Viktor Yushchenko—no friend of Russia—snagged a mere five percent of the vote. In addition to declaring NATO membership off the table, Yanukovich has already spoken in favor of extending the lease on Russia's naval base in Sevastopol, and endorsed Moscow’s call for a new European Security Treaty.

In selling his policy of entente with Russia to the Ukrainian public, Yanukovich should invoke Tigipko’s assessment of Yushchenko’s anti-Russian course: it did more harm to Ukraine’s interests than to Russia’s. Yushchenko’s Russophobia alarmed Paris and Berlin and hardened their determination to block Ukraine’s entry in NATO; it made an invitation to join the European Union, never very likely, even less likely; it prompted Russia to consider ways of bypassing Ukraine when supplying energy to Europe—thus harming an already perilously weak national economy; and it gave Ukraine a reputation for intolerance in seeming to discriminate against Russian-language speakers (a huge swathe of the population).

A rapprochement with Russia is a vital precondition for Ukraine’s economic revival.

The way forward for Ukraine is as a unified nation, sovereign and independent, neutral as between blocs and alliances, pursuing productive relations with all great powers, and protecting the language rights of all segments of the population. This is a rational policy rooted in realism and justice.

An idea president Yanukovich ought to consider: chairing a European security forum in Kiev with other European heads of state and government. The idea was broached by Steven Meyer of the National Defense University at a recent press conference in Kiev, organized by the American Institute in Ukraine. He raised the idea in the context of Russia’s support for a new European Security Treaty, which he called a “good idea” that needed to be “fleshed out.” He called on Ukraine’s president to exert leadership by convening his European counterparts in an effort to develop ideas that would put flesh on the bones of Moscow’s proposal.

If Yanukovich is serious when he says Ukraine should serve as a “bridge between East and West,” convening such a security forum would be a good place to start.

Dr. Igor Torbakov, Senior Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki, Finland:

First, a brief comment on Ukraine’s “east-west divide” will be in order. True, the divide is still there, but it is primarily a cultural, linguistic and regional fault line rather than a purely ethnic one, and despite the regional division, a sense of common identity is slowly emerging. Consider the strong showing across the board – in the east, center and west – of the businessman (and former National Bank president) Sergey Tigipko, the candidate who got the third result in the first round with 13 percent. Some analysts persuasively argue that had Tigipko made it to the second round, he would have beaten both Yanukovich and Timoshenko. In the second round, many people were voting for the “lesser of the two evils” and a million plus voted “against all,” thus basically withdrawing their support from the two frontrunners.

Ukraine’s current divisions are the legacy of history and of domination by rival great powers. It’s not easy to get rid of them soon and they will likely persist for a while: regionalism (which is in fact more multifaceted than the divide between East and West) will always be strong in Ukraine. But other historical processes are at work as well…
Now, Yanukovich clearly has a limited mandate – he is the first Ukrainian president who got less than 50 percent of the popular vote. The acute deficit of public trust and the dire straits of Ukraine’s economy will significantly constrain the new leadership’s room for maneuver. For the new leader, the job ahead will be a balancing act, at home and abroad. In fact, Yanukovich himself has said as much in his Wall Street Journal op-ed. I would call his piece a perfect manifesto of an “in-between” country. “We are a nation with a European identity,” contends Yanukovich, “but we have historic cultural and economic ties to Russia as well. The re-establishment of relations with the Russian Federation is consistent with our European ambitions.”

However, the specifics of Yanukovich’s foreign policy will depend a great deal on whether he succeeds in forging his own coalition in Parliament and on what kind of coalition that would be. Until Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions is able to establish its control in Parliament, the new president will be rather weak – resembling in a way the hapless Yushchenko, who had his veto powers but could not pursue resolute policies, lacking as he did strong backing in the Rada. Although the Party of the Regions did manage to gain enough votes to oust Timoshenko’s government, it may well fail to garner enough support to form its own. Then Yanukovich will have no other option but to go for a snap Parliamentary election – and Ukraine’s turbulent political season will continue.
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