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Ukraine: a sharp turn eastwards?

7 April 2010

Ukraine’s new president is about to pay his first visit to Washington after a widely noted sojourn in Brussels early last month. Does this mean he has shed the tag of Putin's man in Kiev, asks John Besemeres. And whatever happened to the heroes of the Orange Revolution?

Right:

Viktor Yanukovych at the European Union in Brussels during his first foreign visit as Ukraine’s new president. European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari

Viktor Yanukovych at the European Union in Brussels during his first foreign visit as Ukraine’s new president. European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari



THE VICTORY of the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, in February’s Ukrainian presidential elections evoked curiously little concern in the West. Senior Western figures from President Obama down were quick to offer congratulations. Representatives of NATO and the European Union expressed confidence they would work with the new president to build on the strong cooperation that already exists.

In Moscow the reaction was euphoric, but discreetly so. After President Putin’s counter-productive intervention in the 2004 election, which helped trigger the Orange Revolution, the Russians were especially careful not to call the race till others had done so. The Kremlin had been studiedly neutral before the first round, except towards the outgoing president, Viktor Yushchenko, who was unrealistically seeking a second term but was so low in the opinion polls as to present little danger. During the run-off campaign between Yanukovych and then prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Moscow maintained decorum. Tymoshenko had been conciliatory towards Russia in the months leading up to the poll, and from Moscow’s point of view, either she or Yanukovych would represent improvement. But it was clear that Yanukovych’s ultimate success was very welcome.

Some commentators suggest the outcome will not greatly affect Russian–Ukrainian relations one way or the other, and Western leaders seem to be implying that this is their judgement too. The fact that the new president travelled to Brussels ahead of his first trip to Moscow has been widely cited as confirmation of his declarations that he will seek to have good relations equally with Russia, the European Union and the United States. On 12–13 April, reinforcing the point, he will visit Washington. But he has said rather different things to his East Ukrainian constituents and Moscow interlocutors. And in fact his first significant international meeting after the election, a fortnight before the Brussels visit, might well have been a long session one on one with Sergei Naryshkin, a senior emissary from Moscow.

All of which raises three important questions. Why did the Orange Revolution fail? Why has that failure evoked so little dismay in the West? And is it true that Yanukovych will not change Ukraine’s strategic direction?

“Ukraine fatigue”

The Orange forces did themselves few favours after they came to power in early 2005. Within months their leaders were at loggerheads. Having appointed Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic braided heroine of the Orange events, as prime minister, President Yushchenko sacked her before the year was out. Tymoshenko had adopted populist economic policies that former central banker Yushchenko rightly feared would be damaging. But there was also a jealous rivalry between them that grew as time passed, and by the time of this year’s election Yushchenko seemed mainly preoccupied with ensuring that their erstwhile common adversary Yanukovych would beat Tymoshenko for the presidency.

When Yanukovych used a coalition he had cobbled together in the fractious Ukrainian parliament to revise the electoral laws in his favour three days before the 2010 poll, Yushchenko signed the new legislation with indecent alacrity. In the run-off campaign Yushchenko called on all his supporters to vote against both the presidential candidates (which the voting forms permitted). Over a million did so, more than Yanukovych’s winning margin. And many voters in Orange strongholds stayed at home. It’s plausible to argue that Yushchenko’s campaign against Tymoshenko made the crucial difference.

Yushchenko’s actions can be explained partly by his reservations about Tymoshenko’s policies as prime minister. But in his last period in office, seeking to secure his western base in a forlorn campaign for a second term, Yushchenko pursued some populist issues of his own. It was perfectly legitimate for him to pursue the question of Stalin’s role in the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s that killed millions (the order of magnitude as well as the precise motives remain disputed); to try to advance the cause of Ukrainian, long suppressed, as the national language; and perhaps also to push for some re-evaluation of the role of Ukrainian nationalist groups involved in the bloody events of the 1930s and 40s in western Ukraine (and pre-war Eastern Poland). But the way he went about it was divisive within Ukraine and at times damaged Ukraine’s interests internationally.

While Yushchenko may have done more to launch their feud, Tymoshenko responded in kind, at times cooperating with Yanukovych to frustrate the president. Her populism reached its apogee in her second stint as prime minister when her failure during 2009 to meet the terms of an International Monetary Fund bailout led to its suspension. Tymoshenko can certainly claim extenuating circumstances. Ukraine was in diabolical trouble as a result of the global financial crisis (its economy shrank by 15 per cent in 2009) and any leader in her place – particularly one with presidential ambitions – would have been desperate to get financial support and keep voters happy by maintaining unaffordable handouts. But during all this she sorely tested the patience of her Western partners and creditors.

The Orange forces have been justly blamed for the dismal state of the economy. But despite its relatively modest resource endowment, Ukraine’s economic growth was actually outstripping that of its larger neighbour, Russia, throughout the noughties. Its nosedive in 2009 was an extreme product of the global crisis, but not without parallels elsewhere, both West and East (Ireland, Latvia). Ukraine was particularly at risk because of Moscow’s abrupt price hikes of its oil and gas imports, and the deep slump in the price of steel, its staple export. Even accepting Russia’s argument that its gas prices were merely being raised to market levels (though other customers were paying much less), the hikes were particularly hard on Ukraine, whose economy was heavily gas-dependent. In brief, the Orange forces were a bit unlucky to be caught when the music stopped.

EU governments and creditors are hoping that if Yanukovych decisively pursues the stability he has proclaimed as his prime objective then the basket case may start to recover, requiring less external attention and largesse. And they hope that gas deliveries to Western Europe might continue undisturbed by the gas wars that had become almost an annual mid-winter event during the Orange ascendancy. Yanukovych’s makeover as a Europe-friendly democrat (partly the work of his American PR advisers) encourages them to see him as a safe pair of hands.

Enlargement fatigue

More broadly, much of Western Europe now feels that the reasonable limits of EU and NATO expansion have been reached. The poor performance of some countries involved in the most recent large expansion of the European Union, in particular Romania and Bulgaria, has led to impatience and cynicism in Brussels. That these two are both Orthodox (rather than Catholic or Protestant) countries, which in Eastern Europe seem more prone to corruption and other problems of concern to potential EU paymasters, is a factor that counts against the largely Orthodox Ukraine.

Hostility towards enlargement has seeped into many EU electorates as well, and core EU governments have become much more assertive about expressing it. Exceptions may ultimately be made for some small Western Balkan countries, largely for security reasons, but not quickly. The disruptions caused by the global financial crisis in core Europe have reinforced the mood and the recent sharp economic downturns in the Baltic states and Hungary have added to it. The fact that the troubles have now affected a long-term EU member like Greece, and are threatening to spread to other existing members, does nothing to help supplicants further east. Not the least of Yanukovych’s advantages is that while he says he wants to join the European Union at some point, he may be less committed to it than he says he is. As for NATO, he makes it quite clear he won’t be applying.

The broader scepticism about enlargement contributed to the souring of attitudes towards the pro-Western Orange forces. Similar considerations apply to the pro-Western governments in Moldova and Georgia. Many Western Europeans saw the Georgian war as a warning against further eastern entanglements. In that respect, Ukraine raised even more worrying possibilities than Georgia. Yanukovych’s victory will offer reassurance that no alarming crises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet or similar Crimean issues are now likely to arise.

In fact, since the Georgian war, a feeling has been strengthening in some key European governments that flirting with Kiev or Tbilisi about possible NATO membership will damage relations with Russia, which must have priority. This kind of thinking, together with domestic economic factors, has led the French government to negotiate to sell four advanced Mistral amphibious assault vessels to Russia. Given that a senior Russian military commander has said that having these vessels in its armoury would have enabled Russia to deal with Georgia much more expeditiously, it’s not surprising that this prospective sale is causing acute alarm not only in Georgia but also in new NATO members whose territories are located on the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile, a group of former senior German officials (including a defence minister) have called for Russia to be invited to join NATO.

The United States, for its part, is keen to secure the support of Russia on issues of prior concern to the Obama administration, including Iran, Afghanistan and nuclear disarmament, and does not wish to antagonise it unnecessarily. So pressure from that quarter for enlargement of Euro-Atlantic structures is much diminished. The West’s growing reserve did not help the Orange forces domestically. And Ukrainian public opinion seems to be reciprocating. Support for NATO membership was always in the minority, something which Yushchenko’s ineffective and divisive leadership may have accentuated. But EU membership has also become a minority preference.

Yanukovych’s mandate

Some commentary about a stunning victory notwithstanding, Yanukovych’s starting position looked weak. He is actually the first Ukrainian president to have been elected with less than 50 per cent of the votes cast. His total vote was down on the last presidential elections by hundreds of thousands and his majority of 3.5 per cent over Tymoshenko much less than once seemed likely. Moreover, the powers of the presidency had been reduced by the constitutional deal that accompanied the Orange victory and played a big role in the unproductive stalemates of the past five years.

In any case, Yanukovych’s win is the proverbial poisoned chalice. While the economy is showing signs of stabilising after its free fall, there is a long way to go, and he will have to meet tough demands from the international financial institutions and/or Moscow if he is to get the help he needs to overcome the crisis. Some necessary austerity measures will be hard to get through parliament and politically damaging to the leader attempting to do so.

More generally, any Ukrainian leader has to reckon with the tribal divisions in Ukrainian society and politics. Voting patterns in this election were as regionally divided as ever, with Yanukovych winning big in the Russophone east and south, and Tymoshenko easily carrying all the Ukrainian-speaking west and centre, thereby winning seventeen of Ukraine’s twenty-seven electoral districts.

What can we expect?

Whether the new president will seek to consolidate his authority to meet these challenges by using what in Moscow is called “political technology” remains to be seen. But some of his first steps do suggest it. After changing the electoral laws just before the run-off in his own favour, he then had himself and his chosen government confirmed by that same majority in a way widely regarded as unconstitutional. That majority – achieved by seducing defectors away from other parties by alleged bribery – was also used to postpone inconvenient local elections scheduled for May. The opposition has appealed the government’s formation to the Constitutional Court, but it seems unlikely that they would wish to overturn everything that has happened. Yanukovych has said that if the Court rules against him, he will call a snap election, a dismaying prospect for many. Tymoshenko has claimed that Yanukovych is exerting heavy pressure against the Court; he would not be the first Ukrainian president to do so.

Many are comparing Yanukovych with Leonid Kuchma (president from 1994 to 2004), who won the presidency by campaigning “from the east” but then sought to rule from the centre, including by improving his Ukrainian. Curiously, all of the three recent key protagonists are actually easterners by birth and upbringing. Yushchenko came from the east but was bitten by the nationalist bug while studying in western Ukraine, adopting Ukrainian as his preferred language and advancing it officially wherever possible. Tymoshenko comes from Russophone and Russophile Dnepropetrovsk (the home of Brezhnev’s push), but she too earnestly enhanced her Ukrainian and uses it widely. This was a winning card for her in the Orange events, and has helped moor her main base in the centre and west.

By contrast, Yanukovych is an easterner in sentiment, style and language. Many Ukrainians of Russian heritage in the east see themselves as both Russian and Ukrainian and perceive no difficulty in doing so. A minority identify simply as Russians. It would not be politically wise for Ukrainian politicians of national ambitions to present themselves as Russian in this latter sense and Yanukovych does not. He has made some efforts to improve his Ukrainian but, orally challenged in general, he seems not to relish speaking it. He has little rapport with the twenty million who prefer Ukrainian, especially the militant nationalists in the west. He will be more at home in Moscow than Brussels or Washington, and probably feels more comfortable in his native Donetsk than in Kiev, where Western sentiment and the Ukrainian language have made inroads since Soviet times, when Russian was dominant.

In his inauguration speech on 25 February, Yanukovych lamented the present state of the nation and the economy. He promised reform of governance with a cabinet of professionals, working transparently in tandem with the president. On foreign policy he pledged neutrality, and said he would seek the best possible relationships with Russia, the European Union and the United States.

Consistent with this even-handed pitch his first foreign trip was to Brussels on 1 March – four days before his first visit to Moscow, a fact widely commented on with satisfaction in the West. But according to the liberal Moscow paper, Kommersant, the head of the Russian Presidential Administration (and reportedly a former KGB official), Sergei Naryshkin, visited Yanukovych in Kiev on 13 February and spent six hours with him, one on one, discussing matters of mutual and evidently urgent interest. Naryshkin is a longstanding ally of Prime Minister Putin and seen by some as Putin’s man in President Medvedev’s entourage.

During his Brussels visit, Yanukovych certainly talked the EU talk (though he did not visit NATO). But some of his actions and pronouncements on the campaign trail and since have been less reassuring. He has said he will renegotiate the gas contract with Russia in a way that would appear to restore murky middlemen to the transactions, one of the murkiest of whom, Dmytro Firtash is a key Yanukovych backer, with close allies now elevated to high office. He has also said he will seek to create a three-way consortium, including one-third shares for Russia’s Gazprom and EU interests, to run Ukraine’s gas transit system. (It is a basic principle of Putin’s “energy diplomacy” that Gazprom – in other words, the Kremlin – should gain control where possible of other countries’ oil and gas infrastructure.) Tymoshenko, to her credit, had opposed both of these policies.

Yanukovych is obviously hoping these concessions to Russia would give Ukraine’s desperately cash-strapped gas importer, Naftohaz, some pricing relief and make it easier for the national economy to stay afloat. He also hopes they would dissuade Russia from diverting much of its gas exports from the Ukrainian pipelines (through which 80 per cent of Russia’s exports to Europe are currently channelled) to the controversial Nordstream and South Stream pipeline projects meant to bypass Ukraine. These projects represent a serious economic and strategic threat to Kiev, and advance Russia’s agenda of seeking a stronger hold over energy supplies to Europe and greater leverage over former vassal states to its West. It therefore seems very unlikely that Russia would agree to forgo them.

Yanukovych has also indicated he would consider favourably an extension of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease in Crimea, due to expire in 2017, which Yushchenko strongly opposed. The Crimea is strongly Russophone and Russophile, and the issue has been a source of great tension. There will also be European countries that would receive such a move with discreet relief. But some observers worry that Yanukovych might be prepared to accept a deal that would threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty.

On NATO, he has envisaged continuing existing cooperation in the near term, while ruling out accession. But despite the frequent comparisons, he seems to have rather less enthusiasm for NATO than did President Kuchma. His attitude towards the European Union has been more positive, and he clearly hopes to benefit as much as possible from economic co-operation with it. The European Union and the European Parliament, for their part, are holding out the prospect of future membership, and in the meantime a deep free-trade deal and visa-free travel for Ukrainians, both big attractions. Indeed they are more welcoming towards Yanukovych than they ever were towards the Orange leadership.

Whether Yanukovych is seriously intent on becoming a member is less clear. His earlier indications of readiness to consider joining Putin’s rival Russia–Belarus–Kazakhstan customs union (for which Putin suddenly last year demanded the right to negotiate entry into the World Trade Organization as a unit, thereby setting back Russia’s long-running WTO negotiations) cast some doubt on his personal commitment to either Europe or even to the WTO, of which Ukraine is already a member. Some influential oligarch supporters of Yushchenko’s Party of Regions want the deep free-trade deal with the European Union, which would rule out the customs union. But Yanukovych’s new prime minister is known to be a strong supporter.

On the campaign trail, Yanukovych held out the prospect of making Russian the second official state language. Reversing some of Yushchenko’s vigorous boosting of Ukrainian, including in areas where Russian is strongly dominant, would ease tensions and not be unreasonable. Elevating it to the status of second language would be more controversial and, like an extension of the Crimean lease, politically and constitutionally difficult. Since becoming president, Yanukovych has distanced himself from any such formal proposal, while trying to reassure his Russophone supporters. But that is probably a change of tactic rather than a change of heart. Certainly the opposition expects that Russian will become the de facto official language in government circles.

On the day of his inauguration, Yanukovych accepted a blessing from the Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a provocative gesture towards Ukraine’s Greek Catholics and followers of the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches. Kirill has proven to be a very active and skilled supporter of the Russian imperial interest in Ukraine, which he is promising to visit again soon. He has a large following in the Russophone regions, but his visits to the country have not been uncontroversial. Symbols like these may point to Yanukovych’s likely choices over the longer term. They may also be damaging to the country’s fragile internal balance.

Very controversially, Yanukovych has in the past intimated his government might recognise the “independence” of Georgia’s breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If it did so, Ukraine would join a select group of countries made up of Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. Even the Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko has so far resisted Moscow’s blandishments to recognise Russia’s two client statelets. Such a move would certainly damage Kiev’s relations with Western countries from whom it needs financial and other support. So recognition by Kiev seems unlikely, but if it did happen, it would be a very clear indication of Ukraine’s trajectory.

Yanukovych will offer Russia other opportunities. Russian businesses and investors will be favoured more than at present, provided that they do not walk all over Yanukovych’s Ukrainian oligarch backers, who are increasingly interested in Western markets. Purveyors of Russian language and culture will be made very welcome in the media and elsewhere. Efforts to check Russian espionage and penetration are likely to become a thing of the past. Military access in the Crimea and elsewhere, despite Yanukovych’s professions of neutrality, may be extended. Ukraine’s links with Georgia and other Russian bêtes noires will be phased down or out. Security cooperation with NATO will be scrutinised far more critically than under Yushchenko. And so on.

Finally and more broadly, there is the question of the extent to which Yanukovych will preserve the gains of the Orange Revolution. Notwithstanding some recent commentary, these are actually considerable. While Ukraine has not been improving on corruption and investment climate ratings, on a range of indices of socio-political progress it has strengthened its position since 2004, whereas Russia has declined. On the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (examining a wide range of socio-economic and governance issues) Ukraine went from forty-fourth place in 2003 to thirty-seventh in 2010 (Russia from forty-first to sixty-fifth). On Freedom House’s freedom of the press index, Ukraine went from sixty-eighth in 2004 to fifty-fifth in 2009 (Russia from sixty-seventh to eightieth), and other related indices – civil rights, for example – recorded a similar pattern. Reporters without Borders indices gave Ukraine a score of 51 in 2004 (zero would be ideal), and 22 in 2009 (while Russia declined from 51 to 61). Even on one index of corruption, for which it is acquiring proverbial status, Ukraine comes out ahead of Russia, with Georgia incidentally markedly better again.

Whatever their limitations, these findings clearly depict a pattern, the same pattern that many less systematic observers broadly agree on. Ukraine is corrupt and chaotic (though not uniquely so) but it has made good progress in the last few years towards democracy. It is for this reason that a number of prominent journalists frozen out of the public space in Russia have departed to Ukraine to practise their craft. And it is also for this reason that Putin seems chronically worried that Russian politics may become “Ukrainianised.”

Will Yanukovych maintain this progress? Despite some of his recent pronouncements, he is not one of nature’s democrats. And he will be facing very difficult problems and a strong, unrelenting opposition. The temptation to cut corners will be great. This was, after all, the man who sought to steal the 2004 presidential election and has never acknowledged or publicly regretted doing so. At the very least, it seems a safe bet the next presidential elections will be less democratic than the ones just past.

Yanukovych’s people

Where the new president goes will depend substantially on his key advisers. Yanukovych is often presented as being the creature of his patrons and handlers. And he is routinely mocked for his gaffes and inarticulate presentation, not only in his laboured Ukrainian, but also in Russian. He once referred to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov as a Ukrainian poet, and identified the celebrated Russian poet Anna Akhmatova publicly as Anna Akhmetova (the tasty irony in this being that his biggest backer is Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov). All the gibes about Yanukovych overstate the case. He is clearly a capable politician who has successfully maintained the cohesion of his diverse party. But given that diversity, where Russophile zealots mingle with pragmatic moderates, his personnel choices are important pointers both to his intentions and to likely outcomes.

Yanukovych’s first appointments were to his presidential administration. The choice of Serhiy Lyovochkin as head of the administration was not encouraging. Lyovochkin has links to some intermediary companies in the gas trade from Russia through Ukraine to Europe, involving murky arrangements widely seen as facilitating corruption and damaging Ukrainian national interests. Yanukovych, however, has said he wants to return to those old arrangements, which Tymoshenko had finally succeeded in dismantling.

Lyovochkin’s deputies are a mixed bunch. Most are veterans of the later, more autocratic and Russia-leaning phase of Kuchma’s government or are old mates of the president (or both), one of them having worked in Yanukovych’s electoral headquarters when and where the fraudulent results were manufactured in 2004. Two senior women in the presidential administration, noted economist Irina Akimova and Hanna Herman, are more centrist and pro-European. But the new prime minister (a very close ally of Yanukovych and of whom more in a moment) has declared that economic reform is not women’s business, to the outrage of women’s groups. He has no women in his cabinet of twenty-nine.

After winning the run-off Yanukovych named his three preferred front-runners for the premiership: Serhiy Tyhypko, Nikolai Azarov and Arseny Yatseniuk. Tyhypko and Yatseniuk are both political technocrats with past exposure at the top, who performed strongly in the first round of the presidential elections, presenting themselves as a “third force” between the opposing sides. As premier, either would have been a sign that Yanukovych indeed wished to rule from the centre.

But his choice fell on Azarov, a partisan Regions Party politician, regarded by many as a Soviet-style statist in his approach to financial management. He came to Ukraine from his native Russia only in his thirties, does not speak Ukrainian and, as a deeply pro-Russian figure, will be alienating for the Orange constituencies.

The cabinet appointed to serve under Azarov is even more discouraging in its composition. Few appointees are remarkable for their competence. Thirteen of the twenty-nine ministers are from just two Eastern provinces: Donetsk (Yanukovych’s home province) and Luhansk. Eastern oligarchs are particularly heavily represented, including the Gazprom-friendly Firtash group, to which the gas sector has been substantially entrusted. Bizarrely, the gas lobby has also been given charge of the State Security Service. The new security chief has denounced his Orange predecessor for having opened too many Soviet-era files, and has said that under his control the agency will concentrate on guarding secrets rather than exposing them. He has also called for radical extension of his right to tap phones without court approval.

The new minister for education is a well-known pro-Moscow figure who has declared in the past that western Ukrainians are not really Ukrainians at all. His appointment has predictably outraged the Ukrainian-speaking western provinces. To their further outrage, several diehard Russophiles have been appointed to internal security positions in those provinces. The new defence minister is a former naval commander in which capacity he had excellent relations with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. And the deputy premier for humanitarian affairs (language, culture and matters pertaining to identity politics) has recently called for “discussion” of a union of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. That was not a good look just before Yanukovych’s forthcoming trip to Washington, and his office has reportedly rejected the proposal. But it was Yanukovych who gave the deputy premier his job.

None of this looks like ruling from the centre. In fact Yanukovych’s appointments and his government’s first steps and pronouncements look more like a sharp turn towards both Moscow and winner-takes-all, despite his precarious majority. The Orange opposition, meanwhile, true to form, is continuing to fragment and squabble.

Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven

Yanukovych’s native Donbas was a loyal region of the Soviet Union, and Yanukovych one of its typical products. His instincts, behaviour and, so far, most of his policy declarations all point to that fact. And Russia will be bending all its efforts to draw him into a close, cooperative and preferably subordinate relationship. Few Russians can accept the idea of Ukraine as a separate country. With an eastern-led Ukraine more or less obediently at its side, nationalists in Russia, who include many in the present regime, could again aspire to empire. Theirs would be an entity of nearly 200 million, with much of its old Soviet-era military potential again fully under its control. Belarus, and other fragments of Moscow’s former domains – and not just South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria – might then feel more impelled to embrace its leadership. The geopolitics of the region could be transformed in Moscow’s favour.

There can be no doubt that many in Russia and a smallish but active minority in Ukraine feel drawn to this vision. But even if he nurtured such impulses himself, Yanukovych would understand that to set off down that path could lead to serious turbulence within his domain that could threaten his own undoing. Cordial fraternal ties with Russia would be as much as the market could comfortably bear.

In any case, few in positions of power wish to embrace a diminution of their own role. Even Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus (who calls his KGB the KGB, who for most of his tenure has run his country like a Soviet theme park, and whose population is much more Russified than Ukraine’s), has been increasingly defiant of late.

Nonetheless, Ukraine’s weakness and Yanukovych’s ethno-political inclinations present Russia with some serious possibilities for future gains if their man can consolidate his grip on power. Russia knows its target far more intimately than its Western rivals ever will. Provided it can restrain its customary impulse to treat its prodigal little brothers with imperial arrogance, it should be able to make some solid headway over the next few years. One thing it will not be doing is encouraging the new Ukrainian leadership to lovingly preserve the fragile democratic achievements of the Orange Revolution.

A sharp turnaround?

Yanukovych’s first official visit to Moscow on 5 March produced few visible results. But he naturally struck a very different tone to the one he had adopted in Brussels a few days before, foreshadowing a “sharp turnaround” (krutoi povorot) in bilateral relations. He made clear again that joining NATO was off the agenda, that he looked forward to strategic partnership with Russia, and that the question of the Black Sea Fleet could be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both countries. He also promised to rescind Yushchenko’s decrees declaring prominent anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalists of the 1930s and 40s to be Heroes of Ukraine. Rather ominously he praised Russia’s political stability and spoke disparagingly of Ukrainian politics and politicians. And he issued an invitation for President Medvedev to visit Ukraine before mid-year. The sides agreed to set up a joint commission to examine bilateral issues in the meantime.

Both Yanukovych and Azarov, on a separate visit later in March, sought a substantial reduction in gas prices for Ukraine, which is currently paying more than most other European customers, east or west. Recently Gazprom has felt obliged to relax its tough contractual terms to meet the needs of key Western clients, in recognition of the fact that the spot price has declined markedly because of falling demand and greater and more diversified supply in Europe. But while Kiev has again dangled the possible consortium to manage Ukraine’s gas infrastructure as an inducement, Russian statements seemed to offer little encouragement, emphasising rather that existing agreements would have to be carried out. Putin suggested Ukraine should join his customs union if it wanted cheaper gas.

In early March Kommersant reported that the Ukrainian side is already under pressure to move on a number of “delicate” questions. There is the matter of an agent of the Russian Federal Security Service detained under Yushchenko in a special security prison. And Russia was seeking the removal of US personnel from Ukraine. At the same time it was said to be demanding that the Russian Federal Security Service be able to resume its work in the Black Sea Fleet (it was required to leave late last year), and made clear to the Ukrainians that it expected all military cooperation with Georgia to cease.

Medvedev’s visit to Kiev, scheduled for 20 May, should tell us something, but it is too early to say how the relationship will develop. Reporting on the spate of bilateral meetings that have occurred so far would seem to suggest that Russia is playing hardball. On 5 April, a week ahead of his trip to Washington, Yanukovych made another, supposedly “private” visit to Moscow (during which he met his counterpart Medvedev), but nothing has yet emerged from it into the public domain. He seems prepared to meet Moscow more than halfway on matters relating to language, culture, hard-core security, sentimental ties and what might be loosely termed identity politics. On economic issues though conciliatory, he will not be a pushover, not least because in Ukraine’s present straitened circumstances he cannot afford to be, but also because some of his oligarch supporters want that free-trade deal with the European Union. His Washington visit will be intended, among other things, to send a message to Moscow that it should not take him too much for granted. The West’s best option at this stage for retaining a solid foothold in Kiev may be to talk nicely, offer incentives, and hope Putin oversteps again, as he did in 2004. •

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Peace in our time

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Superficially, the Minsk Two agreement promises much. But, asks John Besemeres, can its European signatories counter Vladimir Putin’s long-run campaign to widen Russia’s sphere of influence?

Right:

No alternative? German chancellor Angela Merkel and (on her left) European Council president Donald Tusk.

No alternative? German chancellor Angela Merkel and (on her left) European Council president Donald Tusk.