Former U.S. President George Bush was the latest in a long line of senior U.S. policy-makers to visit Ukraine on May 20-21. The visit should be understood as part of the on-going election campaign in Ukraine. This visit was Bush’s first since July 1991 when he gave a speech to the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet, recommending against Ukrainians adopting “suicidal nationalism.” The Bush visit was privately organised by President Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk, who is one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs from the Dnipropetrovsk clan.
Pinchuk’s lobbying of U.S. policymakers has separated him from the anti-American and pro-isolationist wing of Ukrainian politics, represented by the Communist Party (KPU) and Viktor Medvedchuk’s Social Democratic United Party (SDPU-o) (Ukrayinska Pravda, April 29). As head of the presidential administration, Medvedchuk seeks to control which foreign dignitaries are given access to Kuchma. Medvedchuk unsuccessfully attempted to block a meeting between Kuchma and US billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. Medvedchuk failed in that attempt after Pinchuk interceded. Medvedchuk organised an anti-Soros campaign on three television channels he controls (State Television 1, 1+1, Inter) and through physical provocations against Soros in the Crimea and in Kyiv.
This month, Kuchma agreed to meet former U.S. National Security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former President Bush, who were both privately invited by Pinchuk. At the same time, Kuchma refused to meet Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, as well as Jeffrey Hirschberg, a member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all U.S. non-military international broadcasting. Hirschberg had visited Kyiv to attempt to intercede after two Ukrainian FM stations were prevented from continuing to re-transmit Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian-language service.
Hirschberg believes that this hostility to Radio Liberty stems from Kuchma’s determination “to prevent the people of Ukraine from listening to RFE/RL.” (Wall Street Journal Europe, May 21)
Why then is Pinchuk interested in only selectively lobbying US policy makers? An optimistic explanation is demonstrated by recent trends in oligarch gentrification. Pinchuk has been the most vocal of Ukraine’s elites in supporting the need for Ukraine’s oligarchs to transform themselves into normal businessmen, especially by separating themselves from politics. This process is related to both this year’s presidential and upcoming 2006 parliamentary elections.
The 2006 elections will be the first to be held with a fully proportional election law. Opposition parties have traditionally fared better in proportional elections, which were held for half of Parliament’s seats in 1998 and 2002. Centrist, oligarchic parties have preferred single mandate districts that will no longer be available in the 2006 election.
Pinchuk has left the Labor Party, which has begun a process of de-oligarchization to improve its public image. The party is currently viewed as a “business holding” for the Dnipropetrovsk clan. Other pro-presidential parliamentary factions have also united as the first step towards party consolidation. This reorganization and de-oligarchization of the centrist camp is being undertaken with an eye to the 2006 elections.
On the surface, Ukraine’s oligarchic camp is dividing into those seeking to gentrify, such as Pinchuk, and those who wish to continue to play by the old rules, such as Medvedchuk. In organizing Bush’s visit, Pinchuk hoped, “to clean up his reputation, (and) legalize himself and his activities, not only in Ukraine but in the world at large,” opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko believes (Ukrayinska Pravda, May 24).
Nevertheless, Pinchuk’s gentrification has to be treated with caution. As Kuchma’s son-in-law, he cannot break completely with Kuchma’s legacy while Kuchma remains in office. Organization of Bush’s visit to Ukraine was for the benefit of Kuchma and the pro-presidential camp — not the opposition. Invitations to events that included Bush were sent by the presidential administration. Pinchuk also selected which student-written questions were passed to Bush during the discussion that followed his speech at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko State University. Questions critical of Ukraine’s human rights record were ignored by Pinchuk.
Pinchuk sought to provide his guest with a positive image of Ukraine’s changes since 1991, when Bush last visited Ukraine, to counter Ukraine’s poor international image. Pinchuk believes that Ukraine should be judged after it has been visited, and not by an image created abroad. “Ukraine is far better than its image testifies”, Pinchuk believes (Ukrayinska Pravda, May 20).
Kuchma and the pro-presidential camp regularly blame the opposition for blackening Ukraine’s international image. The non-Communist opposition met with Bush, discussing upcoming elections, democratization and human rights in Ukraine. Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said after the meeting, “I was very impressed by this politician who expressed a deep understanding of our situation and who adequately reacted to that which is taking place in Ukraine” (Ukrayinska Pravda, May 24).
A second and more crucially important reason for the visit was to lobby two branches of the U.S. government: the U.S. National Security Council and the Department of Defence — which Ukrainian elites and some Western analysts believe emphasize the global war on terrorism and Iraq over democratization.
In testimony provided during the “Ukraine’s Future and United States Interests” congressional hearings on May 13, Anders Aslund, director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, outlined the choice for U.S. policy towards Ukraine as being that of Ukrainian troops in Iraq or democratization. Currently, Aslund claimed, “No observer can draw any other conclusion than that troops in Iraq supersede everything else.” Aslund also believes, “This balance in U.S. policy toward Ukraine needs to be redressed” (Action Ukraine Report, May 14).
Pinchuk sought to achieve two strategic goals in sponsoring the Bush visit. The first goal was to lay a foundation for the first meeting between Kuchma and Bush at the NATO Istanbul summit next month. Former President Bill Clinton visited Ukraine three times in the 1990s and Kuchma visited Washington. Bush has previously refused to meet Kuchma because of Kuchmagate and Kolchugate.
The second goal is to obtain a quid pro quo from the U.S. Kuchma hopes to use the presence of Ukrainian troops in Iraq to blunt U.S. criticism of human rights abuses and potential election fraud later this year. Bush warned the opposition against voting for the removal of Ukrainian troops from Iraq. At the same time, he raised the importance of free elections and democratization as a prerequisite for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration (Ukrayinska Pravda, May 24).