Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 4

By Oleg Varfolomeyev

After years of waffling between allegiance to Russia and the West, Ukraine has signaled its readiness to join NATO. Ukraine’s Security Council secretary, Yevhen Marchuk, announced on May 23 that Ukraine would seek alliance membership. President Leonid Kuchma confirmed this. Achieving it should take eight to ten years, Marchuk said in an interview with Ukrainian Public Radio on May 26.

Western reaction to this announcement–very cautious–has been far from what NATO optimists in Ukraine expected. Secretary General George Robertson, who came to Kyiv on July 8 to mark the fifth anniversary of the Ukraine-NATO Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, made it clear that it is too early to talk about Ukraine joining NATO.

After the 1994 agreements on nuclear disarmament and the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, adopted in 1997 apparently to show Ukraine that it was not altogether forgotten, NATO has discarded it as a potential member. Moscow did not want Kyiv to emerge from under its wing, and Kyiv was not seriously thinking about NATO membership regardless.

But, in a world rapidly changing after September 11, no choice apparently remains for Ukraine but to jump on the bandwagon. Russia is changing under Putin, becoming more pragmatic and predictable. Unlike the situation two or three years ago, economic rather than geopolitical considerations dominate the Ukraine-Russia agenda. Russia still doesn’t like NATO’s eastward expansion, but there is little it can do, and Putin knows this. “Ukraine has its own relations with NATO,” Putin said after NATO’s Reykjavik summit in May. This was a week before Marchuk’s statement on Kyiv’s readiness to move towards NATO membership.

Now the ball is, seemingly, in NATO’s court. Has it been inertia only that prevented the West from embracing Kyiv’s initiative immediately and unequivocally? Not quite so. Ukraine has numerous problems to cope with at home first.

Ukraine’s record for corruption, human rights and the development of democratic institutions has been below average. The disappearance of journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000 and a subsequent tape scandal implicating top Kyiv officials in crime and undemocratic practices showed that Ukraine has yet to do much to catch up with modern standards. The March 31, 2002 parliamentary election only showed that there has been little improvement. The opposition, both left- and right-wing, won in spite of the dishonest methods the government used against it. Yet Kuchma’s team, using sticks where carrots were not enough, managed to revise the election results by coaxing independent and hesitant MPs into joining the pro-presidential camp, so that the opposition was unable to form a majority in parliament.

Ukraine hesitated a long time before choosing NATO. It took Kuchma eight years as president to decide. Bringing Ukraine fully into NATO will be up to the governments that follow him. The cabinet of Premier Anatoly Kinakh, to all the appearances, will not survive the upcoming autumn. Kuchma will have to leave the stage in 2004, when his last term in office expires. Most probably, his replacement, like Kuchma himself and his predecessor Leonid Kravchuk, will come from parliament. And it is parliament that decides on the foundations of foreign policy–per the constitution. Thus Ukraine’s progress towards NATO will depend to a great measure on parliament’s mood. The current body is not ready for NATO, but it is warming up. Opponents and enthusiasts of NATO are present in both the pro-government and the opposition camps. But NATO’s opponents no longer prevail. Former Premier Viktor Yushchenko’s reformist Our Ukraine is probably the sole unequivocally pro-NATO force among more than a dozen factions, but it is also the largest faction, a quarter of the legislature. The pro-Kuchma United Social Democrats and oppositionists from the Socialist Party and the right-wing Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc are among the skeptics. The Communists, apparently, remain the only force that definitely opposes membership, but their domination of the Ukrainian legislature is already a thing of the past.

The economic situation is not as rosy as official Kyiv likes to admit. Impressive growth figures were posted in 2000-2001, but only after a decade-long downslide. The country remains far poorer than most NATO aspirants.

But a sound economy is essential. The Ukrainian army lacks funds even to feed its conscripts properly, let alone replace its rusty Soviet equipment with NATO-standard weaponry. And the task of reforming and re-equipping the army is formidable, given that Ukraine has Europe’s third-largest army after Russia and Germany.

Ukraine can hardly afford a military budget necessary to bridge the gap with the countries that joined NATO in 1999 and even NATO aspirants. Currently it spends only US$2,900 per military serviceman and US$20 per capita on military needs, according to the Kyiv-based Oleksandr Razumkov think tank, compared to Romania’s–one of the poorest aspirants–US$9,700 and US$45, or Poland’s US$18,000 and US$105 respectively.

The final decision on joining NATO is up to the people to take in a referendum. If it came to this in Ukraine, the probability of a “no” is high.

It is hard, in a nation for which NATO was an “aggressive bloc” for decades of Soviet propaganda, to change the way in which people regard the alliance. That opinion became, gradually, more favorable throughout the 1990s. NATO strikes against Yugoslavia in 1999 reversed this trend. But now public opinion is again on the upswing. Nevertheless ordinary Ukrainians are still less enthusiastic about NATO than their government is.

According to a poll conducted by the Razumkov center on June 17-25, only 32 percent of Ukrainians would vote for membership if a referendum were held now, and 32.2 percent would vote against. At the same time, 22.1 percent could not give an answer and 13.7 percent said they would not vote.

Thus Western cautiousness about Kyiv’s proclaimed NATO aspiration is justified. Kyiv’s official pro-NATO declarations are not enough. Ukraine has yet to prove that it is sufficiently democratic to join the Western military club and that its economy is up to the task. The political elite and the public opinion are not yet quite ready for NATO either.

Oleg Varfolomeyev is an editor with BBC Monitoring in Kyiv.