Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 7

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and Vladimir Voronin of Moldova held an unprecedented trilateral meeting on March 17 in Odessa. Initiated by the Kremlin, apparently as a “Western CIS” counterpart to meetings of Central Asia’s CIS countries, the Odessa meeting was apparently timed by Putin to exploit Kuchma’s and Voronin’s current political vulnerability.

Kuchma’s parties of power, facing probable setbacks in the March 31 parliamentary elections, need–more than before–some televised signals of political support from official Moscow. Putin obliged in Odessa by expressing approval of Kuchma’s performance with regard to Ukrainian-Russian relations. However, what Putin gave in Odessa he took away the next day, when he met in Moscow with Ukrainian Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko.

The hour-long Putin-Symonenko meeting in the Kremlin, attended also by Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, changes the parameters of Russian policy toward Ukraine as it has evolved from 1991 to date. During that decade the Kremlin cooperated with the Kyiv authorities in order to isolate Ukraine’s Communists at election time. The goal was always to prevent Ukraine’s Red parties from playing the Russian card in their interest. With that in mind, official Moscow regularly blessed Kuchma and his parties of power as best suited for promoting Russia-Ukraine “integration,” even if this was not the case in fact.

That tactic was especially evident during Ukraine’s 1998 parliamentary and 1999 presidential elections, and was again at work during the 2000-2001 Kuchmagate scandal. Moscow’s priority goal–set during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, and initially adopted by Putin–was to keep Ukraine’s Communists down as a means of containing Communist influence in Russia itself.

It would have been inconceivable for Symonenko to be officially received in the Kremlin during Yeltsin’s or the early stages of Putin’s presidency, let alone at election time in Ukraine, and let alone in the company of Zyuganov. Even in the current election campaign in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s political consultants support certain oligarchic parties loosely affiliated with Kuchma, notably that led by the anticommunist Viktor Medvedchuk. The latter seems licensed to play the Russian electoral card, thereby depriving the communists of that asset. The equation changes, however, with the Putin-Symonenko friendly chat, two weeks ahead of the balloting in Ukraine.

From this point on, Russia will have one more iron in the fire in Kyiv. For their part, Kuchma and the propresidential parties are now on notice that they no longer have sole claim on the Kremlin’s tactical favors. Strategically, Russian policy is now geared to containing and isolating the likely winner in these elections, Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc. Moscow had been behind Kuchma’s and Medvedchuk’s moves last year to oust the Yushchenko-led government because of its Western orientation and its measures against Moscow-favored oligarchs.

At the moment, the Kremlin is almost certainly figuring out how to help assemble, in the new Ukrainian parliament, a majority that would marginalize or exclude altogether the Our Ukraine bloc. Although a politically enfeebled Kuchma condones the use of the state administrative apparatus against Yushchenko, the latter’s Our Ukraine seems set to become the single largest force in the new parliament. The Kremlin and its current Ukrainian favorites will clearly need the Communists’ cooperation in the new Verkhovna Rada against Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. This explains Putin’s sudden, unprecedented accolade to Symonenko in Moscow.

According to Zyuganov during the open part of the Kremlin meeting, Ukraine’s Communist Party “firmly and consistently stands for closer and deeper Ukrainian-Russian relations,” and it may outpoll Our Ukraine. However, the Kremlin’s electoral consultants–who are engaged in the current Ukrainian campaign–have their reasons to fear the exact opposite.

The Kremlin’s old priority of containing the communists in both Russia and Ukraine–viewing them as two facets of one problem–has become less topical than it was. Russia’s communists have since climbed aboard Putin’s bandwagon. Ukraine’s communists, with their electorate undergoing both political and natural attrition, seem ripe for cooptation by some of Kyiv’s parties of power, along the lines of the Putin model. The incumbent Russian president, already working with Moldova’s unreconstructed Communist Party to bring Moldova under control, now seems prepared to work with Ukraine’s communists as well. While the communists are his main instrument in Moldova, however, Ukraine’s communists will rank second to the oligarchs whom Putin has selected as his allies in Kyiv.

Putin’s blessing to Symonenko would have been incomplete without a blessing to the Ukrainian communist leader from the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. Aleksy II, himself a component of Putin’s unofficial party of power, gave Symonenko that blessing, as he regularly does when Putin’s other ally, Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, visits the Kremlin and the Patriarchy in one go.