Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 108

The ongoing anti-NATO protests in the Crimean city of Feodosiya and their political impact in Kyiv could have been avoided or quickly defused had the parliament moved in time to authorize the entry of troops from NATO countries for joint exercises in Ukraine. President Viktor Yushchenko submitted the necessary bill in February. However, most parliamentary deputies declined to pass that bill ahead of the March parliamentary elections, even those in favor being mindful of NATO’s negative image with a largely uninformed or misinformed public. After the March 26 elections, Yushchenko’s political maneuvers delayed the parliament’s opening for two months, and then recessed it into June.

As a net result, there is no legal basis at the moment for the exercises that are planned to be held between June and September. The Feodosiya protesters as well as the Party of Regions and other anti-NATO groups are capitalizing on that deficiency.

In Kyiv, a declaration by the Party of Regions’ parliamentary group describes preparations for a military exercise unauthorized by parliament constitutes a breach of the Constitution and demands the dismissal of Ukrainian officials involved in those preparations. This strongest parliamentary party declares that it supports the Feodosiya demonstrators and the municipality’s NATO-free-zone decision and that it opposes the access of “NATO troops” to the Crimea generally (Interfax-Ukraine, May 30). The small Communist parliamentary group has issued even more radical statements.

Party of Regions deputy Volodymyr Zubanov has drafted a bill, to be submitted after the parliament reconvenes, on Ukraine’s “non-bloc status.” Intended to stop the country from joining NATO, the bill would bar Ukraine from membership in military or political-military alliances, participation in military operations on the territory of other countries, entering into military pacts or commitments, or hosting foreign forces on Ukrainian territory. The same bill, however, allows continued basing of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukraine’s territory in accordance with bilateral agreements (Interfax-Ukraine, May 30).

Within a possible Orange-led governing coalition, the Socialist Party opposes NATO membership. Party leaders themselves could ultimately prove flexible; but, in deference to their own anti-NATO electorate, they insist that the issue of Ukraine’s membership be put to a referendum, evidently on the assumption that it would not pass for some years to come. Socialist leaders claim credit for persuading the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine to agree to a referendum on that issue as part of any coalition agreement. According to the Socialist Party Political Council Secretary, Henadiy Zatirko, “NATO’s eastward enlargement is a mistake … As the Socialists would hold the ‘golden share’ [swing vote] in a coalition government, the party’s position is firm and categorical: Ukraine must stay outside blocs” (Interfax-Ukraine, May 31). Meanwhile, Socialists could vote in parliament to authorize these exercises in Ukraine as long as the issue of NATO membership is not raised.

Moscow’s messages indirectly fan tension in Ukraine over those exercises. Russian television channels amplify the resonance of the protests, occasionally inciting them directly — for example by claiming that “two more NATO ships are at anchorage off Feodosiya” (RTR Russia TV, May 30). Russia’s Ambassador in Kyiv, Viktor Chernomyrdin, opining on television that “there was never a worse time than now” for Ukraine-Russia “special relations,” put Ukraine-NATO cooperation at the top of the list of “irritants” (the next irritants being the differences over Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and over Moldova) (Itar-Tass, RTR Russia TV, May 30). Russian media even speculate on the Duma’s May 26 vote approving an official inquiry by Russia’s cabinet of ministers about the possibility of reclaiming the Crimea on the basis of some ancient treaty. Such messages seem calculated to encourage protest groups in the Crimea and to generate pressure on official Kyiv.

Further delay of parliamentary approval for this year’s exercises could jeopardize their preparation and potentially their schedule, beginning with Sea Breeze. Ukraine has been hosting this and other exercises annually for nearly a decade — since 1997 in the case of Sea Breeze — without any major political complications such as are now developing in Kyiv or the Crimea.

Three factors have changed the situation this year: First, the generally weak and chaotic governance in Kyiv. Second, the lack of an Orange program to muster political support for the declared aspiration to join NATO, although such a program was proven indispensable in all the candidate countries that joined the alliance. And, third, Moscow’s resurgent strength and arrogance, which — contrasting with Ukraine’s current vulnerability — apparently encourage Russia-oriented, anti-NATO groups in Ukraine.

(Interfax-Ukraine, UNIAN, Channel 5 TV [Kyiv], May 27-June 1)