Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 59

Russian President-Elect Dmitry Medvedev

Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev is citing low popular support for NATO membership in Ukraine as his argument against NATO approval of a Ukrainian Membership Action Plan (MAP) at NATO’s April 2-4 summit (Interfax, Financial Times, March 26).

This thesis is common to the Russian and German governments. While Moscow is adding direct threats to Ukraine in this context (see EDM, March 24), Berlin more elegantly refers to Ukrainian public opinion polls.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has invoked this argument in rebuffing a personal appeal to her from U.S. President George W. Bush by video-conference. Bush was seeking support for Ukrainian and Georgian MAPs at the upcoming summit (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt, March 28).

Merkel’s argument obscures the difference between NATO membership as such and the membership action plan (MAP) that the Ukrainian state leadership is requesting from NATO. While prospective membership has low popularity in Ukraine, cooperation with NATO is ongoing and there is no evidence of spontaneous public opposition to upgrading that cooperation to a MAP.

Ukrainian membership is not on the agenda at this stage. The German government seems to be raising the specter of actual Ukrainian membership only to block Ukraine’s rather long path toward membership from this early stage.

Merkel and other German officials also profess concern that a MAP approved during the tenure of Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko might subsequently be canceled, if former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions returns to power in Kyiv. This concern seems not only hypothetical, but also insufficiently attuned to the antecedents and ongoing developments regarding this issue in Ukraine.

During their first tenure in power in 2002-2004, Yanukovych and the Party of Regions supported Ukraine’s close relations with NATO, which then-president Leonid Kuchma and his National Security and Defense Council were actively promoting. NATO membership was an official goal of Ukraine, enshrined in basic documents on national security and military doctrine during that period.

The Regions-led government had inherited and carried forward the NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership Charter, signed in 1997 and involving close political consultations between Ukraine and the Alliance. At NATO’s Prague summit in November 2002, Ukraine received an Action Plan, envisaging ambitious security-sector and military reforms, and which remains valid and operative to date. The Action Plan is a framework document, from which an annual Target Plan of reform is being drawn up every year.

An Action Plan differs from a MAP only in degree. Apart from the word “membership,” the main difference is that the Action Plan entails reform commitments by the recipient country – in this case Ukraine; whereas a MAP involves mutual commitments by the recipient country and the Alliance to achieve the reform goals envisaged. The implementation of MAPs is monitored by NATO more actively and more closely with aspirant countries, than is the case with the implementation of Action Plans.

In 2004 at NATO’s Istanbul summit, however, Ukraine’s confused internal political situation caused the Alliance to put its hitherto close relations with Ukraine on hold.

Following the Orange regime change, NATO upgraded its relationship with Ukraine to that of an Intensified Dialogue in 2005. Meanwhile, the Party of Regions turned the issue of Ukraine-NATO relations into a tool in the struggle for political power. The Yanukovych camp raised the NATO specter from time to time in order to energize supporters in eastern Ukraine against the Orange authorities. The Party of Regions resorted to this tactic when the political stakes in the country were rising over issues bearing little if any relation to NATO. In so doing it exploited Soviet-bequeathed negative stereotypes about NATO and the United States among the population, particularly in the party’s eastern Ukrainian political strongholds.

From late January until March 6, 2008, the Party of Regions and its communist allies again used this issue as a pressure lever, blocking the activities of the Verkhovna Rada. The party was mainly seeking to sabotage the newly installed Yulia Tymoshenko government and derail the parliamentary coalition of the Yushchenko-led Our Ukraine with the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.

On March 6, however, the Party of Regions made a deal with the governing coalition to resume the Verkhovna Rada’s normal functioning. Under a parliamentary resolution enacted that day, any future international agreement regarding Ukraine’s accession to NATO membership would have to be submitted to a national referendum, which could also be called at public initiative (EDM, February 14, March 12).

This enactment adds to the already existing basis for a lowest-common-denominator consensus among political forces on this issue. In essence it reaffirms a common stance that was first reached during the Yushchenko-Yanukovych coalition negotiations in August 2006, requiring approval by national referendum of any possible future decision on joining NATO. In practice, the March 6 agreement makes it possible for Ukraine to pursue close relations with NATO, including a MAP, during the years ahead; and during those years it can take overdue measures to educate public opinion about NATO (Den, March 15).

The Czech Republic and Slovakia had also recorded low popular approval of NATO membership during the pre-accession years in the 1990s. However, information programs by the Czech and Slovak governments and NGOs successfully educated the public, ensuring substantial public support for NATO by the time of those countries’ accession to the alliance.

In the run-up to the NATO summit, the Ukrainian government and National Security and Defense Council have adopted decisions to launch and finance such programs in the country. But NATO could discourage such an effort before it even starts, if Allies bow to Germany and block Ukraine’s MAP. This would mean holding Ukraine’s and NATO’s own prospects hostage to Soviet-era negative stereotypes about NATO in parts of Ukraine, perpetuated by the Kremlin’s anti-NATO propaganda in that country.