President Yanukovych Returns to Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 106

The Ukrainian government has ruled out membership of both the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and NATO. At the same time, integration with the European Union and cooperation with Russia top the list of foreign policy priorities for President, Viktor Yanukovych, and economic matters take overall precedence. Yanukovych seems to be reviving the “multi-vector” policy of President, Leonid Kuchma,(1994-2004), when Ukraine played a balancing act between the West and Russia, trying to use differences between them to its advantage. Kuchma’s policy failed for reasons ranging from domestic opposition to international ostracism following accusations against him of corruption and unproven accusations of illegal arms sales to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. It remains to be seen whether Yanukovych will avoid Kuchma’s mistakes.

Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, spoke in favor of the Single Economic Space (SES), a common market planned by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, in an interview with several Russian media sources on May 19. However, he said Kyiv would primarily “proceed from its national interest.” Earlier, Yanukovych used the same phrase when he rejected Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin’s, proposal to merge Naftohaz Ukrainy with Gazprom. Azarov most likely meant that Ukraine will seek special relations with the nascent union without pursuing membership. Azarov added that he views the union as primarily “a market of 200 million or more people,” although it might prove difficult to resolve conflicts of interest with Russian steel makers and the chemical industry within the SES framework.

Yanukovych’s team rejected Russian overtures regarding the membership of military and political unions. Kyiv made it clear that the current rapprochement with Russia will not go beyond certain limits. During his recent visit to Kyiv, Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, said that he would be “happy” if Ukraine joined the CSTO (Interfax-Ukraine, May 18). Yanukovych’s administration head, Serhy Lyovochkin, flatly ruled out membership of the CSTO for Ukraine (Ukrainska Pravda, May 19). Foreign Minister, Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, a former ambassador to Moscow, later repeated that Ukraine will not join the CSTO, but would maintain its neutral status instead (2000 weekly, May 28). Moreover, the Ukrainian foreign ministry stated immediately after Medvedev’s departure to Moscow that the country would not hurry to change its status in the CIS from observer to full member (UNIAN, May 19).

Kyiv, under Yanukovych, is also very clear on its attitude to NATO. Visiting the west Ukrainian city of Lviv where the population is considered pro-NATO, Yanukovych said it would be unrealistic for Ukraine to aim at joining the Alliance because public opinion opposes such a policy. He said Ukraine would remain outside blocs, while developing its partnership with NATO (Interfax-Ukraine, May 27). Speaking later on the same day, Hryshchenko said NATO membership was no longer on the agenda (Channel 5, May 27). Similarly, parliament demonstrated pragmatism by allowing foreign troops to enter Ukraine for the participation in international drills in 2010, including those under the aegis of NATO. Support for a respective motion submitted by Yanukovych was overwhelming, 394 votes “in favor” in the 450-seat chamber (UNIAN, May 18). Ukraine has cancelled several international military exercises in the past as the communists and Yanukovych’s Regions party protested against NATO troops’ participation. Although the communists are part of the ruling coalition, their protests were ignored this time while their senior partners, the Part of Regions, changed their stance.

Unlike his predecessor (Viktor Yushchenko) who prioritized culture, history and geopolitical considerations, Yanukovych sees economic pragmatism as the cornerstone of his foreign policy. During his visit to Lviv he said that foreign policy would be based primarily on economic considerations and that equal or more attention should be paid to business matters compared to security issues (UNIAN, May 27). In April Yanukovych authorized the closure of trade missions in foreign embassies and set up economic departments within embassies instead, which will presumably enjoy a higher status. On May 27, Hryshchenko told a government meeting that foreign missions would be restructured in order to prioritize economic matters (Ekonomicheskie Izvestia, May 28).

Meanwhile, on June 1, Yanukovych submitted to parliament a new bill on foreign policy priorities. The bill lists EU membership and strategic partnership with Russia and the CIS among its top priorities. It also provides for maintaining the country’s current neutral status and abandoning the pursuit of NATO membership (Ukrainski Novyny, June 1). NATO membership was officially a goal for both Kuchma and Yushchenko, however neither succeeded in explaining to the nation the benefits of such membership. Consequently, public support for NATO membership never exceeded 30 percent in opinion polls. Yanukovych asked parliament to pass the bill as a matter of urgency and the Speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn, who is an ally of Yanukovych promised to include it in the parliamentary agenda on June 3 (Ukrainska Pravda, June 1).