On November 12, nine days before Ukraine’s presidential election runoff, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to that country to bolster Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential bid. During their day-long, amply televised visit to Crimea, Putin hugged Yanukovych, wishing him success in the election in several choreographed scenes. The incumbent Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma played along, echoing and nodding to Putin’s words about strengthening Russia-Ukraine relations.
Putin’s visit appeared designed to maximize the turnout of pro-Yanukovych voters in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions. Following opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s first-place finish in the October 31 vote, Kremlin-connected political operatives in Ukraine calculate that Yanukovych’s chances in the runoff depend on a high turnout of Russia-oriented voters in eastern and southern Ukraine. The latest message addressed to those voters overemphasizes Yanukovych’s intentions to reorient Ukraine toward Russia.
Putin’s visit was strong on symbolism but weak on substance. Putin, Kuchma, and Yanukovych attended the reopening of ferry service between the Russian port of Kavkaz (in Krasnodar Krai) and the Ukrainian port of Krym (near Kerch in Crimea). Putin obliquely indicated that the ferry is intended in part to undercut the European Union’s planned Central Asia-Europe transport corridor via the South Caucasus. “We will use the ferry for shipments from Central Asia and the Caspian region,” Putin asserted. “Very true,” Kuchma echoed (Russian Television Channel One, November 12).
Built in 1955 (in place of a pontoon bridge destroyed in a storm), and idle since 1991, the ferry link will operate for the time being with only one ferryboat for railway carriages. The service, for both cargo and passenger trains, will connect Crimea directly with the Russian mainland — a link that Russian and Crimean politicians had for nearly a decade promised to Crimea’s Russian-majority population at election time. Plans for a highway bridge across the Kerch Strait seem to have been laid to rest, however.
The ferry’s inauguration also lays to rest symbolically the dispute between Moscow and Kyiv over the status of Kerch Strait. Last year’s political and military standoff around the Tuzla island in that waterway was barely mentioned during Putin’s visit. Ukraine has kept its island, but Russia has in the meantime achieved its goal of changing Ukrainian jurisdiction over the Kerch Strait’s navigable channel into a joint Russian-Ukrainian jurisdiction.
The two presidents and Yanukovych also attended the signing of a memorandum on modernizing the Moscow-Kyiv passenger railway service. Russia and Ukraine will jointly finance the overhaul of rails and rolling stock, with a view toward cutting travel time between the two capitals to nine hours, from 12 hours at present. They also will re-equip customs personnel and border guards, with a view to cutting waiting time at the border. The Soviet-era Railway Workers’ Day, August 1, is the target date for completion of the project in 2005. Signed by Transport Ministers Igor Levitin and Heorhiy Kyrpa, this memorandum also looks like an election-time agreement of intent that may take a long time to materialize.
Accompanied by the respective presidential administration chiefs, Dmitry Medvedev and Viktor Medvedchuk, who are among the authors of the Kuchma-Yanukovych handover scenario (“operation Naslednik”), the two presidents and Yanukovych visited the Artek children’s resort to meet a group of Beslan children recovering there. The event appeared designed to combine the Soviet-nostalgia symbolism of the Artek Young Pioneers’ camp with the political message implied in the “Children-Against-Terrorism” exhibit that the visiting leaders viewed.
The visit’s symbolism could hardly have been complete without an announcement of a Russian company taking over a Ukrainian one, under the rubric of strengthening the two countries’ economic ties. In this case, Ukraine’s Anti-Monopoly Committee authorized Russia’s Alyans oil-and-gas company to acquire a majority stake in the eponymous Simferopol-based company. The Crimean offshore exploration area is not commercially promising, and the Simferopol company has been inactive recently. As prime minister, Yanukovych has strongly promoted Ukrainian industrialists’ interests against Russian ones in the privatization of state assets in Ukraine.
(1 + 1 TV, Ukrainian Television Channel One, UNIAN, Interfax, Russian Television Channel One, November 12, 13).