Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 188

As the Monitor prognosticated some time ago, (see the Monitor, July 9), Moscow has openly endorsed Leonid Kuchma for reelection as president of Ukraine in the October 31 balloting. On October 9, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov–while in Ukraine with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin–declared on Ukrainian television: “I should emphasize that relations between our two countries have moved forward in every respect during the time that Leonid Kuchma has been president of Ukraine. We proceed from the position that Ukraine’s choice in the upcoming presidential election should promote the fulfillment of the plans which we outlined jointly. And if Leonid Danilovich [Kuchma] is reelected president, this will undoubtedly consolidate relations between our countries even further.”

That political endorsement was reinforced by a number of carefully choreographed public relations gestures. On the same day, Russian Public Television–which is widely watched in Ukraine, particularly in russified areas–carried a Kyiv-Moscow linkup featuring Prime Ministers Putin and Valery Pustovoytenko, Foreign Ministers Ivanov and Borys Tarasyuk and other senior Russian and Ukrainian Russian officials. They portrayed bilateral relations in unprecedented positive terms, with the Russian officials implicitly crediting the Ukrainian leadership for such improvement. Also on October 9, Putin and Pustovoytenko demonstratively attended the Russia-Ukraine soccer game in Moscow together to underscore the detente among the two governments. On October 8, Putin had declared in Ukraine’s city of Simferopol–capital of the predominantly Russian-inhabited, leftist-oriented Crimea–that Russian-Ukrainian interstate relations are developing favorably at present. The Kuchma campaign will surely use these television images to the hilt–and more of the same sort which may follow–in this decisive phase of the presidential contest.

Russia’s endorsement of Kuchma is a well-timed stab in the back to Ukraine’s pro-Russian Red forces. It virtually nullifies their electoral argument that Kuchma has estranged Ukraine from Russia and that only the leftist parties are willing and able to restore that critical relationship. It should, by the same token, enable Kuchma to cut into the leftist candidates’ electorate, particularly in the populous regions of eastern and southern Ukraine–where elections are ultimately decided and where the Reds have been playing the Russian card effectively.

Moscow’s main–albeit unstated–reason for endorsing Kuchma is to avoid a Red victory in Ukraine ahead of Russia’s own parliamentary and presidential elections. The Russian government need not worry about Ukraine’s national-democrats in their present weak condition. This leaves Kuchma as the main barrier to a Red revanche. And such a development in Ukraine could hardly fail to produce a spillover effect in Russia with dangerously destabilizing consequences even in “normal” times, let alone when Russia is about to elect a new parliament and president.

At the same time, the Russian government is attempting to take advantage of Kuchma’s difficult situation and to extract political and economic concessions in return for its support. The asking price for that support may be deduced from the October 8-9 intergovernmental discussions, as well as from the agenda of the follow-up round, scheduled to be held before the Ukrainian election, while Kuchma is vulnerable. Moscow hopes to gain concessions which include:

–a long-term agreement on the use of Ukrainian shipyards and military testing ranges in the Crimea by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet;

–a further set of agreements–no fewer than seventeen of which are under discussion–which could consolidate the legal position of the Russian fleet in Ukraine, reduce its indebtedness to Ukrainian authorities for goods and services and guarantee a steady provision of those goods and services;

–greater participation by Ukrainian troops and naval ships in joint exercises with Russian forces, at least for political symbolism;

–consent to takeover of selected Ukrainian industrial and energy enterprises by Russian capital in the framework of Ukraine’s privatization program. As one example, interests associated with Boris Berezovsky seek to acquire control of the Mykolayiv alumina plant.

While these discussions are in process, Moscow and Kyiv are exchanging low-cost favors designed to demonstrate their current rapprochement. Kuchma and Tarasyuk, for example, are publicly endorsing Russia’s anti-Chechen war uncritically and in almost unconditional fashion. The Ukrainian leaders are, furthermore, multiplying public assurances that they do not seek membership in the NATO alliance. Moscow, for its part, has suspended its criticism of Ukraine’s relations with NATO. On October 9 it officially endorsed Ukraine’s claim to a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the balloting for which is due on October 14. These Russian gestures, again, undermine the Reds’ case against Kuchma’s foreign policy.

Moscow has even shelved for now the issue of Ukraine’s arrears, worth more than US$1 billion, for past deliveries of Russian gas. On October 8, Pustovoytenko publicly apologized for Ukraine’s inability to settle those arrears, prompting Putin to reply: “The Russian side views this situation with understanding because Ukraine is in the midst of a presidential campaign.” Moscow well realizes that calling in the debts at this juncture or stopping the supplies would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. The demand would undermine both the Ukrainian government and Kuchma’s campaign. The current accommodation between Moscow and Kyiv is of a tactical nature and has pushed the thorny contentious issues into the background. Should Kuchma win reelection–a prospect which looks far from certain at this point–those contentious issues are likely to resurface and will force the Ukrainian leadership to defend national interests, just it has done with a good measure of success during Kuchma’s first term (UNIAN, DINAU, Ukrainian TV-1, STB-TV, ORT, Eastern Economist Daily (Kyiv), Itar-Tass, October 8-11).