Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 185

Russian leaders were delighted, even gleeful, when Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was fired in early September. Their unabashed gloating confirms that Moscow still does not realize why its interference in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections failed so miserably (see EDM, September 23). Instead, Russian officials have continued to look wistfully toward Ukraine.

Russian leaders believe that the ongoing political crisis could lead to Ukraine’s disintegration or civil war between eastern and western Ukraine. If the country divides, Ukraine might return to Russia and end President Viktor Yushchenko’s pro-Western foreign policy. These scenarios are decidedly wrong.

The 2004 presidential elections proved that Ukraine has changed since Leonid Kuchma was first elected president in July 1994. The 1994 vote followed a far deeper crisis, when hyperinflation and strikes by miners forced then president Leonid Kravchuk to call early presidential elections.

Throughout the 1990s the central issue of Ukrainian politics was statehood; that is, would Ukraine survive as an independent state. This issue was resolved in the 1999 presidential elections when Kuchma defeated the Ukrainian Communist Party leader.

The defeat of the main domestic threat to independence (the Communists) and the end to an external threat from Russia (after it recognized Ukraine’s borders) changed the central issue of Ukrainian politics to what kind of state would be built. This would, in turn, directly influence Ukraine’s integration either with the Commonwealth of Independent States (as a corrupt, oligarchic, authoritarian state) or with “Europe” (as a democratizing state).

During Kuchma’s second term in office Regions of Ukraine (RU) replaced the Communists (KPU) as the leading pro-Russian party. Although both the KPU and RU are pro-Russian, they differ in that only Regions of Ukraine favors Ukrainian statehood. Thus the party shift was a positive development for Ukrainian stability.

Russia strongly backed then prime minister Viktor Yanukovych to succeed Kuchma in 2004. Yanukovych, however, denied that Russian President Vladimir Putin “came to visit me personally, it was not a strategy of my election campaign” (Washington Post, December 17, 2004). After Yanukovych’s defeat, the Unified Russia party signed a cooperation agreement with Regions of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Communists have rapidly declined since the 1999 elections. Eastern Ukrainian voters have since shifted from the Communist Party, which now has only 11% support in this region, to Regions, which has 51.7% (Kyiv International Institute Sociology, September 2005).

Russian political commentators earnestly – but wrongly – believe that the current government crisis will re-orient Ukraine eastwards. The selection of Yuriy Yekhanurov as prime minister and Anatoly Kinakh as secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NRBO) are cited as “evidence” for this argument.

A political expert with the Moscow INDEM think tank believes that Ukraine’s foreign “re-orientation” was inevitable. “Russia is the country from which money, and lots of it, comes to Ukraine. There is no way around this. Ukraine’s economy depends heavily on Russia. All the talk about ‘turning West’ was euphoric. The fact is Russia and Ukraine have long and close ties that neither can do without” (Agence France Presse, September 27).

Russian political commentators have reached the wrong conclusions about Ukraine’s crisis for three reasons.

First, their reliance upon Regions of Ukraine as their domestic ally gives them a regional, rather than national, view of domestic developments inside Ukraine. The Donetsk region, where RU has its main base of support, is different from the remainder of eastern Ukraine, let alone other regions of Ukraine.

Second, neither Kinakh nor Yekhanurov will re-orientate Ukraine’s foreign policy towards Russia and the CIS. Nevertheless, Russian media claimed that Yekhanurov’s September 30 visit to Moscow was tantamount to a “surrender” to Russia (Agence France Presse, September 30).

The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta (September 30) wrongly concluded that Yushchenko was doing an about-face and returning to Russia. “This means de facto that the leaders of the ‘orange revolution’ have abandoned their earlier ideals. The Yushchenko team has turned back to the principles and methods for conducting foreign policy that characterized the Kuchma regime.” Another Russian newspaper, Kommersant (September 30), believes that the Yekhanurov government will be “pro-Russian” because it “is closely linked to Russian capital.”

Yekhanurov’s ascent does not indicate a policy shift. He has been an ally of Yushchenko’s since the latter was prime minister in 1999-2001. Moreover, the president, not the prime minister, formulates foreign policy. Two-thirds of the ministers in the Yekhanurov government are holdovers from the Tymoshenko government, including pro-Western foreign and defense ministers.

Interviewed on ICTV (October 2), NRBO secretary Kinakh continued to outline Ukraine’s interest in only taking part in step one of the CIS Single Economic Space; that is, a free-trade zone. Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk reiterated this view during his September visit to the United States. While Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan support steps two (customs union) and three (monetary union), Ukraine continues to oppose both.

Third, Russia continues to get it wrong about Ukraine because it still sees the region as “Little Russia.” According to new a poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center, 71% of Russians favor a unified state with Ukraine. Only 24% are against (UPI, September 28).

At the same time, the Russian population is more realistic than the ruling elites. Only 18% believe a union with Ukraine is realistic, with another 35% thinking it could take place in the distant future. Whereas 48% believed that a union was likely with Belarus, only 15% thought this was the case with Ukraine.

Many analysts suggest that Moscow might apply pressure to Kyiv using the threat of higher energy imports. But energy-supply discussions ahead of winter are a perennial problem that even pro-Russian states, such as Belarus, find difficult when dealing with Moscow. The same is true of Ukraine.

The September political crisis in Ukraine and change in government will not alter Ukraine’s declared foreign policy goals of Euro-Atlantic integration. The success of this goal will be decided by the outcome of the March 2006 parliamentary elections. If pro-reform forces are able to overcome their personal divisions and create a parliamentary majority for Yushchenko, the country will support Euro-Atlantic integration. For now, the U.S. administration supports Ukraine’s movement from Intensified Dialogue on Membership to a Membership Action Plan for NATO. What parliament does from 2006 to 2011 remains to be seen.