Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 3 Issue: 12

The Fortnight in Review

In a vote of confidence by the West in Ukraine’s continuing political development, NATO this month concluded an historic and broad-ranging political agreement with Kyiv. The signing of the partnership agreement came as Ukraine hosted a series of military exercises with Western forces and as its political leadership moved simultaneously to strengthen regional ties with several of its neighbors. In Moscow, meanwhile, summer brought no respite from political confrontation as President Boris Yeltsin rejected a controversial law on religion that had been approved by the Russian parliament and the Kremlin found itself under fire for a radical military reform plan. Russia’s economy continued to emit mixed signals: GDP was down from last year but industrial production inched up.

Ukraine’s Strategic Choice

Ukraine, at the forefront of the geopolitical transformations in East-Central Europe, ensures their continuation by virtue of its location, size, and the political choice of its top executive leadership. That choice was embodied formally this month in a special security relationship between Ukraine and NATO.

NATO-Ukraine Charter

On July 9, President Leonid Kuchma and the leaders of NATO’s 16 member countries signed in Madrid the Charter of Distinctive Partnership between the alliance and Ukraine. The charter envisages consultations between Ukraine and NATO on political and security issues, conflict prevention, control of arms exports and of space technologies transfers, and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Ukraine obligates itself to continue military reforms and strengthen civilian democratic control of the armed forces. Under the charter, the NATO allies pledge to "continue to support Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, its territorial integrity and the inviolability of its borders." They also recall the nuclear powers’ commitments (undertaken in the context of Ukraine’s 1994 renunciation of nuclear weapons) to Ukraine’s independence, security, and territorial integrity.

The document provides for NATO-Ukraine consultations to be held periodically in the framework of the North Atlantic Council, NATO Committees, military partnership mechanisms, and bilateral meetings between top military leaders of NATO countries and their Ukrainian counterparts. A Ukrainian military liaison mission will be added to Ukraine’s political mission to NATO, while the alliance "reserves the right" to open a military liaison mission in Kyiv. The sides will create a joint commission which will meet at least twice a year to review the progress of relations and work out proposals for their further development. Furthermore, NATO and Ukraine will create a "crisis consultation mechanism" to be activated when Ukraine considers that a direct threat has arisen to its security, territorial integrity, or political independence.

Kuchma commented at the signing ceremony that Ukraine’s internal democratization and its cooperation with NATO are parallel processes, and that the charter is "not a final, but a transitional step" in the development of Ukraine-NATO relations. He said that Ukraine considers itself an integral part of Europe and "is ready to take part in providing peace and stability to Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe." Urging NATO to remain open to all countries wishing to join it, Kuchma at the same time said that Kyiv was not prepared to declare its own desire to join NATO. He alluded to Russian concerns in stating that "Ukraine does not live in a vacuum and must take its neighbors into account… East and West are interested in seeing Ukraine retain its nonbloc state at this time."

Commenting on Kuchma’s remark that "a lot of pages of Ukrainian history, including recent ones, have been written with blood and human tragedies," British prime minister Tony Blair stated that the charter will insure Ukraine against repetitions of such suffering. U.S. president Bill Clinton for his part acknowledged "Kuchma’s courage in leading the country on the path to reform…the most difficult thing of all because the voters may vote out the reformers." Clinton said that if Kuchma could ensure the enactment of a legislative reform package "within a year," Washington would use its influence to win international financial support for Ukraine’s economic transition. Kuchma’s account of the same conversation differed slightly in the emphasis: "Bill Clinton understands that we are on the threshold of parliamentary and presidential elections and that we can’t be left to face our difficulties alone," Kuchma said.

Joint Exercises Held

Ukraine’s Yavoriv training grounds in Lviv region hosted the Cooperative Neighbor-97 exercise, held in the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and financed mostly by the U.S. Approximately 1,200 soldiers from the U.S., Greece, and several Central and East European countries, along with NATO officers, joined Ukrainian troops for the exercise, whose task was to test coordination among national elements of a multinational peacekeeping force. Several defense ministers and deputy ministers attended the opening phase, and U.S. defense secretary William Cohen watched its closing. In Kyiv afterward, Cohen stated that a "democratic and stable Ukraine will be a keystone of European security" and that Ukraine’s participation in joint exercises represents the most promising avenue for the country’s cooperation with NATO. Ukrainian defense minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk similarly described the exercise as reflecting "Ukraine’s strategic course toward further integration in European and transatlantic institutions." But he added realistically that financial constraints preclude the transition of Ukrainian forces to NATO military standards in the foreseeable future.

A Ukrainian-U.S. special forces exercise began immediately afterward near Uzhorod. Additional land and naval exercises, scheduled in the next few weeks, make Ukraine the region’s distinct leader in terms of hosting joint exercises with NATO countries. Ukrainian Communists and socialists reacted by submitting in parliament a set of anti-NATO bills that would have prohibited the holding in Ukraine of military exercises sponsored by NATO or conducted by units of NATO member countries with Ukrainian units. The bills failed, as did an alternative one submitted by parliament chairman Oleksandr Moroz which would have required parliamentary approval of the upcoming U.S.-Ukrainian Sea Breeze-97 exercise. Communist Party leader Petro Simonenko and others proposed instigating impeachment proceedings against President Leonid Kuchma for allegedly violating the constitution in signing the NATO-Ukraine Charter. On this point, too, Moroz and some of his socialists took a more nuanced position by accepting the Charter, though not NATO’s enlargement.

Speaking in opposition to the anti-NATO bills, Foreign Minister Hennady Udovenko stated that Ukraine’s neutrality does not preclude strengthening the country’s security through partnership relations with NATO. Kuzmuk for his part defused the leftists’ financial argument by pointing out that NATO and the U.S. were covering the expenses of all exercises in Ukraine. Kyiv Communists picketed the parliament building under anti-Western slogans, but were unable to influence the debate inside. The failure of the bills in parliament suggested that leftists had exaggerated in claiming that nearly 200 deputies had joined the "Ukraine Outside NATO" association. Yet the commotion that they created also showed that the security policies of the executive branch carry certain internal political risks.

Regional Project

The Ukraine-NATO relationship carries a profound historic significance in at least two ways. First, it promises to anchor Ukraine durably in a Western political and security orbit for the first time in the country’s history. Second, it is reinforced by a network of pacts and relationships with Ukraine’s own neighbors — a reassuring departure from historic patterns in which the region’s nations vied for outside support against each other. Just days before signing its charter with NATO, Ukraine completed that network of relationships with its neighbors by launching a major regional project with Moldova and Romania. Kuchma met with his counterparts Petru Lucinschi and Emil Constantinescu in the Ukrainian city of Izmail, situated on the Danube near the point where the three countries’ borders intersect. The choice of location was symbolic, as the city and surrounding area in multiethnic southern Bessarabia has changed hands repeatedly between the three countries. The three presidents signed a joint declaration and documents launching 11 initiatives. They include:

— instituting regular meetings of the three countries’ presidents at least once a year, and periodic meetings of the prime ministers and foreign ministers

— coordination and mutual support in the three countries’ relations with European institutions

— mutual exchanges of information regarding the protection of ethnic minority rights

— a free economic zone, centered on the Danubian ports Reni (Ukraine), Giurgiulesti (Moldova), and Galati (Romania)

— a Lower Danube Euroregion and an Upper Prut Euroregion, each to encompass border districts of the three countries (The Upper Prut region is to center on the once-Austrian area of Bukovina, which is currently divided between Ukraine and Romania. The presidents will jointly approach European and international organizations to help fund projects within these Euroregions. The presidents agreed to create a German-Ukrainian-Romanian university in Bukovina’s capital Chernivtsy/Cernauti with Austrian and German assistance. The city, known as Czernowitz under Austrian rule until 1918, was the site of Europe’s easternmost German university)

— construction of additional border-crossing points between their countries, and simplification of border-crossing procedures

— cooperation in combating cross-border crime on the state-to-state and region-to-region level.

The three presidents observed that their countries’ decision to cooperate "in a region considered until recently a potential source of conflict reflects our recognition of the priority of European values." U.S. vice-president Al Gore, co-chairman with Kuchma of the U.S.-Ukrainian interstate cooperation commission (Kuchma-Gore commission) telephoned Kuchma in Izmail to congratulate the three presidents. Gore stated that the Izmail meeting and decisions represent not only an initiative for functional cooperation among neighbors, but also "a significant contribution to European security."

Yeltsin Vetoes Bill on Religion.

On July 22, Russian president Boris Yeltsin announced that he would not sign into law a controversial bill "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations." The bill would have divided religions into two categories: into the first class would go a small group of religions described as "traditional to Russia" (Russian Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism). Into the second would go all the others. Religions in the second class would be stripped for a 15-year period of their existing rights to conduct missionary activity, own churches or other property, open bank accounts, publish texts and maintain schools.

The bill had been overwhelmingly approved by both houses of the Russian parliament and enthusiastically endorsed by the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Communist Party. But it aroused deep concern among Russian liberals and followers of nonconformist and other minority religions. Pope John Paul II appealed to Yeltsin to veto the bill because, he said, it would threaten Roman Catholic parishes throughout Russia with extinction. And the U.S. Senate warned that, if Yeltsin signed the bill, it would cut off aid to Russia.

Yeltsin sent the bill back to parliament on July 22 with a detailed list of those articles which, in his view, were unconstitutional or violated Russia’s international obligations. Yeltsin stressed that the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of worship and describes all religions as equal. "There can be no democratic society," the president concluded, "where the constitution is violated and the interests of minorities are not protected."

The bill has been seen as part of a backlash against all things Western currently gaining ground in Russian society. The early 1990s saw an almost euphoric welcome for Western ideas in Russia but a reaction has now set in. This hits, in particular, what some see as the undue and unwelcome influence now enjoyed in Russian society by the United States.

The deputy speaker of the Duma, Aleksandr Shokhin, criticized the U.S. Senate’s intervention. He said Yeltsin would have vetoed the law with or without the warning. But, he said, the Senate had handed the opposition a stick with which to beat the president. Sure enough, firebrand Communist Duma deputy Viktor Ilyukhin said Yeltsin’s veto was proof that Russia was now no more than "a Western protectorate." Ilyukhin and other Communist and nationalist leaders said Yeltsin’s action had stripped Russian youth of the protection against alien influences that the bill was trying to put in place. With the Duma not due to return from its summer recess until September, the bill is now set to remain in limbo for several weeks.

Russian Economy Continues to Shrink

Celebrating the first anniversary of his reelection at the beginning of July, President Yeltsin told the Russian people in a radio address that the recession that had seen the Russian economy shrink by 39 percent since 1991 was finally over. "The economy has begun to grow," he declared. Yeltsin was echoing a claim by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin that gross domestic product grew by one percent in the first half of the year.

The latest government figures cast doubt on this assertion, however. On July 15, Russia’s State Statistics Committee released its semiannual report on economic performance. It showed that, instead of growing, GDP fell by 0.2 percent in the first six months of 1997 compared with the same period in 1996. Industrial production reportedly performed better than overall GDP, however. Output for the first six months of the year was 0.8 percent higher than the comparable period in 1996. Some economists continued to argue that the official statistics underestimate real growth by understating the size of the shadow economy and that GDP is probably therefore larger than indicated. And the government can be proud of other economic achievements. Currency reserves are up, the ruble is steady and inflation is continuing to fall: by June, it had dropped to 14.5 percent year-on-year.

Nonetheless, the Economy Ministry remains cautious, warning the government that GDP will not begin to grow until next year. The ministry predicts that this year’s figure for industrial production will total no more than 98 to 100 percent of last year’s, while agricultural production will reach only 95 percent of the 1996 volume. The ministry says that efforts to overcome the recession are being undermined by a large budget deficit, high tax and interest rates, the continuing reluctance of banks to invest in the real economy, and a wage debt currently estimated at 55.33 trillion rubles and growing.

Kremlin Approves Radical Military Reform Plan

The urgent need to reduce, restructure, reform, and, ultimately, to rebuild the armed forces — a set of problems that has festered in Moscow since well before the collapse of the Soviet Union — reemerged over the past fortnight as a flashpoint of contention between the Kremlin, its political opposition, and various groups affected in one way or another by defense policy-making. The central event in the latest chapter of this long drama was President Boris Yeltsin’s unexpected announcement on July 16 that he had signed off on a series of measures that, by all indications, could radically reshape Russia’s disintegrating military machine. Yeltsin’s action provoked sharp criticism from a group of ex-military men with ties to the Kremlin’s Communist and nationalist opposition, and seemed likely to sharpen differences between contending interest groups in the country’s Defense Ministry and throughout its defense establishment.

In a nutshell, the measures approved by Yeltsin will continue the Kremlin’s policy of reducing the size of the armed forces inherited by Russia from the Soviet Union. More importantly, however, they will also radically alter the organization of the armed forces by consolidating its existing five branches into just two (for more details on the reforms, see *Lunev*). Russia’s Ground Forces, traditionally the most dominant of the country’s service branches, appears to be the biggest loser. Its independent command is to be dissolved into the Defense Ministry and many of its operational functions will devolve to Russia’s military districts.

Ex-Generals Counterattack

A trio of influential ex-generals were quick to denounce the Kremlin’s military reform plans. Former defense minister Igor Rodionov, dismissed abruptly from his post by Yeltsin in May, accused the political leadership of pursuing reform irresponsibly and charged that the new measures would result in the army’s collapse. He also intimated strongly that at least some of those involved in drafting the reform plan — including Defense Council secretary Yury Baturin — were operating as a "fifth column" on behalf of foreign powers, with the intention of undermining Russia’s defense capabilities. Rodionov’s sentiments were echoed by Duma Defense Committee chairman Gen. Lev Rokhlin, who accused the Kremlin of acting hastily and arbitrarily in formulating the reform measures. The two were joined by former Kremlin security supremo Aleksandr Lebed, who made public several vague complaints about the Kremlin’s plan lacking concrete mechanisms for implementation and financing.

The kindred remarks by Rodionov and Rokhlin were no accident. The two were allies during Rodionov’s brief tenure as Defense Minister, and Rodionov has more recently joined an organization created by Rokhlin, ostensibly to protect the interests of Russian military personnel and defense industry workers. Despite claims to political neutrality (and Rokhlin’s own membership in the pro-government faction "Russia is Our Home"), the leadership list of Rokhlin’s organization reads like a "who’s who" of hard-liners involved in the August 1991 coup and the bloody October 1993 confrontation between the president and parliament. Many of those leaders, if not Rokhlin or Rodionov themselves, clearly have a broader political agenda in mind; one of them was quoted on July 9 as saying that "if the president and government do not suit us, we must change the state order." The efforts of extremist political groups have thus far had little discernible impact on the actions of Russia’s officer corps, but disgruntlement continues to grow and military personnel may now be more receptive to such political exhortations. Rokhlin himself enraged the Kremlin in late June when he issued an appeal calling upon Russian officers to organize against the government’s military policies.