Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 22

A visit to Kyiv by prominent members of Turkmenistan’s opposition following the death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on December 21 has triggered a scandal in Ukraine. Their host, Transport and Communications Minister Mykola Rudkovsky, has been accused of interfering with diplomatic affairs. Officials fear that his actions may have spoiled relations with Turkmenistan, a vital source of natural gas. President Viktor Yushchenko suggested that Rudkovsky should be fired, but Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is apparently of a different opinion. Rudkovsky is a prominent member of the Socialist Party, a key component of Yanukovych’s parliamentary coalition.

Former Turkmen deputy prime minister Hudayberdi Orazov and former ambassador to Turkey Nurmuhammet Hanamov arrived in Kyiv on December 22. They gave a press conference during which they called for a change of regime in Turkmenistan. Reaction from Ashgabat was obviously negative. Prime Minister Yanukovych, who flew to Turkmenistan to attend Niyazov’s funeral on December 24, had to soothe the local authorities, saying, “Relations and traditions that had formed during the years of Niyazov’s rule remain unchanged for us.”

More than half of the natural gas that Ukraine receives from Russia through the company RosUkrEnergo is of Turkmen origin. The price Ukraine pays for this gas is one of the lowest in Europe thanks to Turkmenistan’s liberal pricing policy. Because of the gas deal, Ukraine has never officially questioned the legitimacy of Niyazov’s iron-fisted rule or raised the issue of human rights violations in Turkmenistan. Kyiv was seriously afraid that an invitation to the opposition activists by a Ukrainian minister would prompt Ashgabat to raise the price of gas, according to the influential Ukrainian weekly Zerkalo nedeli.

On January 20 Zerkalo nedeli reported that Yanukovych had ordered an in-house investigation into Rudkovsky’s behavior. Rudkovsky responded by threatening to sue the newspaper. His press service issued a statement suggesting that a rival party had ordered the article and called it “a smear campaign.” The press service said that Rudkovsky had established contracts with Orazov and Hanamov several years ago, and that this was in no way connected to his business interests in Turkmenistan. (Prior to his election to parliament, Rudkovsky was involved in the energy business.) The press service denied that Rudkovsky’s actions are being investigated.

On January 22, the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers confirmed that Yanukovych had ordered an internal inquiry with regard to Rudkovsky “in response to a letter from the Ukrainian president dated December 28.” Simultaneously, the Security Service, the Foreign Ministry, and the State Border Service are investigating the legality of the visit by Orazov and Hanamov.

Yushchenko has fired Volodymyr Yelchenko, the ambassador to Austria for violating diplomatic procedure. It turned out that Yelchenko had ordered his subordinates to issue Ukrainian visas to Orazov and Hanamov following a telephone call from Rudkovsky in the early hours of December 22. Rudkovsky insists that he called as a private person, but Yelchenko said in an interview with Delo that he had treated Rudkovsky’s request for visas as an official request of the government. Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, however, has explained, “The ambassador was well aware that no one except for the Foreign Ministry can give orders to foreign missions.”

Yushchenko reportedly suggested that Rudkovsky should be dismissed. But Yanukovych told journalists on January 23 that he did not see a reason to dismiss him. On January 24, the first deputy head of Yushchenko’s secretariat, Arseny Yatsenyuk, said that Yushchenko would not insist on Rudkovsky’s dismissal until the internal inquiry produces results.

Yushchenko cannot insist on Rudkovsky’s dismissal, as only the majority coalition in parliament, which is hostile to him, can decide on ministerial dismissals, according to the constitutional amendments of 2004-2006. Rudkovsky is a prominent member of the Socialist Party (SPU), which is part of the ruling coalition that awarded Yanukovych to the post of prime minister. Rudkovsky was instrumental in the negotiations to set up a coalition between the Party of Regions, the SPU, and the Communists in summer 2006, for which he was awarded the post of minister.

If Yanukovych raised the issue of Rudkovsky’s dismissal in parliament, his relations with the SPU might be seriously spoiled. SPU leader and parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz has made it clear that he is on Rudkovsky’s side, despite the fact that Rudkovsky obviously violated procedures and, to all appearances, played a dangerous game with Ukraine’s energy security. Asked to comment on Rudkovsky’s case, Moroz drew parallels with the years when his SPU was in the opposition to former President Leonid Kuchma. “During the protests against Kuchma, the Russian leadership did not receive me, but prominent politicians did,” he told Channel 5.

(Interfax-Ukraine, December 24, January 22-25; Zerkalo nedeli, January 20, 27; Channel 5, January 20; Ukrayinska pravda, January 20, 24; Delo, January 24)