Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s team is trying to dispel the fears widespread in the West that Ukraine may swerve on its foreign political course after the appointment of Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister. Yanukovych is perceived by many as pro-Russian; however, his party pledged in the national unity declaration signed on August 3 to continue Yushchenko’s European Union and NATO integration efforts (see EDM, August 2, 4). The most recent statements by Yanukovych have somewhat diverged with the promises of Yushchenko and the ministers who represent his party in the new cabinet that Ukraine’s course will not be changed. The possibility that Ukraine may return to the multi-vector course pursued by Yushchenko’s predecessor Leonid Kuchma is looming on the horizon.
Yushchenko told European Union Secretary-General Javier Solana by phone on August 8 that Ukraine’s European integration course will not be reversed, as it was confirmed in the recent national unity declaration. The press service of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party quoted Foreign Affairs Minister Borys Tarasyuk — a Yushchenko appointee who will continue to serve under Yanukovych — as saying that Ukraine’s foreign political course will remain unchanged irrespective of the cabinet’s composition. He recalled that the constitution leaves it to the president, rather than prime minister, to define foreign policy priorities.
Immediately after endorsing Yanukovych as prime minister on August 4, the parliamentary majority, which is dominated by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (PRU), voted to allow foreign troops to enter Ukraine for military exercises. The previous parliament had twice this year refused to do that, disrupting the Ukraine-U.S. Sea Breeze exercise, which had been scheduled to be held in Crimea in June. The PRU capitalized on this in order to boost its own popularity ahead of the possible parliament dissolution and early elections, backing the anti-NATO protests across eastern and especially southern Ukraine in May-June. Now that parliament stays and Yanukovych is prime minister, there is no need for the PRU to abuse anti-NATO sentiment.
The PRU is, however, more sensitive to Moscow’s disapproval of Ukraine’s pro-NATO course than Yushchenko’s party. In his most recent statements on NATO, Yanukovych did not sound enthusiastic at all. Meeting another appointee of Yushchenko who will continue to serve in his cabinet, Defense Minister Anatoly Hrytsenko, on August 7, Yanukovych urged the cabinet, the president and parliament to take “a balanced decision on NATO” and to be guided by “economic expediency” in cooperation with NATO, which should be “a two-way street.” “NATO is an issue too sensitive for our society,” Yanukovych said.
The two ministers, who are among Yushchenko’s most influential allies in the cabinet, have tried to soothe the possibly negative effect of Yanukovych’s statements on Western partners. Hrytsenko, speaking after his meeting with Yanukovych, said that the prime minister “wants cooperation with NATO to be clearly understood, depoliticized, and beneficial for Ukraine.” Tarasyuk, addressing a briefing on August 8, said that NATO membership is still on the agenda and that Yanukovych should go to Brussels to meet NATO leadership in September. Tarasyuk suggested that Ukraine should be ready for a referendum on NATO membership by 2008. A referendum on NATO has been one of PRU’s conditions for alliance with Yushchenko.
Yanukovych, however, is going to pay his first foreign visit to Moscow, rather than Brussels. Tarasyuk said that Yanukovych should meet with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in mid-August. Ukraine’s membership in the Russia-dominated Single Economic Space (SES) will most certainly be on the agenda of that meeting. Ukraine’s participation in that organization — simultaneously with EU integration — is a goal that Ukraine should pursue, according to the national unity declaration. A clause on SES membership was inserted in the document at the PRU’s request, but with a caveat that WTO norms should be adhered to.
Ukraine’s WTO membership, however, may be postponed. Speaking at the Foreign Affairs Ministry on August 8, Yanukovych warned against haste in adopting the legislation necessary for Ukraine to join the WTO. He said this may result in adverse economic consequences for Ukraine and suggested that Ukraine may join the WTO in 2007, rather than by the end of 2006, as Yushchenko earlier declared. However Tarasyuk, addressing journalists after meeting Yanukovych, recalled that attaining WTO membership by the end of 2006 has been a goal set by the government coalition. Tarasyuk hinted at a press conference that he may resign if the Euro-Atlantic and European integration course is reversed.
Yanukovych’s PRU controls most of the cabinet, including all the ministries shaping economic policy. But the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and justice, as well as all the heads of law-enforcement agencies are members of Yushchenko’s team, according to the coalition agreements reached between Yushchenko and Yanukovych. This should allow Yushchenko to control Ukraine’s course, but the cabinet whose declared mission is, ironically, national unity, is apparently doomed to send mixed signals to the world.
(Channel 5, August 4, 7; RIA-Novosti, August 7; UNIAN, Ukrayinska pravda, ICTV, August 8)