Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 19

On September 30, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma released Foreign Affairs Minister Borys Tarasyuk from his post. The president appointed Anatoly Zlenko, 62, a former minister of foreign affairs (1990-94) and ambassador to the United Nations (1994-97) and to France (from 1997 to date) as Tarasyuk’s successor. Zlenko’s record in office is an encouraging one, but it lacks Tarasyuk’s shine and achievements.

Tarasyuk, 51, a career diplomat, was the most outspokenly pro-Western member of the Ukrainian cabinet during his two years as minister. He had earlier served as envoy in Brussels and chief of Ukraine’s mission to NATO, was an architect of Ukraine’s highly successful partnership with the Atlantic Alliance, and energetically promoted his country’s relations with the United States, Western Europe, and neighboring Poland in his successive capacities as first deputy minister and minister. His public statements emphasized Ukraine’s European identity and a vision of the nation’s future in association with the West. These past five years, Tarasyuk acted on Kuchma’s instructions and implemented the president’s policies, sometimes moving a step or two ahead of Kuchma in the articulation of those policies, but always being covered by the president’s authority in implementing the policies.

Kuchma is being vague about the reasons behind his decision to release Tarasyuk. But the president seems to be hinting that at this stage he needs a figure more accommodating to Russia. While offering some perfunctory praise for the released minister, Kuchma skirted over Tarasyuk’s merits in developing relationships with NATO and the United States. The president declared that Ukraine currently needs in that post “a man of equilibrium,” capable of saying “not simply ‘yes’ or simply ‘no’ to other countries;” and that Ukraine’s relations with Russia need to be “evened out.” All this seems intended to imply that Tarasyuk’s Western orientation was too rigid or one-sided to suit Kuchma at this juncture.

Introducing Tarasyuk’s successor to the ministry staff, Kuchma remarked that Ukraine “must find a more suitable formula for relations with Russia. Those relations must be geared to mutually advantageous cooperation, not confrontation; and they must in no way be regarded as secondary in importance.” Kuchma stopped short of saying that Tarasyuk was being “confrontational” vis-a-vis Moscow, yet that had been the view in Moscow for some time–a view that Tarasyuk had more than once refuted successfully and with Kuchma’s implicit support. That support has now apparently been withdrawn.

The president’s move was by all evidence coordinated in advance with the Verkhovna Rada’s Chairman, Ivan Plyushch, who flanked Kuchma when the president announced the change of ministers. Plyushch, himself a staunch supporter of independence from Moscow, candidly declared that “the state of Ukraine’s economy does not allow the country to spend a winter without Russia.” Indeed, Ukraine faces a fuel and energy crisis unless Russian supplies resume and arrears are rescheduled.

In replacing the minister, Kuchma offered assurances that Ukraine’s foreign policy will not change. Such assurances are, however, a matter of routine when foreign affairs ministers are changed, irrespective of the underlying reasons. Only the follow-up moves will tell.