Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 172

Ukrainian Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s September 13-14 announcement in Brussels, removing Ukraine from consideration for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), was entirely predictable (see EDM, August 7, September 12). In all its aspects, including its technical breach of Ukraine’s constitution, which empowers the president to conduct foreign and security policies, Yanukovych’s announcement is an inescapable result of the internal political situation in Ukraine at the present stage. However, it is not the government’s final word on this issue, and it may prove to be a temporary detour on the road toward an eventual MAP, rather than a U-turn from it.

Attending a session of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at the ambassadorial level, Yanukovych declared that Ukraine is not prepared to embark on MAP, and called for a “pause” in discussions on the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO. Ironically, but credibly in this case, Yanukovych turned the democratic argument against Ukraine’s pro-NATO politicians, urging them to take public opinion into account. With Ukrainian opinion surveys showing support for NATO in the range of 12-25% countrywide, “We have to persuade society” regarding any further step toward NATO membership, Yanukovych declared during his two news conferences in Brussels following the NATO session.

Yanukovych obviously was not speaking as an authentic democrat, but he did speak as a politician in the competitive multi-party system that has evolved in Ukraine. He also spoke as a leader of Ukraine’s eastern regions in urging NATO (as well as pro-NATO groups back home) not to counterpose Ukraine-NATO relations to Ukraine-Russia overall relations. Ukraine “feels comfortable with both directions,” he said. The fallback on the Kuchma-era “two-vector” policy could not have been expressed more clearly.

Nevertheless, Yanukovych admitted that Ukraine has “no alternative to cooperating” with NATO and called for broadening such cooperation, with the possibility of MAP being “a matter of time.” During their joint news conference NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer singled out the areas of cooperation that are developing irrespective of any MAP: Ukrainian participation in NATO-led peacekeeping, logistical contributions to allied operations, and the ongoing military and security sector reform programs in Ukraine with NATO assistance.

Approval of a MAP for Ukraine was already out of question for NATO’s Riga summit in November. Hope for such approval was still alive in June-July (see EDM, June 15), despite the thwarting of joint military exercises that were scheduled to be held in Ukraine in the summer. Political mismanagement by Viktor Yushchenko’s presidential team and legislative sabotage by the Party of Regions forced the cancellation of those exercises. Nevertheless, the United States and other NATO countries deemed MAP approval at Riga possible, linked to the reconstitution of an Orange governing coalition in Kyiv. Ultimately, the formation of a government led by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in August killed the prospect of a MAP in November at Riga.

This sequence of events also suggests that Washington and NATO need not tie major policy decisions to summit events. Ukraine’s MAP, if and when it materializes, should cap a process of reforms with adequate public and financial support in Ukraine. It can be fittingly consecrated at summit events, but must not be driven by summit timetables.

Ukraine can still qualify for obtaining a MAP next year, conditional on its reform performance in the military and security sector and relevant civilian sectors. Technically, MAP status would only imply a relatively small advance from Ukraine’s present status under the Action Plan and the Intensified Dialogue on membership aspirations, which Ukraine obtained in 2002 and 2005, respectively. Politically, however, MAP status will become a milestone implying an official recognition of Ukraine’s membership aspirations by NATO and its readiness to guide the aspiring country on a clear time-table toward membership.

Military reforms necessitate raising Ukraine’s defense budget to the NATO-recommended benchmark of 2% of GDP by 2007. The Party of Regions and its allies in the parliamentary majority seem unlikely to vote such an increase, however.

Moreover, adequate funding of such reforms needs to be made politically sustainable by informing the public in all parts of Ukraine about NATO. The alliance’s popularity rating in Ukraine has dropped markedly since the Orange revolution, partly because President Viktor Yushchenko and some leaders in the then-governing Our Ukraine bloc would not risk tackling an unpopular issue ahead of the parliamentary elections. Budgetary funds in 2006, earmarked for public information efforts regarding NATO, have been used ineffectively or not used at all. The 2007 draft budget, prepared by leaders of the Party of Regions, no longer allocates funds for public information programs on NATO.

For their part, NATO allies expect a political consensus to be reached among the branches of power in Ukraine — president, government, and parliament — regarding the scope and pace of reform programs that Ukraine is prepared to undertake in order to continue its advance toward a MAP. On those conditions, a MAP can still be within Ukraine’s reach next year. Alternatively, Kyiv can pursue the MAP-related reforms in practice, without that label. The necessary financing, however, is in the Party of Regions’ hands — as is the control of most economic levers through government power — in consequence of Yushchenko’s political pact with Yanukovych’s party.

(UNIAN, Channel Five TV [Kyiv], Interfax-Ukraine, September 14-18)