Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s working visit to Washington in late September left many observers wondering what, if anything, the visit had accomplished. The apparent purpose of the trip was to seek greater security assurances for Ukraine from the United States and gauge the level of support in Washington for Ukraine’s bid for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in December. Few in Washington, however, believe that Ukraine will be granted a MAP in December, even with U.S. support, and that European opposition to Ukraine in NATO will prevail.
Yushchenko’s meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on September 29 revealed that Washington was slowly distancing itself from the Ukrainian president. Prior to the meeting with Yushchenko, Bush met with the President of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus and praised him lavishly: “I’m honored to welcome my friend, the President of Lithuania, here to the Oval. Welcome back, Mr. President. I’ve come to admire your courage, your straightforwardness, and the job you’ve done for your country.” The photograph on the White House website showed the two men standing together with Adamkus holding Bush’s elbow (www.whitehouse.gov, September 29).
The meeting with Yushchenko was depicted in far less intimate trappings with Bush limiting his remarks to praise for Ukraine’s democratic turnaround. “I welcome you here to the Oval Office. I admire your steadfast support for democratic values and principles. A lot of Americans have watched with amazement how your country became a democracy. We strongly support your democracy. We look forward to working with you to strengthen that democracy.” The photo on the White House website avoided any hints of closeness between the two presidents and showed them sitting in the Oval Office (www.whitehouse.gov, September 29).
In remarks made during the brief press conference afterward, Bush, who has been an active proponent of Ukrainian membership in NATO, acknowledged that they had discussed NATO but avoided any statement in support of Ukraine’s ambitions to join the alliance.
Washington, according to sources in the administration, is experiencing fatigue with Yushchenko, but not with Ukraine per se, they stress. The president of Ukraine is widely perceived to be an inept leader, and Washington is hedging its bets on who will become the next president of Ukraine.
The perception of Yushchenko as an ineffective president was reinforced during his meeting with the United States-Ukraine Business Council on September 29. Speaking for nearly one hour, which left little time for questions, Yushchenko dwelt for some time on the political crisis in Kyiv, blamed the Ukrainian parliament of trying to destabilize the country, and accused the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, the Party of the Regions, and the Communists of being in a “partnership with Moscow.” He also described the Black Sea region as an “area of instability,” a description that raised some consternation among the representatives of American companies who attended the meeting. One participant noted that this was not the way to encourage potential investors to do business in Ukraine.
In his welcoming remarks, President of the United States-Ukraine Business Council Morgan Williams stressed that for business to continue moving forward in Ukraine, “a stable political and governmental environment is needed. The government also needs to view business as a partner and friend and pass the many reforms needed to bring about a much stronger, pro-business environment in Ukraine.” Apparently Yushchenko did not take these words to heart and proceeded to paint Ukraine as being less than stable.
Will “Yushchenko fatigue” spread to the EU? On October 6 the Ukrainian president is scheduled to visit the U.K., where he will meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband and take part in a working lunch with European Bank for Reconstruction and Development President Thomas Mirow (UNIAN news agency, September 29). From there he will proceed to Italy for October 7 and 8.
How European leaders, who have been more reserved toward Yushchenko than Washington, will welcome him remains to be seen. Much hinges on the forthcoming trip of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to Moscow to discuss gas supplies for Ukraine in 2009 with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It is doubtful, however, that the critical issue of the gas price for Ukraine will be decided, given that the Central Asian suppliers have yet to announce the price they will charge Gazprom for their gas.
If it is true, as some analysts in Kyiv believe, that Yushchenko set unrealistic goals for Tymoshenko in her negotiations with Moscow in order to discredit her afterward, the Europeans will be more spooked than usual about the possibility of another gas disruption in winter. Even the most remote possibility that Ukrainian internal political differences will affect European gas supplies could well condemn Yushchenko to becoming a political nonentity in the eyes of already skeptical Europeans.