Weak Authority Emboldens Anti-NATO Protests In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The post-election crisis of Ukrainian state institutions may undermine President Viktor Yushchenko's and the Orange forces' goal to bring Ukraine into NATO during their term of office.


Amid a growing deficit of effective governance, pro-Russia groups find unprecedented leeway to frustrate Kyiv's policies on this and other issues affecting Ukraine's overall orientation.

The Verkhovna Rada has not yet managed to vote the legally required approval of the entry of troops -- in this case, from the United States and other NATO countries -- for the planned joint exercises in Ukraine.

Exercise preparations were planned in advance and were due to have started in the Crimea by late May.

However, with Yushchenko seemingly content to delay the parliament's opening long after the March elections, and a twice-released caretaker government lacking authority, anti-NATO political forces feel tempted to try interfering with the holding of exercises.

Anti-NATO protests have been underway in the Crimean port of Feodosiya since May 27 and turned into a round-the-clock, open-ended rally in the port on June 1.

Protesters aim to disrupt preparations for Sea Breeze-2006, a major naval and ground-force exercise. On May 27 the U.S. transport ship, Advantage, brought military equipment and personnel to Feodosiya to prepare that exercise.

The ship was unable to unload the equipment or land the technical personnel during three days amid local protests. Led by the Party of Regions and leftist pro-Russia groups, protesters claimed that the preparations were unlawful in the absence of parliamentary approval for the exercise.

On May 30, the equipment -- including arms and ammunition, Humvees and other military vehicles, container-type structures, and construction materials -- was finally ashore, but the accompanying technical personnel had to turn back with the ship.

Pickets blocked all exits from the port to prevent the equipment from being moved to its destination at the Staryy Krym training range.

By June 1 the rally had swelled with delegations from eastern and southern cities of Ukraine and Communist veterans joining the local Russian nationalist youth organization Proryv.

At least two Russian Duma deputies arrived that day and made inflammatory remarks, instantly broadcast by Russia's state television to drum up support for the action.

While Ukrainian marines are securing the equipment in the port against misappropriation, the presidential plenipotentiary representative in the Crimea, Henadiy Moskal, failed to persuade the protesters to lift the blockade.

As seen in televised footage, Moskal had to promise that the equipment would be turned over to the Ukrainian state and the Feodosiya municipality, if the parliament in Kyiv does not authorize the holding of this year's Sea Breeze exercise.

An emboldened Feodosiya municipal council -- dominated by the Party of Regions -- has adopted a decision that declares the city a "NATO-free zone," banning access by ships and personnel from NATO countries.

Although the council has no jurisdiction on such issues, its decision perturbs the atmosphere around the planned exercises and creates political complications in Kyiv.

The Feodosiya decision follows a pattern that has emerged in recent weeks in eastern and southern Ukraine on language issues, whereby oblast and city councils grant official status to the Russian language, although they have no jurisdiction on this matter.

Such extralegal decisions indicate that those local councils sense weakness in the central authorities.

Ukraine's Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries have responded belatedly with statements that the Advantage is a commercial vessel, not a naval one, therefore not requiring legislative consent to enter Ukraine (if so, that distinction does not address the military equipment and personnel aboard the U.S. vessel).

The ministries' statements point out that joint exercises with NATO countries enhance the Ukrainian forces' readiness, interoperability with NATO allies, and opportunities to participate in international operations; and that some of the equipment shipped in and infrastructure created for the exercises is handed over to Ukrainian forces afterward.

Thus, according to these ministries, anti-NATO protesters are "politicking" against Ukrainian interests while ignoring the Russian Black Sea Fleet's unlawful use of many land tracts and facilities in the Crimea.

The U.S.-led Sea Breeze-2006, involving personnel from 17 NATO member and partner countries, is the largest of several annual exercises scheduled to be held, mostly in the Crimea, between June and September of this year. The other annual exercises include Cossack Steppe (Ukrainian-Polish-British), Tight Knot (Ukrainian-British), and Combined Effort (Ukrainian-U.S.).

Responding to the Feodosiya situation, a May 31 statement by NATO Headquarters in Brussels points out that Sea Breeze is not a NATO exercise, but rather a Ukrainian-U.S. exercise in which NATO countries participate; and that delivery of equipment is a bilateral U.S.-Ukrainian matter, in which NATO as such is not involved.

While impeccably accurate for a Western audience, those distinctions will only sound like defensive casuistry to anti-NATO groups in Ukraine, where propaganda from Moscow and local misconception traditionally paints any Western forces with the broad black brush as "Natovtsy."

For its part, official Kyiv correctly links the exercises with NATO and the goal to strengthen Ukraine's relations with the alliance. Meanwhile, the public approval rating of NATO in Ukraine is said to be steadily declining.

This situation underscores the urgent need for an information campaign about NATO for the Ukrainian public.

However, driven by short-term electoral calculations, Orange leaders (with the notable exception of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Rukh party leader Borys Tarasyuk) have avoided addressing the public forthrightly on this unpopular issue.

Without an early start to a public information campaign, the Orange leadership's goal for Ukraine to be invited into NATO by 2010 cannot be successful -- and might even become moot if Yushchenko is swayed into opting for a coalition government with the Party of Regions.

Source: Eurasia Daily Monitor

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