Friday, February 20, 2009

The Orange Emperor Has No Clothes

MOSCOW, Russia -- Despite living separately for the last 17 years, Russia and Ukraine are still inextricably intertwined. Events in one country inevitably have an impact on the other. In fact, two of Vladimir Putin's greatest foreign policy failures were linked to Ukraine.

Putin (L) and Yushchenko smile at a photo op.

The first was in 2004, when then-President Putin personally meddled with Ukraine's presidential election process and his preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, lost under shameful circumstances.

The second flop occurred early last month when Prime Minister Putin temporarily halted gas supplies to Europe in the heat of the gas war with Ukraine, a move that will have negative long-term consequences for Russian-European political and economic relations.

At the same time, Moscow's defeat does not signify a victory for Kiev. As President Viktor Yushchenko's term in office approaches its end, Ukraine is poised on the brink of a severe economic and political crisis that will most likely be worse than Russia's.

Ukraine's deep recession stems as much from the global crisis as from the state's inept management of the economy. What's more, Kiev's leadership is constantly mired in political struggles that go deeper than the most visible battle between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The main political factions have lost credibility with voters and lost respect from the international community. Moreover, the rule of law and independence of the court system has been severely eroded under Yushchenko's presidency.

In addition, few of the foreign policy goals set by champions of the Orange Revolution have been achieved. The hope of joining NATO has amounted to nothing, and the prospects for integration with Europe have all but disappeared.

To make matters worse, Russian-Ukrainian relations have never been as bad as they have been during the past four years.

What are the reasons for these dismal results? Is it because the country's political elite are too inexperienced or inept? Paradoxically, the roots of today's problems can be traced to the 2004 Orange Revolution itself.

The initial euphoria over the "democratic revolution" drew attention away from the election violations surrounding Yushchenko's victory. After the first vote, which was held in November 2004, the Central Election Commission declared Yanukovych the winner.

Then thousands of Yushchenko supporters protested in the streets, alleging that the vote was rigged. In response, the Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the results and ordered a repeat of the second election, which was held a month later.

Logically speaking, if the first election results were annulled, there should have been a completely new election open to all candidates; under these conditions, perhaps there would be have been people running in the race.

Instead, there was simply a rerun of the old election between Yushchenko and Yanukovych, which Yushchenko won. This is a vivid example of Ukrainian legal nihilism, and to this day Yushchenko is fond of manipulating the Constitution and court system to strengthen his own political position.

In addition, outside forces played an important role in shaping Ukraine's internal political process. It is true that Russia intervened by supporting Yanukovych, but the West's intervention was more powerful, including the support of nongovernmental organizations within Ukraine and developing a global PR campaign in support of Yushchenko.

After Yushchenko became president, the Orange coalition declared their new strategy of aligning with the West. This strong, pro-Western orientation, unprecedented in Ukrainian politics, complicated its relations with Moscow.

With practically no chance of joining the European Union, Ukraine has been left without a well-defined goal. It is now difficult to take seriously the popular slogan of Ukraine's "European integration."

One of Yushchenko's most important political goals was gaining Ukraine's membership in NATO, and this immediately became a source of heated contention with Russia. Moreover, Yushchenko tried to play the Ukrainian nationalism card, but this was clearly a flawed approach in a country with so many different ethnicities and cultures.

According to a recent Public Opinion Foundation-Ukraine Internet rating, if the presidential election were held today, only 1.9 percent of the poll participants would vote for Yushchenko.

In any event, the 2009 presidential election campaign promises to be heated, and this could ultimately complicate relations with the country's neighbors, particularly Russia. The recent gas war with Russia has shown that the Ukrainian president is willing to take risks and that he can skillfully provoke Moscow to make the Kremlin look bad.

The biggest risk would be for Yushchenko to provoke Moscow on the issue of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, but this could lead to a conflict much more serious than the gas war.

Considering Ukraine's important geopolitical position, events in the country have direct repercussions for Russia and Europe. Kiev's politicians, however, do not fully appreciate this fact as they are more caught up in internal battles and the struggle for their own political survival. This shortsightedness will not change until a new, more pragmatic generation of politicians come to power.

For their part, Ukraine's neighbors have yet to figure out how best to deal with Kiev. Moreover, they continue to believe in myths: Europeans like to believe the fairy tale that Ukraine is building a European democracy, and Russians like the myth that Ukraine — or at the very least its Russian-dominated eastern half — will one day return to the Russian empire.

Source: The Moscow Times

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