Ukraine's Political Rift Bad News for Russia and the West

PARIS, France -- Ukraine has finally outgrown its decade-long, east-vs.-west identity crisis. Ukrainians are no longer wondering whether to turn to Moscow or Washington for prosperity.

They're wondering whether they need the rest of the world at all.

This quandary came close to all-out battle this weekend when internationalist President Viktor Yushchenko angrily suggested that his nationalist prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, quit. They later insisted that their unity remained uncompromised, but few appeared convinced.

The new identity crisis reflects Ukraine's increased confidence after last December's voter-driven revolution, and has accomplished what diplomats couldn't: It has put Russia and the West on the same side of the Ukraine question, at least for now. Russian and European investors want access to Ukraine's markets, even if it pits them against each other - and Timoshenko's populist policies have them rattled.

Russia's reasons for concern are more obvious and immediate. Russian companies are in no mood to lose their significant holdings in Ukraine in an overly zealous "re-privatization" campaign. The two countries' economies are so intertwined that any Ukrainian policy shift is bound to have repercussions on Russia. Saturday's showdown came at a meeting with Russian oil and gas executives over Ukraine's extension of price caps on fuel for the sowing season. Russian suppliers, who had agreed to the initial caps but not to the Timoshenko-driven extension, slashed supplies in protest.

Yushchenko's subsequent outburst at his premier buoyed Russian observers, and produced some of the most positive coverage of him in the Russian media in years.

Western investors, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings, and many are secretly rooting for the Russians - or at least hoping for some sign of compromise signaling that it's safe to enter the Ukrainian stage.

The U.S. government, which made Ukraine a symbol of the democratic regime change that President George Bush wants to see worldwide, is watching closely, too. If the new Ukraine turns out as stagnant or statist as the old one, Bush will need to cast about for another poster child. That would also discredit democratic movements elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, especially in Russia.

Yushchenko's problem is that Timoshenko's policies are highly popular among Ukrainians - and his aren't. With parliamentary elections 10 months away, this is no trivial matter. Yushchenko won western backing last fall with pledges to clean up and step up privatizations and adopt European standards and values, with an eye to EU and NATO membership. Timoshenko is answering to Ukraine's factories and farmers, who say they've had enough of outside interference.

The Ukrainians' position is understandable. Centuries of dominance by outsiders (usually Russian) were followed by a decade of post-Soviet "independence" that left Ukraine desperate and dependent on western aid and Russian politics. But despite Timoshenko's rhetoric, Ukraine can't climb out of this pit alone.

Russian observers draw parallels between today's Ukraine and Russia's experiences in the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin and his government's U.S. advisors launched unpopular economic reforms and faced off against a nationalist opposition that tapped voter frustrations. The result was years of turmoil: the bloody 1993 events at the White House, runaway inflation, rigged privatizations, and a president hopelessly alienated from his population.

Yushchenko is in a stronger starting position than Yeltsin was. Ukraine has already survived the toughest post-communist reforms, and is no stranger to inflation or funny privatizations. A careful study of Russia's mistakes over the past decade could help Yushchenko recognize and defuse threats before they overtake him, and save his country from a similar struggle. The question is whether Yushchenko is too focused on a future in Europe to look for guidance in his eastern neighbor's past.

Aside from the parliamentary elections, Yushchenko's other impending nightmare is constitutional reform. According to a deal struck during the December's election crisis, he pledged to relinquish many presidential powers in favor of more power for the premier. Even the deal's European backers are getting nervous. They'd much rather have Yushchenko at the helm than Timoshenko, who is more unpredictable and less beholden to them.

Saturday's blowup may have been enough to scare Timoshenko into compromises in the near term to keep her post. That would be good news for Yushchenko, caught between his prime minister and the rest of the world.

Source: RIA Novosti

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