Power Struggles Worsen As Yushchenko Tries To Shake Off Russian Influence

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- When the Soviet Union existed, Ukraine and Russia were the closest of friends, frequently calling one another “brothers” in over-the-top and sugary Communist communiqu├ęs. Indeed, modern-day Russia can trace its origins to a mediaeval kingdom formed around Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

Viktor Yushchenko addressing his nation on New Year's eve

In short, it was hard to imagine the two Slav peoples ever falling out.

But after the recent gas crisis it is no exaggeration to say that inter- governmental relations between the two are at their lowest ebb since the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991.

Ukraine, a country of 47 million people and territorially bigger than France, may have got its Russian gas switched back on after a bizarre face-saving deal, but it is not in the clear yet.

There are two visions for Ukraine: one sees it becoming a western-style democracy; the other has it aligning itself with Russia once again.

Views are passionately held on both sides, with the country split for historical, linguistic and cultural reasons.

Large parts of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, where Russian is the language of choice, feel nostalgic for those warm relations with Moscow. But western Ukraine in particular, where Ukrainian is spoken, is desperate to distance itself from a relationship it always despised.

A battle for Ukraine, its future direction and the nature of its society, has been quietly rumbling on for years. If Ukraine needed a reminder that the battle is far from over, the gas crisis was it.

The “Orange revolution” of 2004 was indisputably a great victory for the pro-western camp.

It was bankrolled by UK-based Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who has an acute loathing of Russian President Vladimir Putin and is keen to thwart the Kremlin when he can.

US-funded non-governmental organisations played a role too, and questions linger about the precise extent of Washington’s involvement.

The revolution propelled Viktor Yushchenko into the presidency, a move that seemed to end centuries of Russian influence at a stroke.

Putin had openly backed Yushchenko’s pro-Russian rival, Viktor Yanukovych, but he appeared permanently discredited after his supporters were found guilty of vote-rigging and Moscow was left with egg on its face.

Yushchenko and his firebrand of a prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (they have since fallen out and she has been sacked) quickly outlined a vision for Ukraine that took it away from Moscow’s orbit and set it on a radical, pro-western course.

They made it clear they wanted Ukraine to join the European Union, Nato, and the World Trade Organisation, and were accordingly feted in London and Washington.

Conversely, Yushchenko was lukewarm to two Russian-backed organisations designed to keep former Soviet states in Moscow’s orbit, Russia’s Single Economic Space and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Though he was careful not to spell it out, Yushchenko slowly started to roll back Russian influence in Ukraine.

Ukrainian businessmen with strong Russian connections saw their companies renationalised and sold; hundreds of Russian language schools were closed down; and Ukrainian politicians started making hostile statements about the continued presence of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea.

The recent gas crisis marked a new low in the two countries’ relations.

For Yushchenko and his supporters, Moscow’s demand to more than quadruple prices for Russian natural gas was an economic declaration of war and a bullying attempt to damage Ukraine’s economy and influence the balance of power in Russia’s favour.

Ukraine is facing crunch parliamentary elections in March that will bring a new prime minister to power and make the parliament and the premier more powerful than Yushchenko.

In his eyes, the gas row was therefore a crude Russian device designed to cast him and his handling of the economy in a bad light ahead of March in order to boost the pro-Moscow camp that has capitalised on his problems and staged a remarkable comeback.

“It was a calculated blow against Yush-chenko, of that I am sure,” said Eduard Scheglov, a Ukrainian nationalist and a sympathiser with the Orange movement.

“Moscow was worried that … a new strong Orange coalition would come out of the elections despite [Yushchenko’s] lost votes.”

But Moscow insisted it was merely trying to move the two countries’ commercial relationship to a market footing and said the price increase had nothing to do with politics. It wanted $230 per 1000 cubic metres of gas, a price it argued was reasonable given that the average price in western Europe was $240. In the end, it was agreed that Ukraine would pay $95, up from $50 last year.

For pro-Russian Ukrainians, the crisis was an artificial one of Yushchenko’s own making. Gennady Basov, head of the Russian Movement in Sevastopol where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based, believes it was all part of Yushchenko’s campaign strategy.

“The current government is trying to create an atmosphere of hysteria around Russia so that it can do well in the elections. It is trying to make an enemy of Russia because it is the only way it can win votes in western Ukraine.”

For now Ukraine’s internal struggle and the external interest in its affairs show no signs of abating.

And Russia is not about to relinquish its interest. Pipelines carrying its gas to the west criss-cross the country; its Black Sea fleet is based there, as are radar stations; and there is a significant ethnic Russian population (17%).

The US is also unlikely to lose interest. It has found an important strategic ally in Yushchenko’s Ukraine and viewed the Orange revolution as the unambiguous victory of freedom over Soviet-style authoritarianism.

Torn between Russia and the west, Ukraine will have to choose its own path, and whichever one it chooses the ride ahead promises to be a rough one.

Source: Sunday Herald