Mixed Messages

KIEV, Ukraine -- The on-again, off-again, power tussle between Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Premier Viktor Yanukovych already has many diplomats confused as to who in Kiev is in charge, and which direction the country is heading.

Victor Yushchenko (L) and Viktor Yanukovych

Yushchenko, a proponent of speedy Western integration, has in recent months criticized Yanukovych’s stalling of reform initiatives while downplaying his arch rival’s attempts to muscle away control over domestic and foreign policy. But the question of who is ultimately in control, or holds more influence, is key.

Despite declarations from Yushchenko that his agenda would not be derailed, and assurances from high-level officials insisting Ukraine’s two Viktors are eager to be partners, both men still hold considerably different views on which direction Ukraine should go and at what speed.

Yanukovych has made an effort to appease Western diplomats, assuring them he has changed since Orange Revolution days - that he would support democratization and pragmatic Western integration while keeping relations with Moscow cool.

But his first moves as premier tell a different story. He has stalled integration initiatives. On the domestic front, his government has assertively interfered in the economy, slapping quotas on grain exports, for example.

Furthermore, the surprise announcement this week that Yanukovych would stop off in Moscow ahead of his big United States visit should not be taken lightly. The villain from the Orange Revolution has a history of favoring close ties with Moscow.

It is hard to remain calm as Yanukovych gradually eats away at Yushchenko’s authority. Equally disturbing is Yushchenko’s passive response. Harsh criticism and counter attacks against Yanukovych from Yushchenko-loyal political camps provides some relief. But the efforts do not eradicate rising uncertainty as to which Viktor is in control and which direction they are taking Ukraine.

Indeed, the wrestling match over authority on domestic and foreign policy has sent out a lot of mixed messages in recent months, but none as confusing as the events of this week.

As a front page article in the Post this week points out, Yanukovych will make his first trip to the U.S. since returning as premier. Ever more poised as Ukraine’s leading statesmen alongside an increasingly marginalized president, Yanukovych expressed his desire to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush.

While Bush has shunned the offer, it’s a clear attempt by the Donetsk strongman to further sideline Yushchenko.

Within Ukraine’s political arena, Yanukovych has played a game of cat and mouse, ignoring then partially acquiescing to Yushchenko’s demands.

Yushchenko issued a presidential order demanding he approve Yanukovych’s agenda for the U.S. visit. When Yanukovych failed to comply, Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, a dedicated Yushchenko ally, notified the U.S. Embassy that the premier’s trip would be postponed.

Yanukovych responded with a repeat call for Tarasyuk to be fired; Tarasyuk balked at Yanukovych, confidently suggesting Yushchenko would once again ignore such an appeal.

But a day later, on Nov. 29, what was described by a Cabinet official as “a technical” issue was settled, and Yushchenko signed off on Yanukovych’s trip.

Why the confusion? Was it purposely masterminded to prevent a Yanukovych-Bush meeting? Or was the trip genuinely on the verge of cancellation amid a serious fight to control foreign policy? Were the events a repeat of smoke-and-mirror political backroom maneuvering devised by brilliant spin doctors and strategic masterminds?

More likely, the diplomatic fiasco was the aftermath of a chaotic fight for authority by power hungry politicians who have once again put Ukraine’s interests on the backburner to personal ambitions.

Whatever the reason, what we sadly have again on the world arena is another mixed message coming from Kiev.

As another front page article points out, Ukraine has progressed in recent years, jumping ahead of other former USSR states, establishing itself as a beacon of democracy on former Soviet turf.

A study produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research outfit within the Economist magazine group, tagged Ukraine as a “flawed democracy,” a status short of a clear-cut “democracy,” but noticeably ahead of other former Soviet states lingering in the abyss as “hybrid” or “authoritarian” regimes.

Ukraine’s leaders need to finally get their act together and avoid such diplomatic debacles.

Failure to do so could further alienate disenchanted Ukrainians and complicate diplomatic relations with countries eager to help Kiev shed its reputation as a “flawed democracy” to join the rest of Europe.

Source: Kyiv Post