UKRAINE: Westwards, But Not Much More

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Ukraine's opposition forces have reached a coalition agreement that will give the populist Yuliya Timoshenko the post of Prime Minister. Foreign policy might change, but realism will prevail.

Yulia Tymoshenko at the European People's Party Summit in Portugal.

The Party of the Regions won the Sep. 30 election with 34 percent of the vote but the 'orange' opposition -- the Yuliya Timoshenko bloc with 31 percent and the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self Defence bloc with 14 percent -- reached an agreement last week to form a new cabinet.

Ideas of a grand coalition have been rejected, and the governing Party of the Regions, often described as favourable to close ties with Russia, is headed for four years in opposition.

There are concerns over what implications the complete exclusion from governance of the Party of the Regions led by Viktor Yanukovich could have. Ukraine's most powerful business circles back Yanukovich's party, as does the overwhelming majority of the population in the South and East, Ukraine's industrial heartland.

President Viktor Yushchenko, albeit somewhat ambiguously, had tried to show initiative in forming a grand coalition. "Both the forces that represent western Ukraine and those that stand for the eastern part of our country must be wise and far-sighted -- and they must communicate," he had recently told the German press. But his calls were not entirely heeded.

The first steps of the fresh and purely 'orange' alliance will be to abolish MPs' immunity and privileges, to work on a new constitution, and to ban deputies from changing factions, which was at the root of the controversy that spurred the early election.

Yushchenko issued a decree calling for early elections Apr. 2 after a group of parliamentarians switched to the governing coalition in what the President termed as a "usurpation of power."

Yet even the relationship between the two pro-Western leaders, Yushchenko and Timoshenko, has been nothing short of turbulent: President Yushchenko fired Timoshenko from the post of prime minister in 2005 after a period of power infighting that culminated in mutual accusations of corruption.

But supporters of the 'orange' forces hope the fear instilled by the powerful and well-organised opposition will hold the coalition together.

Orange supporters also expect the state to function more smoothly with both President and Prime Minister belonging to the same 'camp', though small disagreements could cause the cabinet's collapse as the orange forces have collected only a thin majority in parliament.

No one in Ukraine doubts that the alliance is fragile, and personal ambitions strong. Only a few days after the coalition agreement was announced, pro-presidential forces were accusing Timoshenko's bloc of unrealistic goals and of interfering with the exclusive prerogatives of the president.

Timoshenko demands the end of conscription from 2008, but the proposal is opposed by men loyal to the president.

Moreover, Yushchenko's loyal men fear that Timoshenko will cause disarray in the country's budget, as she has vowed to strengthen the state's hand in the economy, increase social spending and even revise past privatisation deals which in her opinion were unfair.

Yushchenko leans towards a liberal approach to economics -- with the state interfering only when absolutely necessary.

Some of the policies expected from Timoshenko could have repercussions beyond borders, as the orange leader has made the revision of gas price deals with Russia's giant gas monopoly Gazprom one of her main campaign mottos.

The repercussion could be felt immediately after the elections. In a clinically timed statement, Gazprom warned Kiev it owed 1.3 billion dollars in gas. The gas giant later corrected the statement, and clarified that the debt had been incurred by intermediary companies based in Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials recognised that an intermediary Ukrainian gas company had accumulated gas in its storage facilities without paying Gazprom. An agreement has been reached, and gas is being returned to Russian territory from Ukrainian storage facilities.

The new coalition, which is suspicious of the existing gas scheme and the men behind it, has announced it will strive for a transparent gas market without intermediaries. But the government's concrete measures and their possible implications will have to be well measured.

"Gas deals might be revised, but once this happens it will be the result of a mutual compromise," Natalya Shapovalova, foreign policy analyst at the Kiev-based International Centre for Policy Studies told IPS.

The analyst believes the controversy is more of an economic than political nature. "Russia tries to put pressure through energy issues but it's mostly a question of business," she says. "Tensions with Russia don't depend on the composition of the Ukrainian government."

On the opposite front, the new coalition announced it intends to bring Ukraine closer to membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) based on the results of referenda.

But the shift should not be overestimated, as even the nominally pro-Russian Party of the Regions had made membership of the EU, and cooperation with NATO its goals.

Analysts have pointed out that it is precisely the party's recent shift to a more pro-Western approach, abandoning the anti-NATO stances of their electorate, that cost them an election they expected to win.

"The previous cabinet was more careful with expressing such wishes due to coalition partners," Shapovalova says. "But now nothing will happen quickly, integration with NATO will continue, and maybe Ukraine could join the NATO membership action plan. But public opinion is negative and more consensus will be needed."

Source: IPS