Russian Premier Visits Kyiv: Did He Call At A Bad Time?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov led a government delegation to Kyiv on April 25. It was only a one-day visit, and Zubkov is expected to be replaced sometime this month anyway, following the inauguration of the new Russian president.

Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

But the timing was perfect to highlight the contrast between the concentrated and coordinated power that emanates from Moscow and the three-ring circus of executive authority that continues in Ukraine.

Bolstered by revenues from oil and gas exports, the Kremlin has eliminated any possible challenges to its rule from stroppy oligarchs, nosy media or whoever.

Vladimir Putin has reigned supreme for the better part of a decade and assured the smooth, if not democratic, transfer of power to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev.

Ukraine, on the other hand, has lurched from one power struggle to the next, dashing the hopes engendered by the country’s Orange Revolution.

Ever since Western reformer Viktor Yushchenko emerged from the 2004 revolution as president, he has been challenged – indeed defied – by political competitors who more often than not headed the government.

First it was the Donetsk strongman Viktor Yanukovych, who returned from an ignominious defeat in the 2004 presidential race to bully Mr. Yushchenko as premier.

Now, the president is grappling to restrain his one-time Orange ally Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving her second term as head of government under Yushchenko.

Highly popular among Ukrainians due to her combination of populism and toughness, Tymoshenko is expected to challenge Yushchenko for the presidency in 2009/2010.

But since Ukrainian leaders are apparently just as much opposed to sharing power as Russian ones, the fighting has started well in advance of the next elections.

As in the 1980s American movie Highlander: ‘There can be only one!’

Tymoshenko had hoped to use her control over the government to ingratiate future voters with largess and pay for it with revenues from privatization.

But Mr. Yushchenko, whose own popularity ratings have dropped to dismal levels since the days when he was known as the nation’s “messiah,” has prevented her from doing so in a game of cat and mouse that is great for political pundits, but pathetic for the country’s international image. Not only have badly needed legislative reforms and privatization been held hostage as a result of the domestic cold war, but the recent string of re-elections can only be described as a waste of public money.

As for the private money that is spent, for example, on waging nasty PR campaigns (highly profitable for sleazy media), it’s going to have to be paid back in the form of state favors otherwise known as corruption.

Please note at this point the heated battle between the president and his premier over proposed measures to stop corruption in the allocation of the country’s lucrative land plots.

Late last month, Yushchenko again suspended a government order to invest a single (government) authority with the right to allocate land plots. Currently, local authorities are allowed this coveted privilege and no doubt show great loyalty to any politician who allows them to continue doing so.

Tymoshenko and Co. were of course not pleased, prompting the fiery premier to, among other things, revive the specter of creating a parliamentary republic by parliamentary approved changes to the Constitution.

Once again, Mr. Yushchenko was threatened with having the rug pulled out from underneath him.

“A parliamentary form of rule in the country will finally establish some kind of order,” Ms. Tymoshenko said on national television late last month.

But the real battle is being fought (almost literally) over control of privatization.

A ringside recount of events goes something like this…

Earlier this year, Tymoshenko put forward a bold plan to privatize several lucrative state assets, including the much-coveted Odessa Portside Chemical Plant.

Although she obviously wants to raise cash from the sale to finance her government programs, Tymoshenko’s privatization record to date is exemplary.

During her first stint as premier, she pulled off the nation’s most transparent and publicly beneficial privatization sale - that of Krivyrizhstal steel mill, which netted the state $4.8 billion dollars.

But Mr. Yushchenko has halted the government’s privatization plan through a series of decrees.

Also by decree, the president has moved to stop Tymoshenko from cleaning house at the State Property Fund (SPF), which handles privatization.

The president has argued that Tymoshenko doesn’t have the right to fire SPF chief Valentyna Semenyuk, a leftover from the Yanukovych government.

Tymoshenko disagrees, citing an April 17 decision by the country’s integrity-challenged Constitutional Court in which it rejected a presidential appeal to uphold his decrees.

Sure of her rectitude, or just sick and tired of fooling around, the premier went ahead and appointed her own (acting) SPF chief, ordering him to stop corruption and move forward with privatization in contempt of the president’s decrees.

In a scene reminiscent of last year’s power struggle between Yushchenko and then Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Tymoshenko personally showed up to support her appointment at the SPF accompanied by guards.

For the time being, Tymoshenko’s man, one Mr. Andriy Portnov, has set up a parallel SPF office at the Cabinet of Ministers.

Last year, state guards sent by Yushchenko to eject a prosecutor-general whom he’d fired ran into resistance from a special police unit ordered into action by a member of Yanukovych’s coalition. As the conflict was being resolved in typical Ukrainian secrecy, rumors spread of a possible putsch.

This time around, the phrase being used to describe Ms. Tymoshenko’s action is “raider attack,” which has gained currency in Ukraine of late to describe illegal and often armed seizures of companies by tiny minority shareholders emboldened by dubious court decisions.

Such was (and still is) the state of executive power in Ukraine upon the visit of Russian premier Viktor Zubkov.

Although Russia clearly has much to gain from a divided and anarchic Ukraine, the politicians in Kyiv have a unique talent for petty and pointless bickering that requires little assistance from abroad.

The Kremlin has traditionally supported the third member of Ukraine’s three-ring circus, former Prime Minister Yanukovych, who continues to champion Russian as a second state language while opposing NATO membership for his country.

But the word on the street is that Moscow now sees Mr. Yanukovych as a political has-been.

However, both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko oppose official status for Russian and advocate NATO membership among other pro-Western policies.

So, a smart move by the Kremlin would be to feign support for both Tymoshenko and Yushchenko as they continue to go at each other’s throats.

Yushchenko has been said to be wooing Russia lately to compensate for his falling ratings at home.

Interestingly, though, Zubkov limited his meetings in Kyiv to Ms. Tymoshenko.

In addition to NATO and the language issue, the Russians have a wide array of interests in Ukraine: further penetration by Gazprom on the domestic Ukrainian market, the continued presence of the Black Sea fleet in Crimea and the construction of a bridge between southern Russia and Crimea, which many Russian politicians openly claim for Russia.

Although the bridge issue wasn’t on the agenda of their meeting, Zubkov raised the issue with Tymoshenko in Kyiv.

There are of course other Russian interests such as control over Ukraine’s Kremenchug Oil refinery, which was recently wrested from a Russian company, and Russia’s monopoly over fuel supplies to Ukrainian nuclear power plants, which is being threatened by an American contract.

Last month’s visit to Kyiv by Mr. Zubkov was certainly during ‘a bad time,’ but then again there haven’t been many good times for executive authority in Ukraine over the last couple of years.

And if Yushchenko and Tymoshenko don’t realize this, if they keep putting their personal ambitions above those of the country, allowing Moscow to grow more influential as a power broker, we will be seeing some of the above stated Russian interests resolved favorably for Moscow, even as important processes such as privatization and legislative reform continue to be bogged down in partisan politics.

Source: Eurasian Home