Medvedev Takes Sides In Ukraine Poll

MOSCOW, Russia -- President Dmitry Medvedev lashed out at Ukraine’s pro-Western leader Viktor Yushchenko on Tuesday, indicating that the Kremlin is counting on a change of leadership when Russia’s most important neighbor state votes in a presidential election.

President Dmitry Medvedev (L) lashed out at Ukraine’s pro-Western leader Viktor Yushchenko on Tuesday.

Analysts said Medvedev was effectively telling Ukrainians to vote Yushchenko out of office in the election scheduled for January.

In an open letter to Yushchenko, Medvedev said he would postpone sending a new ambassador to Kiev and accused the Ukrainian president of putting gas supplies to Europe at risk by souring ties with Moscow.

Medvedev suggested that only a new president could restore friendly relations between the two countries.

“I am sure that our relations will return to a strategic partnership in the foreseeable future. I hope that a new Ukrainian leadership will be ready for this,” he said in a video address published on his blog on Tuesday.

Medvedev announced that Russia’s new ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, would only be dispatched after relations improved.

“In the present situation, I decided not to send our ambassador to Ukraine. He will start his job later. The time will depend on the dynamics of our relations,” he said.

The appointment of Zurabov, a former health and social development minister, has been beset with difficulties. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry only formally endorsed him last week, almost two months after Moscow’s previous envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, retired.

But national media reported at the same time that Yushchenko would probably not immediately hand credentials to Zurabov and that the Kremlin was considering withholding the ambassador until the presidential vote.

Sergei Markov, a State Duma deputy for United Russia, said the impasse surrounding Zurabov was one of the reasons for Medvedev’s anger.

“He is reacting to the unprecedented delay of a formal agreement to the ambassador. … It seems the only reason for this is that Mr. Zurabov will represent the Russian Federation,” Markov told The Moscow Times.

Speaking on a balcony at his Sochi residence in front of the Black Sea, a casually dressed Medvedev outlined what he called “Kiev’s openly anti-Russian positions.”

As examples, he named “the obstruction” of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, a “campaign” to roll back public use of the Russian language and Ukrainian attempts to “distort” Soviet history. Medvedev also accused Ukraine of supplying weapons that Georgia used in last year’s five-day war over South Ossetia. “It was with Ukrainian weapons that civilians and Russian peacekeepers were killed,” he said.

Ukraine was one of Georgia’s biggest arms suppliers in the years before the war.

Moscow’s lease of a base for the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol has been a thorn in relations with Kiev since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Both sides have also clashed over Ukrainian attempts to describe the deadly Holodomor famine of the 1930s as a genocide ordered by Josef Stalin.

But the biggest sparring point has been Yushchenko’s ambition to bring Ukraine into NATO, a policy that is unpopular with many Ukrainians.

Yushchenko did not immediately react Tuesday, and Ukraine’s acting Foreign Minister Volodymyr Khandohiy merely told reporters that Medvedev’s letter was being studied. Khandohiy also said Yushchenko had approved on Friday a program to prepare the country to meet NATO membership criteria, Bloomberg reported.

Medvedev’s foreign policy aide, Sergei Prikhodko, said the president’s address did not indicate a “severing or freezing” of relations with Kiev.

“Over the last few years, we have to say objectively that the political leadership of Ukraine has pursued a course of curtailing mutually beneficial, open and equal cooperation with our country,” Prikhodko told reporters in Sochi.

Markov said the recent visit of Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill to Ukraine was also to blame. He recalled that the patriarch had to skip a planned trip to Ukraine’s western Rivne region because of nationalist protests and that his 10-day visit was overshadowed by a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats between Moscow and Kiev.

“Patriarch Kirill took great pains to restore ties with Ukraine, and this is what he got for that,” Markov said.

He accused Kiev of staging the diplomatic expulsions to spoil Kirill’s visit.

Ukraine ordered an adviser at the Russian Embassy to leave for “undiplomatic activity” on July 30, shortly after Kirill arrived. Moscow in turn expelled the head of the Ukrainian Embassy’s political section.

Medvedev said Kirill’s visit was “very significant” and that he and the patriarch had agreed at a meeting afterward that “our brotherly people could not be disunited.”

In what appeared to be a thinly veiled warning to the European Union, Medvedev also complained that Kiev had bypassed Moscow by signing an agreement with EU leaders that was “absolutely incompatible” with a Russian-Ukrainian deal that ended a gas war in January. The deal committed Ukraine’s Naftogaz Ukrainy to fill up its storage tanks this summer with gas bought from Gazprom and sell it back in the winter for supply to the West.

On July 31, the EU, Ukraine and international lenders reached a deal on gas sector reforms that will pave the way for $1.7 billion in loans to support gas deliveries to Western Europe.

Moscow has criticized that agreement because it forces Western-style reforms on debt-ridden Naftogaz that might bring the company further outside of its control.

Raising the prospect of a new gas war, Ukraine wants to sharply cut the amount of Russian gas that it buys next year from the 52 billion cubic meters stipulated in a 10-year contract to just 35 bcm, a reduction that could save it $1.8 billion, Vedomosti reported Tuesday. Gazprom has rejected any cuts.

Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Medvedev’s address was clearly connected with the beginning of the election campaign in Ukraine. “The criticism is directed not at Ukraine or at a political faction but quite clearly at one person, that is Yushchenko,” Ryabov said.

“It is a warning to all political forces that if you want to work with the Kremlin, you cannot associate yourself with Yushchenko,” he said.

In Ukraine’s presidential vote in 2004, then-President Vladimir Putin publicly supported the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.

Yushchenko, whose approval rating stands at about 4 percent, has little chance of winning re-election. Yanukovych is in the lead with 24 percent.

Ryabov also suggested that Medvedev’s comments were the latest volley in a campaign to prove that he is a tough leader. The first volley, he said, was Medvedev’s recent statement that he alone made the decision to order Russian troops into South Ossetia during the conflict with Georgia last August.

The second was a bill sent to the Duma on Monday that would widen the president’s powers to deploy troops abroad, he said. “He is telling political elites at home that he is just as tough as his predecessor,” Ryabov said.

Source: The Moscow Times