Will Ukraine Choose A Sympathetic Russia Over A Democratic Europe?

KIEV, Ukraine -- After a week of bruising criticism from the West over the jailing of his main political opponent, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Tuesday heard the words that put all strongman leaders at ease.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, left, meets with his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, on Oct. 18, 2011, in Donetsk, Ukraine.

"It's Ukraine's internal affair," Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said of the seven-year jail term handed down last week to Ukraine's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The Kremlin chief then suggested he could offer Ukraine a discount on gas prices and called for Kiev to turn its back on its long-held desire for European integration by instead joining a Moscow-led trade bloc.

Medvedev's message was clear: if you join us, we will give you cheap gas and won't hassle you over trifles such as the rule of law like the West does.

That same day, the European Union cancelled Yanukovych's visit to Brussels, which had been scheduled for Thursday, casting doubt on a planned deal on free trade and political cooperation.

As Europe cools relations with Kiev amid Yanukovych's refusal to release Tymoshenko and broader concerns about backsliding on democracy, Russia appears increasingly confident it can pull Ukraine into its sphere of influence.

The former Soviet republic now finds itself at a fork in the road, forced to pick which way to lean to in its relations and style of governance.

"One side is pulling us toward imperial, Asiatic politics, the other toward democratic values," former President Viktor Yushchenko told TIME on Wednesday.

Yushchenko irked Russia with his pro-Western foreign policy after being catapulted to power by the Orange Revolution in 2004.

That uprising, which overturned the fraud-tainted election of Yanukovych, helped make Ukraine an outpost of democracy in a region of harsh regimes.

But Yushchenko and his Prime Minister Tymoshenko feuded throughout their time in office, and Yanukovych bounced back in the 2010 election.

He quickly repaired relations with Russia but insisted that European integration remained the priority.

At the same time, he has pursued what critics call authoritarian policies: a change to the constitution handed him greater powers, journalists complain of pressure to promote the authorities' agenda, and around a dozen members of the previous government are under investigations or on trial in criminal cases.

The contradiction between Yanukovych's foreign and domestic policies was forced into the open earlier this month when Tymoshenko was jailed for abuse of office in relation to a gas deal she sealed with Russia in 2009.

Western officials see the sentence as a crude way for Yanukovych to sideline his main political rival, and have urged him to find a way to free her.

But Yanukovych indicated that he is not ready to back down.

"What kind of signal would this give society?" he said on Oct. 17.

"That to be able to commit crimes one should be a member of the opposition?"

Two days after her jailing, Tymoshenko found herself the target of a new criminal case, this one accusing her of trying to embezzle $405 million from the state when she headed a gas company in the 1990s.

Observers say the reason Yanukovych is digging his heels in can be traced back to his personality — not just his animosity toward Tymoshenko but also his past.

Yanukovych cut his political teeth in the tough industrial city of Donetsk in the '90s.

"It's about who he is and where he's from. Having started down that road, how do you gracefully back out without looking weak? He can't have that," says a senior Western diplomat in Kiev.

"Ukrainians really don't like to be put under pressure," says Inna Bohoslovska, a pro presidential lawmaker.

The E.U. has signaled it will pause relations with Ukraine if Yanukovych doesn't take steps to strengthen judicial independence and rule of law.

European leaders have said that even if talks on the economic and political deals are concluded this year, it is unlikely to be ratified.

"Relations with Europe in the last three to four weeks are pushing Ukraine toward isolation," ex-President Yushchenko says.

If the E.U. door closes, officials in Kiev have hinted they could turn eastward, where Russia is waiting with open arms.

Moscow wants to see Ukraine in a customs union it has formed with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently touted a political and economic "Eurasian Union" that would reintegrate former Soviet republics.

That doesn't mean Yanukovych will certainly sign up to the Kremlin's various projects, as analysts say he doesn't want to undercut his own power in the country.

Some observers also suspect that Kiev is using the threats of closer relations with Russia as a bargaining tool with Brussels.

But a Ukrainian government official tells TIME that Yanukovych's tough stance on Tymoshenko, as well as its consequences for relations with the E.U., plays into Russia's hands.

"It's easy [for Moscow] to press him if he's weak," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Even if Ukraine holds firm against Moscow's attempt to woo it back into the fold, the country risks seeing its experiment with democracy cut abruptly short.

Yanukovych "may be remembered as just another dictator in the gray zone between the E.U. and Russia," wrote Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, an analyst at Carnegie Europe, in an article on the think tank's website.

"Yanukovych is not yet a tsar," says Tymoshenko adviser Hryhoriy Nemyria.

"But he wants to be a tsar with Ukraine as his kingdom."

Source: Time World

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