European Politics

Ukraine’s Russian Dilemma

Photo: Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko (left) visiting Austrian President Heinz Fischer. Photo Credit: HBP

On Jul. 8, Austrian President Heinz Fischer was playing host to Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko, who was seeking to enhance the political viability of his country abroad. Whilst he sought support for plans to join the European Union and NATO, at home his Prime Minister Julia Timoshenko was evidently frying different fish.

Fischer, in return for assurance of a “sensitive tone” from in support of Ukrainian EU ambitions, Yushchenko pledged to support in its aspirations to gain a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a goal that successfully realized a few months later. But for the the situation worsened in the weeks to come, politically as well as economically.

The war in Georgia in August 2008 showed a clear rift in the coalition government in between the two pro-Western and Orange Revolution parties Bloc Timoshenko and Yushchenko’s Nasha Ukraina. While the President openly supported Georgian President Michail Saakashvili, Prime Minister Timoshenko maintained caution, condemning neither the Russian military action, nor appearing to support Georgian actions.

The Ukrainian government finally fell in early September – though it had formally lost a parliamentary majority in June 2008 when two MPs left the coalition – with Timoshenko supporting the pro-Russian opposition, led by Victor Yanukovich, in limiting presidential powers.

“A political and constitutional coup d’etat has started in the parliament,” Mr Yushchenko said in a televised speech, where he accused his Prime Minister of treason. In mid-September, the Orange Revolution parties departed, and as the 30-day provision to form a new government passed its deadline, President Yushchenko called for snap elections on Dec. 7.

The internal rivalries between President and Prime Minister, as in 2005, led to the failure of their coalition government. And it has been just over one year since the last general elections were held. The internal power struggle also played into the vague decisions at the EU-Ukrainian Summit on Sept. 9 in Paris, where the Ukraine was only offered an Association Agreement, but denied Accession status at this stage.

By October, however, the economic situation dramatically worsened with the collapse of the stock market worldwide and financial instabilities. Consequently, the Ukraine – as Hungary – has received a US $16.5 bn. loan to stabilize the financial sector and counterbalance the turmoil. Interestingly enough, President Yushchenko was forced to withdraw his decree for the dissolution of parliament and suspend the elections by one week in order to tackle the economic and budgetary crisis. However, he dismissed the call by the Ms. Timoshenko to form a government of national unity.

Although the severe economic crisis has overshadowed the recent political events of one of Europe’s largest countries, at the heart of the matter are the personal and political ambitions of the large Ukrainian political parties and their proponents. The war in Georgia, however, has chanced the dynamics dramatically and provided the reason for Timoschenko’s tactical shift on the matter of relations to Russia in general.

Her ambitions, however, of becoming Ukrainian President are still the crowning goal of her political career, and Timoshenko had to realize that Russia does not wait when it comes to defending its interests. The threat of a military intervention, however – particularly in the Russian stronghold of the Crimean peninsula – seems at this stage unlikely, despite the stationing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

In the past four years since the Orange Revolution of 2004, Ms. Timoshenko has successfully undermined the authority of the Ukrainian President, the figure of the revolution Victor Yushchenko, and so has become the prospective successor for the pro-Western political elite.

But instead of an open political confrontation with Russia – something Ms. Timoshenko has done before in the past – she has softened her tone with the large neighbor. In March 2008, she led negotiations with Gazprom by agreeing to pay the demanded price that put an effective end to the tensions on energy supply.

Support for power-reducing legislation to temper the Ukrainian President in August 2008 signals that she might allow Yushchenko-rival Victor Yanukovich free passage in the upcoming presidential elections at the end of 2009 or early 2010, who would be welcomed by Russia. A renewed race between Yushchenko and Yanukovich undoubtedly would end in favor of the underdog of 2004, by then humiliating Yushchenko.

In the hope of continuing as a powerful Prime Minister, Timoshenko then has five years to undermine Yanukovich’s presidency, and by then emerge as the only alternative.

Little is left, it seems, of the perspectives that President Yushchenko formulated for his country with respect to the political changes in an interview with Der Standard.

“Today, normal political processes take place, but that does not mean it is uncomplicated. What counts, however, that we are able to counter all challenges democratically.”

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