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29 October, 2011  ▪  Rostyslav Pavlenko

A Dangerous Maneuver Eastward

The government is attempting to set up a regime that will control Ukraine for eternity. As it alternates moves between the West and Russia for this purpose, it risks turning itself into a fool

Recent news gives the impression that the current government of Ukraine has made its geopolitical choice, declared through both official statements and specific moves. While Vice Premier Tihipko was blackmailing Europe with “switching to the Customs Union,” Premier Azarov took part in the “breakthrough” on the CIS free trade zone in St. Petersburg. This agreement first emerged in 1994 but because of Russia’s insistence on some convenient exceptions from the general regime for itself, it has not really come into effect. This time, the parties to the discussion saw some “progress” which, in fact, was virtually about all other countries giving in to Russia’s proposal in exchange for a promise to revise these exceptions “at some point”. The latter include items not covered by the free trade regime, such as sugar, oil and gas. It is difficult to see these terms as being beneficial for Ukraine, but Mr. Azarov has called on Ukrainians to look at Moscow’s position with understanding. The Ukrainian Premier assures us that a free trade zone with the CIS is no less important for Ukraine than one with the EU. If the Ukrainian government continues to move in this direction, it will probably have to dream up similar excuses for further Russian integration. Paradoxically, the latter could happen in spite of the intentions of the Ukrainian leadership.


The sharp and cold tone that Viktor Yanukovych has recently chosen to use when talking to the Western mass media was supposed to underline the resoluteness of the statements he had made previously. This new tone signaled a new stage in the government’s policy that appears to be a turn towards Russia. Observers are talking about the victory of the “hawks” and “Russian lobbyists” rumored to include Dmytro Firtash’s group, made up of the Head of the Presidential Administration Serhiy Liovochkin, SBU Chief Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, and their allies in the executive branch. Another assumption made by observers is that Mr. Yanukovych is being set up or he is leading himself and the country into a trap.

A clue to guessing the reasons behind this behavior, which appears confusing at first sight, is the nature of the force guiding Ukraine today. Maintaining power in its own hands is the only priority of the current government. All moves, both within and outside Ukraine, are made to meet this goal. Viewed from this perspective, the developments of the previous 18 months complete the puzzle. Taking advantage of the lack of close attention from the West, which expected “reforms from a consolidated government,” those in power conducted the monopolization of government structures. They started to simulate intense European integration to set up mechanisms of pressure on Russian leaders, who are refusing to reduce the gas price, particular since European integration is truly convenient for the business-oriented wing of the government. This made the simulation look so credible. Meanwhile, those in power initiated cases against opposition leaders, including Yulia Tymoshenko, “a personal enemy” whom they have feared since 2004. While Europe was picking up its pace and formulated frustrated statements regarding selective justice, Ms. Tymoshenko’s case climaxed in an arrest, sentencing and imprisonment. When the rage of misled Europeans and Americans (as reflected in the comment of a top official for The Wall Street Journal, who said: “It looks as we’ve been led by the nose!”), materialized in the form of postponed meetings and agreements with Ukraine, official Kyiv demonstratively moved closer to Russia.

It appears that Mr. Yanukovych’s meeting with Messrs. Putin and Medvedev in Zavidovo in the late September was the starting point of the current “cooperation with a traditional strategic partner” phase. The parties had a good opportunity to reach acceptable solutions for political and economic problems, which are beneficial for the leaders of both countries. Still, the carrots for the West remain in place. Immediately after conceding to the Russian version of the CIS Free Trade Zone Agreement, Mr. Azarov declared the establishment of a free trade zone with the EU as the next goal. The government is likely to maintain this line by drawing phantoms of a “dangerously intense integration with Russia” for Europe. In other words, if you don’t agree to a free trade zone, Ukraine will join the Customs Union and subsequently theCIS Defense Block led by Russia. 


This approach would appear logical and even reasonable from the Party of Regions’ perspective, if both their foreign partners and domestic forces played by the rules that Yanukovych & Co expected. The problem lies in the fact that this switching from one side to the other is not an eternally reusable tool. At one point, Leonid Kuchma experienced what isolation from the West means. To overcome it, Kuchma was forced to send Ukrainian troops to Iraq. However, Yanukovych’s power relies even more heavily on the big business run by tycoons, than did Mr. Kuchma’s. The latter could have at least maneuvered within the centers of influence, while the current President is directly connected to the “captains of industry”, interested in cooperation with the West. For instance, Rinat Akhmetov’s partner, Borys Kolesnikov, supported the idea of buying engines for Ukrainian airplanes produced in the West, thus frustrating his colleague Viacheslav Bohuslayev. Such a position would support neither domestic producers, nor the homeboys – both the key pillars that the Party of Regions is hanging on to. The logic of economic benefit from cooperation with the EU conflicts with the Party of Regions’ traditional approaches.

The Ukrainian government might still hope to mislead the West, but doing the same with Russians is a different matter altogether. The Kremlin has a “supreme goal”: to preserve its customary way of running the country and at the same time, satisfying its own geopolitical ambitions. Since such doctrine cannot be based on real upgrade and the intense use of resources and technologies, the only way that remains is expansion. More specifically, grabbing resources from its neighbors. This offers a much broader horizon than simply keeping power, which is what Ukraine’s leaders are looking for. As a result, the Russian leadership can project a situation several moves ahead and keep chasing its “partners” in the direction it wants them to go. The Kremlin has made it clear: the few ritual gestures of loyalty made by Mr. Yanukovych are not enough to change gas supply terms. Negotiations continue between Naftogaz and Gazprom, but any feasible progress is only likely if Kyiv takes a firm step of no return, for instance, such as joining the Customs Union or merging Ukraine’s oil and gas complex with Russia’s. Without this, the government is already admitting, that it will be forced to raise gas tariffs for the public.


The line of the government’s behavior also has serious internal problems. Its failures in social policy and forced “unpopular” moves have already dealt a heavy blow to Yanukovych & Co’s rating. Clearly, this poses no obvious threat to those in power, as long as the opposition is struggling with problems of its own. Most disappointed voters will ignore the election, thus creating loopholes for manipulation and falsification, which is particularly easy with the new election law drafted by the Party of Regions.

However, this only aggravates rather than solves the government’s problems. The strategy it has chosen is leading to a potential combination of factors on the eve of the 2012 parliamentary election, one that was already seen once before – on the eve of the Orange Revolution.

First of all, Ukraine is not Russia, no matter what. On more than one occasion, Ukrainians have proved their ability stand up for their interests, including welfare, important rights and the chance to live on proceeds from their private business, when threatened directly. The current government is simply unique in terms of creating problems, ranging from failed social policies to the requirement for citizens to provide passports in order to conduct currency exchange.

Secondly, public dissatisfaction with social problems against a backdrop of the luxurious life of those in power, is accompanied by the ever more frustrated business class - big business as well as SMEs. Big businesses are hit the hardest by attempts to take over the economy, especially the attempts of those in power to grab the most profitable companies for themselves. For good reason is the Orange Revolution also called “the protest of millionaires against billionaires.”

Thirdly, the move towards Russia will entail symbolic concessions – on the language issue, for instance. The government has a weak understanding of national feelings; therefore it will easily concede on such issues. However, they matter to a significant number of Ukrainians. It was Yanukovych’s promise to make Russian the second official language in Ukraine that brought many to the rallies back in 2004.

Even if the government avoids public protests, pursuing its current policy will be quite dangerous. Unlike Russia, it has no resources to keep the nation and its own political forces loyal. Information has recently surfaced that the government is arranging to have parliament elect the president, at which the latter gets to keep his extensive powers. This would help those in power to avoid a public evaluation of their popularity. This would also turn the country into a limited liability company of sorts. To implement this change, the government needs the affirmative vote of two thirds of the MPs, but it has virtually exhausted its reserves of crossovers in the current Verkhovna Rada, thus all hopes lie with a new composition of parliament. To achieve this, given the government’s extremely low popularity, it would be forced to hold an election with wide-scale and obvious violations. The latter could cause a riot or lead to international isolation. With continued repression and zero reforms, there is little hope of support from the West. Moscow, in turn, is literally demanding Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its “help”. Putin has made it clear: “we are not going to pay for anyone just like that.” Once the government begins to trade Ukraine’s sovereignty, it will be unable to stop, as each move in this direction will mean Ukraine’s increased dependence on Russia, with its fuel, markets, decisions of supranational bodies, etc. This will continue until Ukraine is completely under foreign control. Ultimately, this will not only mean the end of the state, but will also topple the government that brings it about.

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