Ukraine is mired in what Ian Traynor in The Guardian described this week as "its biggest political crisis since independence in 1991" (13 February).
Secret tapes have been released apparently showing Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma not only ordering the murder of journalist Georgi Gongadze last September (a headless body found in a forest on 3 November is thought to be his) but also rigging the 1999 election which gave him a second term as president.
Into this scenario arrived this week not only Russian President Vladimir Putin, for a crucial meeting, but also a delegation from the European Union including Security Chief Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten. The current economic and political crisis in Ukraine suggests that, of the two visitors, it is Russia's influence that is now in the ascending—yet the picture is complex.
Ukraine's chronic problems
The last decade has been bitterly disappointing for Ukrainians, who have endured industrial and agricultural decline, corruption, regional rivalry and political factionalism. The country owes Russia around USD 2.2 billion in energy debts and its chronic electricity shortages have been exacerbated by the final closure of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant on 15 December. Ukraine has even admitted illegally siphoning off gas from Russia's Western European pipeline, which crosses its territory.
A leading article in The Times (13 February) described the country as "a sad example of how bad government can ruin even a country rich in resources" (not that examples of such governments are rare worldwide). A favourite cliché was also rolled out, with Ukraine's recent history being described as a transition from "bread-basket" to "basket-case."
The current crisis
President Kuchma has denied any connection to the murder of Gongadze, claiming the incriminating tapes were faked by editing. In an interview with Charles Clover of the Financial Times (10 February) he claimed there was a conspiracy to frame him, seeking to deflect the blame by drawing a parallel with the case of the Russian TV cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky, who disappeared in Belarus last year. Belarussian President Alexsander Lukashenko blamed Zavadsky's disppearance on covert Western forces trying to pin the crime on him, while the Financial Times cites some sources in Minsk who suspect the involvement of the Russian secret service.
"The allegations have spurred the normally apathetic Ukrainian people into action," reported The Daily Telegraph on 13 February. Thousands of protesters on the streets of Kyiv have been calling for a "Ukraine Without Kuchma," though the Telegraph (13 and 14 February) cited "analysts" who consider he will not be forced out of office, at least not before his term expires in 2004.
The arrest on 13 February of recently sacked Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko on suspicion of evading taxes was another sign of the turbulence at the heart of the government. Leonid Derkach, the head of the SBU, Ukraine's secret service, was sacked on 10 February.
The Daily Telegraph (14 February) considered the arrest of Timoshenko "did little to shore up the position" of Kuchma, but The Economist (17 February) viewed it as a sign that he is fighting back: "His main target so far has been the woman widely believed to be financing the protests, Yulia Timoshenko... Her reforms had stamped on the toes of powerful businessmen close to the President."
Between Europe and Russia
Since independence, Ukraine's alignment has been delicately poised. As The Daily Telegraph put it (13 February), it has been "caught between its economic dependence on Russia and the desire to build closer ties with the West."
An article by Giles Whittell in The Times ("Moscow's friend who once looked West," 13 February) noted how Kuchma seemed, on becoming Prime mMinister back in 1992, "more of a friend to Moscow than to the West. But when campaigning for the presidency in 1994, he tapped willingly into the fierce anti-Russian nationalism of much of western Ukraine and, once elected, began overtures to NATO and the European Union."
In his 1999 re-election campaign (the success of which is now tainted by the new evidence of alleged ballot-rigging), he promised to turn the country unequivocally towards Western Europe. And although recent events seem to have placed Ukraine firmly in the Russian orbit, in this week's talks the EU delegation also discussed a deal to lease heavy-lift transport aircraft for their newly formed rapid reaction force. Ukraine has a fleet of 76 Ilyushin and 40 Antonov planes, which are leased out for humanitarian missions, while the EU is looking to plug an important gap in the new force's air transport capabilities.
Putin's visit this week was a key moment. The Times described it as "a bold piece of power politics" (13 February). The presidents met in Dnipropetrovsk, south-eastern Ukraine, well away from the demonstrators in Kyiv. Having temporarily cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine (and Georgia) in January, because of non-payment of debts (Financial Times, 23 January), Russia now agreed to supply further gas in return for Ukrainian coal that Russia needs for heating fuel in its far eastern territories, which are currently enduring chronic energy shortages during a particularly cold winter. In addition, deals were also concluded on aerospace cooperation and reunification of the two countries' electricity grids.
The Daily Mail (14 February) reported that Putin had boosted Kuchma by agreeing on "deals to cut energy costs and create jobs," but noted that "the leaders' meeting also stoked some Ukrainians' fears that they are slipping back into Russia's fold."
In its leading article on 13 February, The Times concurred: "Mr Putin will offer Ukraine further credit and energy supplies, but at a price: Kyiv will find that it has less room to manoeuvre over such issues as relations with NATO, military cooperation and even political co-ordination."
Putin provided valuable political support for Kuchma by publicly playing down the seriousness of the latter's current political predicament. But this may well not last: The Guardian (12 February) cited Russian commentators who suggest Moscow will already be building bridges with potential presidential replacements.
The Independent considered that "Ukraine's master of manoeuvre may be running out of room," arguing that he has throughout his period in office consistently reinvented his political stance—but without success. Initially a "nationalist anti-Russian," he then became "a visceral anti-Communist," and now he "is playing his third and perhaps his last card, the pro-Russian one."
The view from the West
How should Western states view this turn of events? In a leading article on 14 February, The Financial Times counselled that the trend towards Russo-Ukrainian cooperation "should not automatically be regarded with suspicion by the West. Ukraine and Russia are natural economic partners."
Nevertheless, the paper warned of two dangers: firstly, Russia grabbing Ukrainian assets on the cheap in exchange for unpaid energy bills (certainly a Russian tactic); and, secondly, an attempt by "forces in the Russian establishment" to undermine Ukrainian independence by destabilising its government.
The Times (leading article, 13 February) drew a distinction between attitudes on either side of the Atlantic: "Unlike the Europeans, Washington takes the independence of a 50 million-strong strategic buffer state very seriously. With Ukraine back in the fold, Russia has an empire again; without Ukraine, it will find it much harder to bully its neighbours."
But it is not apparent that the EU has such a different position from the USA. "The US and the European Union want above all to preserve Ukraine's independence," suggested the Financial Times—even arguing that this is in Moscow's interest too, lest Russia be saddled with "an insolvent and dependent Ukraine."
The EU delegation visiting Kyiv this week recognised the need to be critical of Kuchma for his involvement in what is at the very least a very slow investigation—and at worst murder—while supporting Ukrainian reforms that Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko has belatedly been introducing.
As The Economist noted this week: "The President is also facing unaccustomed criticism from Western politicians who used to back him (holding their noses) as a bulwark against Russian hegemony in the former Soviet Union." But they will restrain their protests for fear of driving Ukraine deeper into Russia's orbit.
Oliver Craske, 16 February 2001
- Archive of UK press reviews in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page
The Daily Telegraph
Home Office report: "Migration: An economic and social analysis"