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Ukrainian Political Feud Has Implications for Moscow

  • Peter Fedynsky

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to Ukraine is viewed as a signal of American support for that country's pro-Western and pro-NATO government. But the high-level visit comes at a time of disarray in that government involving a bitter dispute that pits President Viktor Yushchenko against Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. VOA Moscow correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports the Ukrainian political drama has implications for Ukrainian-Russian relations.

Russian newspaper headlines and live television reports from Kyiv inform readers and viewers that Ukraine's Orange Revolution is over and its key players, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, have become bitter enemies. They have had long-running disputes over domestic policy and both intend to compete for the presidency in 2009.

Mr. Yushchenko generally leans toward a free market economy while the populist Ms. Tymoshenko favors government regulation. Their dispute escalated following the Georgian conflict, in which the president openly favored Tbilisi and the prime minister remained conspicuously silent.

This prompted Yushchenko supporters to accuse her of high treason for allegedly siding with Russia. There was more political venom on Wednesday when Ms. Tymoshenko's party, which formed a coalition with the president's political organization, joined the opposition to transfer some presidential powers to the prime minister.

Ms. Tymoshenko's move prompted President Yushchenko to say that de facto a new parliamentary coalition was created, uniting the prime minister's party with the Communists and Party of Regions, which has substantial support in Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine. The Ukrainian president says the power transfer does not serve Ukrainian national interests and he accused those who voted for it of a coup that betrayed and broke the country's democratic coalition.

In Moscow, Russian lawmaker Konstantyn Zatulin, who is also deputy chair of the Commonwealth of Independent States Committee in Parliament, says Russia is not pleased with Ukraine's political crises of recent years.

"The reason is because the turbulence makes it difficult to develop long-term Ukrainian-Russian relations," says Zatulin. He adds that those ties are suffering, because Russia cannot rely on any stable partners in Ukraine.

Among the issues on the Ukrainian-Russian agenda is the status of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which has a lease agreement with Kyiv through 2017 to dock its ships in Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Ms. Tymoshenko has said Kyiv will not deviate from the current agreement. Mr. Yushchenko has said the lease will not be extended. He also objected when Russian warships sailed from Sevastopol to fight off the Georgian coast, which further strained relations between Moscow and Kyiv.

Konstantyn Zatulin says Russia has no plans to build new facilities at its Black Sea ports and is waiting for Mr. Yushchenko to leave office to negotiate a new agreement with one of his successors closer to the lease expiration date.

And in June, Russia's NATO ambassador, Dmitri Rogozin, told the Vesti TV news channel there is no viable alternative to Sevastopol and that Russia has no intention of ever leaving the city.

Rogozin says Mr. Yushchenko is trying to drive the fleet from what he calls its natural home onto the street. The Russian diplomat says there is no politician in Russia who would agree in their lifetime or term in office for the Black Sea Fleet to leave Sevastopol. Rogozin says that will not happen.

In January, the Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko and president signed an appeal to NATO requesting the alliance to extend its Membership Action Plan, or MAP, to Ukraine. Lawmaker Konstantyn Zatulin says it remains to be seen if Ukraine's official NATO position will be affected by the country's high level feud.

Zatulin says he won't venture to say if the chances of Ukrainian officialdom for a MAP will increase or decrease. He notes, however, the issue will continue to be hotly debated in Ukraine. He goes on to say that extending a MAP to Ukraine would deal a severe blow to the Ukrainian-Russian Friendship Treaty, which pledges Moscow's respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Russia's military operation in Georgia prompted widespread speculation that Moscow could target portions of Ukraine for annexation, including the Crimean Peninsula, which the Soviet Union transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.

Ukrainian military analyst Oleksiy Melnyk of the Razumkov Center in Kyiv told VOA that Ukrainian leaders should discuss the possibility of a Russian threat.

Melnyk says there should be a discussion of possible unfriendly moves by Russia part and also preventive measures by Ukraine.

Oleksiy Melnyk and other Ukrainian analysts say the recent conflict in Georgia could prompt the majority of Ukrainians who now oppose NATO membership to reconsider their views.

The Regions Party of Viktor Yanukovych has the support of Russian-speaking areas of Eastern and Southern Ukraine that most oppose NATO. Yanukovych was defeated by Viktor Yushchenko in the disputed presidential election of 2004, which led to the Orange Revolution. On Friday, the Regions Party leader, speaking alternately in Ukrainian and Russian, told a Kyiv news conference that any attempt to force Ukraine into NATO is doomed to failure. However, he does not categorically reject NATO membership as such. His remarks were carried live on Russian TV.

Yanukovych says the issue must be decided by the Ukrainian people in a national referendum. He notes that a government, which implements policies independent of the people, is doomed. For this reason, Yanukovych says his party will demand that any decisions on Ukrainian NATO membership be preceded by a nationwide referendum.

During his visit to Kyiv, Vice President Cheney expressed support for Ukraine's NATO bid, noting the country's best hope to overcome threats of tyranny, economic blackmail, invasion or intimidation is to be united, domestically and with other democracies.