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Experts Say Ukraine's Image Tarnished by Gas Dispute with Russia 


Many analysts say Ukraine did not come out well in its recent dispute with Russia over prices for natural gas. We look at the ramifications for Ukraine from this latest row with Moscow.

The crisis began when Russia stopped selling gas to Ukraine on January 1 and then accused Kyiv of siphoning off natural gas bound for Europe. Moscow turned off the taps entirely on January 7, despite Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko's denial of Russia's claims.

The dispute was finally settled January 19, but not before gas supplies to 18 European countries were severely disrupted during one of the coldest winters in years.

Europe receives about a quarter of its natural gas from Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly. Eighty percent of the gas it ships west passes through the same pipelines that supply Ukraine.

Experts, such as Robert Legvold of Columbia University in New York, say the recent crisis highlighted the divisions in the Ukrainian political leadership and underlined the animosity between President Yuschenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko - who were allies in the early days of the 2004 "Orange Revolution".

"There are periods of time when Yuschenko and Tymoshenko are at absolute loggerheads [vehemently disagree]," said Robert Legvold. "There are other moments, such as more recently, when it looked as though they were going to try to form, or re-form, some kind of alliance. Right now, it's basically quiet because of the enormous difficulties Ukraine is in - including with the Russians. Nothing is settled and at any point rather than moving toward collaboration between the former 'Orange Revolution' partners, you end up with something close to a donnybrook [a brawl] or real conflicts."

Many analysts, including Katinka Barysch with the London-based Center for European Reform, say the dispute with Russia and the unsettled political climate have damaged Ukraine's chances of becoming a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

"For Ukraine, what is at stake is the credibility of its aspirations to get into the European Union and NATO," said Katinka Barysch. "Ukraine is now seen by many Europeans as a kind of messy country that is badly run, can't get its act together - reinforcing that impression that Ukraine is in no way near ready to join these Western clubs that require effective government, and the rule of law and transparency and so forth. So for Ukraine, what's at stake is its credibility as a reliable partner and as a member of Western clubs."

David Marples from the University of Alberta in Canada agrees.

"Ukraine is playing for very high stakes with the European Union," said David Marples. "It would like ultimately to be a member of that union. And related to that, it would also like to be a member of NATO, which is meeting periodically and keeps saying, 'Well, not yet; not yet, but eventually you will be a member of NATO as well.' So Ukraine cannot really afford to antagonize the Europeans too much, especially at a time now when relations with Russia have reached this kind of bleak level."

Marples says that for Ukraine to succeed politically, economically and in its budding relationship with Europe, President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko must resolve their differences.

"A stable government is the most important thing for Ukraine right now," he said. "And it doesn't really matter whether it's an 'Orange' government or a 'Blue' government or whatever. It just needs to be a parliament that stays in office more than a year at a time, and a relationship between the president and the parliament that is at least cordial - not this dreadful thing where they are accusing each other of treachery and all kinds of things. I could hardly imagine a worse situation."

Analysts also say the political feuding in Ukraine plays into Russia's hands and might create new opportunities for Moscow to try to exert more influence in the former Soviet republic.

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