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Ukraine's Russian Fleet Deal Raises Cultural Concerns

Tuesday's egg-throwing brawl in the Ukrainian Parliament was sparked by a controversial agreement to extend the lease for Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol through 2042. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych negotiated the agreement with Moscow in exchange for a 30-percent discount on imports of Russian natural gas for 10 years. But critics are concerned about the cultural implications of Mr. Yanukovych's foreign policy toward Russia.

President Yanukovych has had a busy foreign policy agenda in his two months in office. He has visited Brussels, Moscow, Washington and Strasbourg. He was in Belarus and has an invitation to visit Berlin. At the recent nuclear summit in Washington, he relinquished Ukraine's stockpile of enriched uranium. He also held bilateral meetings there with the German Chancellor, the presidents of the United States, France and China, and the prime ministers of India, Canada and Turkey.

Last week, he hosted Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where he negotiated the Black Sea Fleet Agreement.

Mr. Yanukovych signed the deal, saying it was unprecedented in the history of relations between Ukraine and Russia.

Independent Ukrainian political analyst Vitaliy Bala notes Mr. Yanukovych's majority in Parliament ratified the agreement without debate.

Bala says it appears the president absolutely does not care what a significant segment, perhaps even a majority of Ukrainians think about this agreement and how his actions may squeeze the Ukrainian out of Ukraine on a state level.

Bala notes that 17 of Ukraine's 25 regions voted against Mr. Yanukovych, which should give him pause about antagonizing widespread concerns that a Russian military and economic presence in Ukraine could be accompanied by unwanted cultural influence.

Several Russian lawmakers exacerbated those concerns Tuesday during discussion of the fleet agreement in Moscow. They said it will help protect Russia's cultural and linguistic presence in Ukraine.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister, Serhiy Tihipko, told the Associated Press the agreement is good from an economic point of view. But he broke ranks with other leaders, saying the Ukrainian people did not want the deal to be discussed behind closed doors. Opponents prefer membership in the European Union, saying it would lift Ukraine economically and better protect its culture. But the European Union is a distant goal, and analyst Masha Lipman at the Moscow Carnegie Center says Europe has its own problems.

"Europe today is not in great shape and has lots and lots of problems of its own, and does not have a lot of time and energy and funds," said Lipman. "I think the Russian leadership has taken advantage of this opportunity. Also the United States seems to have less interest these days in post-Soviet states."

Mr. Yanukovych raised more controversy Wednesday in Strasbourg. Speaking to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, he reversed his predecessor's designation of the Kremlin's deliberate starvation of millions of Soviet citizens in the 1930's as an act of genocide against Ukraine. That famine, known as the Holodomor, was ordered by Dictator Josef Stalin to break peasant resistance to collectivization of land.

Mr. Yanukovych says his administration believes it would be wrong and unfair to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against one people or another. He says it was a common tragedy of peoples who comprised a single state at that time - the Soviet Union.

Former President Viktor Yushchenko's designation of the Holodomor as genocide soured Kyiv's relations with Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the Mr. Yanukovych's statement as an objective attitude toward history. It was condemned by those who say Russian speakers replaced millions of murdered Ukrainians, which has continued impact on the viability of Ukraine.

Masha Lipman says Mr. Yanukovych should temper his pursuit of economic goals with recognition of the importance of culture.

"It is not that Ukraine can outlaw the Russian language, or impose the Russian language on regions that are not interested," added Lipman. "Once again, it is a legitimate issue - cultural and of course political issue in Ukraine - and any leader has to reconcile the interests there."

Lipman says Mr. Yanukovych's busy foreign policy agenda appears designed to show international and domestic observers that he is a man in charge. Vitaliy Bala notes Mr. Yanukovych won office with less than 50 percent of the vote and uses foreign policy to legitimize his presidency.

Bala says Ukraine's concessions on enriched uranium for the United States and the Black Sea Fleet agreement for Russia may be seen as Yanukovych's quest for legitimacy. The analyst says, Mr. Yanukovych is trying do demonstrate first of all in Ukraine that he is a president who is welcomed.

Bala recalls that Candidate Yanukovych promised to unite Ukraine. But Mr. Yanukovych's initiatives with Russia have raised questions about his abilities to build consensus.

Writing online about the brawl in Parliament, Ukraine's world heavyweight boxing champion turned politician, Vitaliy Klychko, says it represents the politics of antagonism.

Recently, says Klychko, the "Orange" forces of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko tried to force their views of cooperation with Russia and the West on their opponents. Now, Mr. Yanukovych's "Blue and White" forces are doing the same in reverse.