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Ukraine's Gas Crisis Highlights Russia's Increasingly Closed Society

This week’s energy crisis with Ukraine brought Russia’s political ills into sharper focus. Despite the final compromise deal reached between Russia and Ukraine over the price of natural gas, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initial decision to withhold natural gas from Ukraine’s pipelines seems to have undercut the West’s faith in the Kremlin’s reliability. And it has raised doubts about Mr. Putin’s ability to lead the Group of 8 industrial nations, of which he became chairman on the very day he imposed a blockade on neighboring Ukraine.

Russia’s increasing assault on an open society stands in stark contrast to some other former Soviet republic’s embrace of civil society. And the struggle between the Kremlin and Ukraine over natural gas prices exemplifies that divide. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Russian journalist Masha Lipman said Russia had used its immense energy reserves as a way to get even with Ukraine for its independent stand during the Orange Revolution, which brought the pro-Western Viktor Yuschenko to power. But she noted that President Putin’s decision to more than quadruple natural gas prices to Ukraine – and then to cut off supplies when Kiev balked – had backfired. She said it only served to intensify Europe’s growing discontent against Russia while deepening its sympathy for Ukraine, despite the fact that on Tuesday Kiev conceded that it had withdrawn natural gas from its pipeline system that the Kremlin said was intended for export to Europe.

Yavhen Hlibovytsky, news anchor with Channel 5, Ukraine’s independent television station in Kiev, said the Kremlin clearly overplayed its hand in the West by shutting down natural gas supplies to Ukraine. He said the crisis has caused Europe to question Russia’s reliability as an energy supplier, which “Ukrainian political parties have been claiming for years.” Furthermore, he suggested that Mr. Putin’s policies are not to modernize Russia so much as to “recreate some kind of empire or nationalist state” that could endanger Russia’s neighbors and security in Europe.

Dmitri Siderov, Washington bureau chief of Kommersant, Moscow’s business and political daily, agreed, saying that he sees no hope for any kind of civil society to emerge in Russia under President Putin’s leadership. Despite sharp criticism of Russian conduct by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Siderov observed that both Europe and the United States appear reluctant to seriously challenge the Kremlin, which might be influenced by Europe’s increasing

dependence on Russian energy and by America’s preoccupation with the Middle East and Iraq as well as its perception that Russia is a useful ally in negotiations with Iran and in the global war on terrorism.

Although Russia’s shutdown of natural gas lines to Ukraine lasted less than 48 hours, analysts say the political and economic repercussions in the West will last far longer. European countries are reportedly seeking out other gas suppliers and developing alternative fuels to reduce their reliance on Russia.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.