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Russian President Keeps Low Profile in Ukrainian Political Crisis


Ukraine is in the midst of a constitutional crisis - the most serious since the days of the 2004 "Orange Revolution." At that time, Russia was very much involved in what was happening to its neighbor. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at Moscow's role in the current political confrontation.

The current political struggle in Ukraine involves two bitter political rivals: President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose coalition is the largest in the 450-member parliament - or Rada.

Earlier this month, Yushchenko dissolved parliament and called for new elections next month. The Ukrainian president made the move after 11 lawmakers defected to Yanukovich's bloc, bringing him closer to the 300-seat majority needed to override a presidential veto. But Yanukovich has described the move as unconstitutional. Ukraine's constitutional court is now trying to resolve the issue.

The two men have a history of political confrontation.

Yushchenko was elected president in 2004 after hundreds of thousands of his supporters took to the streets to protest the results of an earlier election declared fraudulent by the Ukrainain Supreme Court. That massive protest became known as the "Orange Revolution," named after Yushchenko's signature color. The man he defeated for the presidency was Viktor Yanukovich.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was deeply involved in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. In an apparent effort to sway Ukrainian voters, he traveled twice to the country and openly praised Yanukovich.

Robert Legvold, a Ukraine and Russia expert at Columbia University in New York says this time around, Mr. Putin has kept out of Ukraine's political crisis - at least publicly. Legvold says even Yanukovich has tempered his pro-Russian stance.

"He has been very clear that he's not turning to, leaning on or 'the cat's paw' [messenger] of Moscow," he said. "He hasn't even had a conversation with Putin. Instead, he's the one who's talked about western mediation or some east-west mediation that would involve countries like Austria or even Poland on the one hand and maybe Russia on the other hand. And Putin has been relatively quiet. He's learned something of a lesson."

However, Legvold says other Russian political leaders - such as those in the Duma, or parliament - have openly expressed their views about Ukraine's current political crisis.

David Marples, a Ukraine expert at the University of Alberta, says their views are biased.

"The Russian Duma has already condemned Yshchenko's decision as unconstitutional, which I think is quite remarkable," he said. "If you can imagine the reverse taking place and the Ukrainian parliament condemning something that Vladimir Putin had done - it wouldn't happen. So Vladimir Putin made a major error by clearly intervening in the Ukrainian political crisis [of 2004]. Subsequently, he has been much more careful. I think there are elements in the Russian Duma that are not so careful and feel that Ukraine is really part of their heritage and they are very much concerned with what happens in Ukraine. And there, it's very partisan - very pro-Yanukovich, very anti-Yushchenko. So a very one-sided perspective."

Some Russian commentators have noted similarities between President Boris Yeltsin's October 1993 stand-off with parliament, which ended with Yeltsin's bombing of the parliament building.

Margarita Balmaceda, a Ukraine expert at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, says there are superficial similarities in that it is a confrontation between Ukraine's president and parliament.

"But nobody in Ukraine today is interested in a violent solution to the crisis and there is no likelihood at all that there may be any kind of bombing of the Rada [parliament] or anything like that," she said. "So - there might be some parallels, but I think Ukraine has learned from the Russian experience. And those images of the Russian parliament being shelled by Yeltsin forces - this is not going to happen in Ukraine. None of the sides wants this to happen."

Analysts say President Yushchenko cannot afford to use force against Ukrainian lawmakers because that would be a devastating blow to Ukraine's budding democracy.