At last, some hope for Ukraine

At last, some hope for Ukraine

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
04 August 2006

The formation of a new government - four months after parliamentary elections - is good news for Ukraine. The coalition is broad-based: the party of President Victor Yushchenko, Our Ukraine, has strong roots in the rural west of the country; the Regions party, led by the new prime minister, Victor Yanukovich, dominates the east; and the Socialist party, the third member of the coalition, is popular among farmers in the centre.

Western Ukraine is nationalist, speaks Ukrainian and wants closer ties to the EU. In the east of the country there is less national feeling, Russian is the main language and most people want good relations with Russia. The coalition is well-designed to keep these two disparate halves together.

But is a comeback by Yanukovich really such a good thing? After all, he was prime minister during the corrupt regime of President Leonid Kuchma, and his victory in the fraudulent presidential election of November 2004 provoked the orange revolution. He has a dodgy past and a long-standing personal feud with Yushchenko. Evidently, the new coalition is far from certain to make a success of running this chaotic country.

But there are some cautious grounds for optimism. Yanukovich has signed up to a government programme that is broadly in favour of a market economy and a pro-western foreign policy. The government will try to complete talks on joining the WTO before the end of this year; it will allow private sales of agricultural land; and it will start to negotiate a free trade area with the EU. Those who have met Yanukovich recently report that he has made a big effort to spruce up his style and become a more "western" politician - perhaps his American PR advisers have helped.

Meanwhile the charismatic Yulia Timoshenko will provide a feisty leader of the opposition. As prime minister after the orange revolution she made a poor job of managing the economy, frequently resorting to populist measures, and she proved a divisive figure.

If she had managed to combine with Our Ukraine to revive the "orange coalition" that led the revolution, the government would not have been able to speak for many Ukrainians east of the River Dnieper. Similarly, if Yanukovich had formed a government without either Our Ukraine or Timoshenko's party, the west of the country might have been tempted to go its own way. Ukraine is a country whose diverse regions have experienced very different histories, and it has seldom enjoyed any kind of meaningful independence. A broad coalition is probably the best formula for holding the country together.

Yushchenko is an honourable and decent man but has disappointed as president. On a recent visit to Ukraine, some of his friends and advisers admitted to me that he was indecisive and sometimes unfocused. His emphasis on making Ukrainian the language of government upset easterners (in the coalition agreement, Yanukovich won the right for citizens to use Russian in daily life, though Ukrainian remains the state language).

Yushchenko, knowing that EU membership is not a realistic proposition for the time being, has tried to press ahead with plans to join NATO. He hoped that at the NATO summit in Riga in November Ukraine would be offered a "membership action plan", a stepping stone on the way to membership. However, Yanukovich, though quite warm towards the EU, is hostile to NATO. The coalition agreement refers to "mutually beneficial co-operation with NATO" and talks of an eventual referendum on membership. But a membership action plan does not look feasible in the foreseeable future.

That is probably in Ukraine's best interests. In my view, the new Ukrainian government should deal with many priorities - negotiating a deal on gas supplies with Russia, clamping down on corruption, and creating a business environment that attracts foreign investment - that are more urgent than joining NATO.

If a free and sovereign country wishes to join NATO, it should be allowed to do so. Russia should not have the right to veto Ukraine's decision on such a matter. But the EU and the US would be unwise to push Ukraine into NATO. Opinion polls suggest that very few Ukrainians want to join - only 12% were in favour of joining NATO in one recent poll. If Ukraine did try to join, it would be very divisive in country whose unity is fragile.

In any case, Russian views on the subject of Ukraine should not be discounted altogether. To be sure, some Russians bluster when talking about Ukraine and NATO. When senior figures in the Russian security establishment describe NATO as an organisation dedicated to the destruction of the Russian state - as they sometimes do - the paranoia is alarming. Nevertheless Ukraine's accession to NATO would be very different from that of the Baltic countries, which Russia grumbled about but then accepted.

Russia's Black Sea fleet is based in the Ukrainian port of Sebastopol. The Russian and Ukrainian defence industries are a single entity. Most Russians have Ukrainian relatives. The mixing of peoples is rather like that of the English and the Welsh (and less like that of the English and the Scots, for the latter enjoyed several hundred years as a coherent and independent nation). Russians genuinely do regard Ukraine as a place that is not abroad. Some of the holiest religious sites in the Russian Orthodox world are in Kiev. The origins of the Russian polity lie in "Rus", the Kiev-centred mediaeval state.

So for Ukraine to join a US-led military alliance would be a blow and a humiliation to many Russians, and would undoubtedly strengthen Russia's nationalist and anti-western forces. If Ukraine joined NATO it would upset the east of the country. But if Ukraine moved back into the Russian sphere of influence if would upset the western regions. Ukraine should think seriously about becoming formally neutral, on the model of Austria, Ireland, Finland or Sweden. That would not prevent the country from moving closer to the EU and one day, perhaps, becoming a member.

Despite the political chaos of the past two years, Ukraine has shown that is a functioning democracy. It has held free and fair presidential (at the second attempt) and parliamentary elections. Some Russians may find it ironic that the outcome of the parliamentary elections is a government led by Yanukovich, the candidate Vladimir Putin backed for the presidency. For the Kremlin had denounced those parliamentary elections as fraudulent, although the Regions party won the most votes.

The Kremlin has tended to see Ukrainian politics as a zero-sum game, fearing that free elections would produce a government that was pro-western and thus anti-Russian. The EU's line, rightly, has been that what counts is not whether the government is pro- or antiwestern, but that the process of electing it is democratic. The outcome of Ukraine's fair electoral process is now a government that is palatable to the Kremlin. So the EU may find it a little easier to convince Russia that it should not treat their common neighbourhood as the playing field of a game in which only one side can win.