Fighting Over Moscow's Embrace
KIEV, UKRAINE — On Tuesday, I became a witness to the riots in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament. Members threw punches, smoke bombs and eggs, from which the speaker had to be protected by three umbrellas.
The fight further underscored the polarization of Ukraine between a western region that regards itself as part of Central Europe and an eastern part that leans toward Russia.
Still, why such passions?
The trigger was a surprise agreement — signed in a cloak-and-dagger operation six days earlier by the presidents of Russia and Ukraine — that was presented for ratification that day.
The deal calls for a 30 percent decrease in the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas, and guaranteed purchases over 10 years. In exchange, Russia’s lease on the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, was extended for 25 years. Given that gas prices are sinking, the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, probably could have negotiated the gas deal without the Black Sea concessions.
Violence in Parliament is ugly. But it is equally reprehensible to sign international agreements with long-term consequences behind the back of the public and then to try to push them through the legislature six days later. A fight was inevitable.
At the start of his presidency, Mr. Yanukovich appeared to be trying to unify the country and to promote better relations with the West. He made a state visit to Brussels on March 5, where he met with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to talk about mutual values, energy security and a free-trade agreement.
Mr. Yanukovich also said Ukraine would work toward fulfilling obligations set by the International Monetary Fund as part of a $18.6 billion credit approved in 2008. With the appointment of Nikolai Azarov as prime minister, the infighting between Mr. Yanukovich and his rival and outgoing prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, seemed to have abated.
Now there are signs that the visit to Brussels was really just cosmetic, and that Mr. Yanukovich’s real focus has been development of relations with Moscow. Since March 5, there have been at least seven Russia-Ukraine meetings on the level of president or prime minister — in effect, one a week. Four more meetings are scheduled before May 17.
On the night before the memorable Parliament session, the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, made an unscheduled visit to Kiev, bringing a long list of proposed joint projects.
They include cooperation on new nuclear reactors (on the 24th anniversary of Chernobyl!), a bridge between Russia and the Crimea, cooperation of the aircraft industries and Russian access to gas transportation and storage systems in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian-Russian agreement suggests a de facto end to any prospects of NATO membership for Ukraine in the foreseeable future. While NATO and the European Union have hesitated about making any concrete moves toward Ukrainian accession, the Kremlin has known exactly what it wants.
Perhaps, now that the deal with Russia has been signed and ratified, Mr. Yanukovich will still press ahead for a free-trade agreement and an “energy community” with the European Union. Ukraine could definitely use E.U. financing, especially loans from the European Investment Bank.
But it is the Kremlin, at least for now, that decides whether and to what extent Ukraine will be allowed to integrate into European structures. The E.U., once again paralyzed by internal battles (now Greece), remains silent.
Friedbert Pflüger is professor of international relations at King’s College London and a member of the national board of the Christian Democratic Union in Germany.