May 12, 2010

The many ambiguities of Viktor Yanukovych 

The many ambiguities of Viktor Yanukovych | Policies | Foreign affairs | Neighbourhood | European Voice


The many ambiguities of Viktor Yanukovych

By Toby Vogel
06.05.2010 / 05:10 CET
Whether Ukraine's newly elected president looks east or west, the EU must be coherent in its dealings with its eastern neighbour.
When Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's opposition leader, beat Yulia Tymoshenko, the then prime minister, to become the country's president on 7 February, foreign analysts and diplomats were agonising about the line he would take. Would he be pro-Russian, or merely less anti-Russian than the incumbent, Viktor Yushchenko, they pondered, and was he an ideologue or a pragmatist? After three months, a nuanced answer is emerging.
Yanukovych made friends in the EU by choosing Brussels, rather than Moscow, for his first official trip – although not all his comments to EU leaders were entirely reassuring.
Then he added to the ambiguities at a meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, the president of Russia, in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine on 21 April. Yanukovych agreed to extend by 25 years the lease of Sevastopol, on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, as a base for Russia's Black Sea fleet – through to 2042, instead of 2017. In exchange he won a 30% discount in the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas. Ambiguity gave way to antipathy when the agreement was ratified by the two countries' parliaments just days later. In Ukraine's parliament – the Verkhovna Rada – the debate degenerated into fistfights between opposing lawmakers.
On 30 April, Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Russia, deepened the mystery with a proposal for a merger of Russian's gas giant Gazprom with its Ukrainian counterpart, Naftohaz. Putin's remarks, made in the Russian city of Sochi on the Black Sea, were cryptic; it is unclear if they referred to a full merger – Gazprom subsequently said that an asset swap between the two companies was being considered – or to the creation of a consortium to manage Ukraine's Soviet-era pipeline network through which Russia routes the bulk of its gas exports to the EU. Last year, the EU put a finance package together for upgrading the creaking network, but that presupposed introducing market pricing and transparency into an industry whose operators prefer opacity.
Both camps in the debate about Yanukovych's true face have taken the deal on the Black Sea fleet as vindication of their position. Those who believe that Yanukovych is a pro-Russian, Soviet-style strongman argue that the new lease will prevent Ukraine from becoming a NATO member for decades, unless the military alliance changes its rule that no member state is allowed to have non-NATO military bases in its territory. Although this may matter to only a minority of Ukrainians, since the practical implications in the next decade or so are slight for Ukraine, the deal is of strategic importance to Russia.
Those who believe that Yanukovych is a pragmatist (or, as some put it, an opportunist with few firm principles beyond gaining and maintaining power) point to the benefit Ukraine will gain from the gas discount. This is not trivial in one of the world's least energy-efficient countries, whose population, shaken by a 12% contraction of the economy in the last year, is unable to afford gas at market prices. If someone has to subsidise the gas prices paid by Ukraine's end-users, then why not make that someone the Russian, instead of the Ukrainian treasury?
Contrast Russia's hard-nosed foreign policy – offering financial rewards at a time when Ukraine is at a low point economically and financially – with the EU's response. Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, was in Kiev on the day after the deal was struck. He told MEPs a few days later, in a delightful understatement, that his visit had been “timely”. What Füle had to offer was a shopping list of reforms the EU expects Ukraine to make in exchange for “possible incentives and responses from the EU”. When his Ukrainian interlocutors stressed their desire to conclude an association agreement, including a free-trade agreement, with the EU this year, Füle was non-committal to the point of being discouraging. “I explained that more work was needed, particularly on the deep and comprehensive free-trade area by the Ukrainian side,” he told the MEPs, “but underlined our strong commitment to completing negotiations as soon as possible.”
The Commission sees its approach, with its “possible incentives”, as a stimulus for necessary reform. Ukraine's governments sees it as yet more proof that the EU takes no serious interest in Ukraine, and instead continues to heap up impediments to closer links. Worse still, the Commission is now attaching new conditions to financial assistance to which Ukraine's leaders, perhaps wrongly, felt entitled.
Hryhoriy Nemyria, a former deputy prime minister and now Tymoshenko's foreign policy advisor, told European Voice before the fleet deal was struck that the association agreement with the EU could be among the first casualties of Ukraine's new course under Yanukovych. He also said that Ukraine was entering “uncharted territory” on the question of gas prices. He was right on the second point. The race seems on between Ukraine and the EU to prove him right on the first point as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment