May 2007 – European Alternatives Issue 1
Vera Rich – Vera Rich was recently given the Order of St Olga – the highest award that can be given to a female by the State of Ukraine – for her championship of Ukrainian culture.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine became the largest state in Europe. During the past sixteen years, it has captured world headlines on several occasions and at various levels – from the ephemeral world of pop-music to the pro-democracy “Orange Revolution”. Yet, for the most part, in the world at large, knowledge of Ukraine remains fragmentary – so that while millions of UK citizens know the name of the footballer Andriy Shevchenko, relatively few know of the poet Taras Shevchenko, who for Ukrainians combines the iconic roles of national poet, defender of the oppressed, and inspiration of the long struggle for statehood and independence. And while the Orange Revolution won world-wide admiration and support (no less than 30,000 “international observers” sacrificed their Christmas festivities to monitor the vital re-run of the disputed Presidential elections – the vast majority of them paying their own expenses!), the political confusion ensuing from President Yushchenko’s dissolution of the Ukrainian Parliament in April 2007 has disconcerted even many of Ukraine’s most loyal friends.
For those with some interest in European geopolitics, Ukraine’s future is viewed as a choice between Russia and “Europe”. The linguistic situation is seen as a corollary of this: with Ukrainophones looking westward to eventual membership of the European Union and Russophones looking towards closer ties with Russia. This division, however, is simplistic. Many people in the east and south East of Ukraine, whom Soviet polity denied the chance of learning the Ukrainian language in their youth, and who do not possess the linguistic skills to master it as adults, deeply resent their lack of what should have been their mother tongue. One of the most moving of the songs sung on Kyiv’s Independence Square during the “Orange Revolution” –“The Colour of the Sun” – was a duel in which two singers, Ukrainophone and Russophone, expressed love for their country that transcended the linguistic “barrier.” And EU membership was on Ukraine’s agenda well before the president Victor Yushchenko came to power; already by the mid-1990s an accession date of 2020 was part of Ukraine’s political discourse.
No serious politician would deny that Ukraine has to preserve a viable working relationship with her big neighbour. However, recent developments, ranging from reported Russian attempts to buy up Ukraine’s energy suppliers to such symbolic irritants as the news (which arrived during the writing of this article) that the Director of the Ukrainian Academy’s Institute of Literature has been denied a visa for a private visit to St Petersburg have made Ukrainian relations with Russia increasingly a matter of political pragmatism rather than based on fraternal warmth.
Symbolic of Ukraine’s need to look simultaneously East and West is the Odessa-Brody pipeline. This was built with the intention of conveying oil from the Caspian and Central Asian fields, shipped by tanker across the Black Sea, to Brody on the Polish border, and thence to the Płock oil refinery and the Gdansk oil terminal. Oil from the non-Russian states of the former USSR would thus reach northern, central and western Europe, bypassing the potential stranglehold of Russia. However, although western politicians frequently praised the pipeline as a potential guarantor of energy security, the oil multinationals were shy of committing themselves, while the Poles delayed over their commitment to build the required links to Płock and Brody. In 2004, in the final months of the Kuchma presidency, the Ukrainian government, after months of indecision, agreed a temporary deal with Russia, by which Russian oil, piped westward across Belarus to Brody, would then be sent eastward again to Odessa, and thence by tanker to the Mediterranean (contravening, incidentally, the Turkish commitment to make the ecologically high-risk Dardanelles a tanker-free zone). Since this arrangement came into operation, Ukrainian international political discourse has shown a significant dichotomy: when addressing Russians it notes the benefit to Ukraine’s economy from the transit fees paid by Russia; when speaking to westerners it urges the eventual completion of the Płock and Gdansk links so that, as originally envisaged, Odessa can transmit oil into the heart of the European market.
Apart from some die-hard Communists who would like to see the Soviet Union restored, Ukrainian public opinion is becoming increasingly Europe-oriented. The problem, increasingly a pragmatic rather than an ideological one, is how to reconcile this with living next door to what appears to be an increasingly assertive Russia.
The current political turmoil in Ukraine has been seen by some commentators as a re-emergence of the Europe-versus-Russia controversy. Such a view is over-simplistic. Certainly, one root of the problem is the disputed 2004 Presidential elections, in which geopolitical factors did play some role, and in the aftermath of which, to resolve a deadlock, the incoming President Viktor Yushchenko agreed to the transfer of a package of powers and prerogatives hitherto belonging to the Presidency into the competence of Parliament. The problem is precisely what powers were transferred. In spring 2005, elections to the Ukrainian Supreme Rada (parliament) resulted in a government headed by Viktor Yanukovych (Yushchenko’s erstwhile rival for the Presidency) leaving the pro-Yushchenko parties in the Rada as a minority. This situation is not new – many US Presidents have had to work with a Congress dominated by the opposite party, but it requires considerable political finesse and – perhaps more important – a tradition of such “cohabitation”. For Ukraine, new to multi-party democracy, the difficulties were considerable; on one occasion, Prime Minister Yanukovych refused to ratify seven Presidential decrees unless Yushchenko agreed to dismiss seven provincial governors who were loyal to the President. After several months during which parliamentary business became increasingly unworkable, and with conflicts between the various opposition parties exacerbating the situation, the final straw came when the parties of the ruling coalition were perceived by Yushchenko to be poaching Rada members from the parties supporting him. On 2 April 2007 Yushchenko decreed the Rada to be dissolved and announced new elections for 24 June This led to a two-fold outcry; the pro-Yanukovych parties protested that the President had no right to dissolve the Rada ahead of its four-year term, while all parties – even the most pro-President – protested that this date would give them too little time to prepare their campaign. Smouldering in the background was another, related, dispute – if (as agreed in December 2004) the President could now only appoint certain key officials with the consent of the Rada, had he the right to dismiss them without the Rada’s approval?
Following Yushchenko’s decree, opposition parties and blocs withdrew from the Rada; the pro-Yanukovych ruling coalition continued to convene – awaiting a decision from the Constitutional Court as to its legality. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file Yanukovych supporters took to the streets – or rather to Independence Square in Kyiv, the focus of the “Orange Revolution” campaigners of autumn 2004, but now festooned with azure-and-white. Nothing abashed, the “Orange” opposition parties (now calling belatedly for a united stand!) established their rallying-ground on European Square, a couple of hundred metres away, noting that the name was appropriate, since they were the true, westward looking, European-minded democrats. The two groups continued for some weeks to campaign against each other, using no weapon against each other stronger than pop music to drown out each other’s speeches. But on 24 May, the situation took an uglier turn, when Yushchenko decreed that the special riot police should be subordinated to him, not to Interior Minister Vasyl Tsusko –and the following day, when he summoned squads of such police to Kyiv, other troops loyal to Tsyusko blocked the roads.
Under threat of armed violence, a deal was worked out between Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and a person who until now had been ignored in negotiations – Rada speaker Oleksandr Moroz – agreeing to the dissolution of the Rada and setting the new election date at 30 September. However, there have been further appeals to the Constitutional Court as to the legality of these decisions, and as this journal goes to press, that Court has still to rule.
For the moment, Ukraine seems beset with divisions and conflicts between her would-be leaders. This is nothing new: back in the 17th century, Ivan Mazepa, Hetman (elected leader) of Ukraine’ Cossack state complained that:
“All men long for peace, yet never
With one purpose work together”