Ukraine: The Tension Continues

A state-of-friction seems to have gotten a grip on relations between Russia and Ukraine, and it doesn’t look like it is going to go away anytime soon:

Ukrainian state authorities seized the Yalta lighthouse on January 13 from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and a Ukrainian student organization is picketing the Russian radar station in Henychesk around the clock since January 15 with tacit approval from Kyiv authorities. The Ukrainian government wants Russia to agree to hand over by February all the 35 coastal installations (outside Sevastopol’s bays) that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is using since 1997 without a legal basis.

Meantime as more details of the recent gas deal have emerged, President Yushchenko (with elections looming) stubbornly sticks by the agreement, while his prime minister – Yuriy Yekhanurov – doesn’t seem to agree:

In contrast to the president, Yekhanurov now acknowledges that Kyiv has been blackmailed into signing, and that the agreement is not binding after all. While defending the government’s decision to sign it on January 4 regardless of the flaws, Yekhanurov has begun unveiling some of the agreement’s murky aspects. In a televised interview he recounted some moments of the negotiations in Moscow: “The whole of the pipeline from the Turkmen-Uzbek to the Russian-Ukrainian border is filled by Gazprom’s contractor RosUkrEnergo. We were offered a choice: either this, or [sarcastically] ship gas by train. Thus, we had no choice.

Did Russia come out ahead in the gas crisis?

Expanding on (and slightly copying) my comments in Edward’s post below, I was really shocked to see the spin in the western coverage of the Ukrainian gas crisis. The part that didn’t shock me – just made me groan – is the spin of a western press that seems to have decided in advance that Russia must be the bad guy, so Ukraine must be the good guy. Russia may be the bad guy, but I don’t think is Ukraine is the good guy. From what I can tell from the press, Russian claims that Ukraine was siphoning off gas seem well founded – Russia had been complaining since summer about siphoning, Gazprom was willing to let third parties audit the difference between what was going into Ukraine and what was coming out, while Ukraine refused. Also, it seems that the Russians weren’t the only ones making allegations about siphoning. Yes, Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine are not honorable, nor is this some purely commercial conflict free of political meaning. But, that does not exclude the prospect that Ukraine was screwing Russia.

But what really surprised me was the claim that Russia was the loser here.
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Marching in Blue & White?

Significantly trailing in the polls for the repeated Presidential election on December 26, the Ukrainian “establishment candidate” Victor Yanukovych, declared today that reports about his urging the use of violence are wrong. According to the BBC

Mr Yanukovych says he merely urged Mr Kuchma to restore order according to the constitution. ‘This information is false. There was no talk of bringing in troops,’ Mr Yanukovych said, according to the Interfax news agency. ‘It was about ensuring order properly and observing the Ukrainian constitution,’ he said.

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Behind the scenes

The Financial Times has an interesting article about how the Ukrainian government did consider the use of force against the protestors, but eventually backed down, mainly because President Kuchma blocked it.

Those lobbying for the use of force included senior officials, among them Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration and Viktor Yanukovich, the prime minister.

According to people inside and outside Mr Kuchma’s administration, the president resisted the pressure and the danger passed.

“The key moment came on Sunday, November 28 (a week after crowds took to Kiev streets), when soldiers were given bullets. Then they were going around not with empty machine guns, but already fully armed. I think that was the peak of the whole conflict,” Mr Yushchenko said.

Vasyl Baziv, the deputy head of the presidential administration, told the FT: “I know that many representatives of the [state] apparatus lobbied the president to impose a state of emergency. They said it is time to use state power. The president, from the first moment, was consistently against the use of force.”

I suspect that there’ll be quite a few stories like this over the coming weeks – and if Yushchenko does win on December 26, as everyone assumes, the trickle will become a flood as everyone starts trying to blame everyone else for all that went wrong. One can read this report as being Kuchma trying to get his story into the arena first – as part of his ongoing attempt to get amnesty after he leaves office – by portraying himself as the man who didn’t want to “leave office with blood on his hands.”

However, it is interesting to note how the reports match up with some of the rumours that were going about at the time of the crisis, particularly the idea that the clampdown would begin after the CEC announced Yanukovich as the victor of the election:

Tensions rose sharply on Wednesday, November 24, when the Central Election Commission officially confirmed Mr Yanukovich’s victory. Mr Yushchenko responded by urging protesters to blockade public buildings, including the cabinet office and the presidential administration.

With Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and other mediators due in Kiev for conciliation talks on Friday November 26, the authorities considered using force to clear the blockade surrounding the presidential buildings. About 2,000 anti-riot police were deployed in the area. But, with the mediators urging restraint, the Ukrainian authorities backed off.

The talks on November 26 failed to break the deadlock. The following day, the pro-Yushchenko crowds in Kiev swelled to an estimated 500,000, with smaller demonstrations in some other cities.

The critical moments came on Sunday November 28. Mr Yanukovich’s supporters in eastern Ukraine raised thestakes by making separatist threats.

Mr Kuchma chaired a meeting of the key National Security Council which discussed plans for armed action. Western diplomats say intelligence reports showed interior ministry troop movements around Kiev. One senior western diplomat says: “There were credible reports that troops were moving on Kiev.”

The Warrior Audrey.


Yulia Tymoshenko
2004 may be well the year of Ukraine’s warrior princesses. First, singer Ruslana managed to put Ukraine on Europe’s musical map by winning the Eurovision song contest with her Wild Dances in May, and now, in early December, it doesn’t seem unlikely that the other warrior princess, Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the most mysterious political figures in Ukraine, will become Prime Minister.

The Guardian’s Nick Paton Walsh claims that, “while for the time being she is proving a great and popular rebel leader, no one really knows what she stands for,” and, on Neeka’s Backlog, Veronica Khokhlova confirms The Economist’s warning (via The Independent) that, “though she may look like Audrey Hepburn, anyone who has got this far in a country where politics often resembles a Jacobean revenge tragedy must have an edge” by wrinting about Mrs Tymoshenko that

“she’s an awesome politician – full of dignity, full of class, soft yet has some very deadly poison hidden underneath, very convincing when she speaks, prepared wonderfully to any kinds of questions, be it about the opposition’s plans, her own finances or her alleged radicalism. She’s beautiful, too, but her looks are as much of an asset as they are not.

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Dressed For Success!

UPDATE: (18:02 CET) I just removed the question mark behind the headline! Yushenko’s lawyers were dressed for success: According breaking agency reports, Ukraine’s Supreme Court, after five days of hearing, just ruled that the disputed presidential election officially won by Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich is invalid. Moreover, the court has not just backed Mr Yushchenko’s claims of systematic fraud. According to Reuters, the court’s Chairman Anatoly Yarema, said a “repeat vote” was necessary and should take place on Dec. 26. He apparently also suggested it would be a run-off vote only. Outgoing President Kuchma and Prime Minister Yanukovich had proposed a complete repeat of the election in a couple of months.

[Original post starts here] I suppose the appearances of lawyers should not influence the outcome of any legal matter, yet according to Matthias Braun’s “Moskauerzeit“, the Russian newspaper Komersant (in Russian) noted that Mr Yushenko’s lawyers at the Supreme Court hearing are apparently not simply brighter than those representing Mr Yanukovich, but also clearly better dressed. Let’s hope this fashion statement won’t be turned into another round of speculations about European and American hard-money meddling in Ukraine.

While the Supreme Court retired to deliberate about the verdict, the Ukrainian Parliament declared it would be in session all weekend, although earlier rumors about the introduction of price controls turned out to have been just that: rumors.

The situation is still incredibly tense. Just as an example – Maidan reports that there are now Water-Jets being filled with water. Their use would clearly have devastating consequences, not simply because of the Ukrainian climate. The opposition is either angry or in disbelief about Kuchma’s trip to Moscow, and Le Sabot provides some new evidence of the danger of ethnic cleavages being exploited in a political conflict –

I was reminded last night just how insidious the Yanukovych propaganda machine really is. My good friend Roma is from Russia but lives in Kiev. He only listens to the establishment channels for news, because he doesn’t like the Opposition.

He’s a die-hard Yanukovych man. Why? “Because Yushchenko is like Hitler — he wants to kill all the Russians.” He can’t tell you why he thinks Yushchenko wants to do that, but he’s been convinced.

If a young, well educated Kievite can be this blinded to reality, I can only imagine what Donetsk must be like.

It should be noted at this point, however, that Yushenko’s national movement apparently has not just been supported by seemingly altruistic Western pro-democracy movements, but has significant ties to the Ukrainian nationalist right, including the – intended, or unintended – support from the far-right, which is flatly called “fashist” by some commentators. Clearly, for a plethora of reasons, this element of his coalition building is not given the appropriate attention at the moment.

On the day on which the Russian Duma decided to further weaken Russian checks and balances (Spiegel Online, in German) – approving President Putin’s requests about the appointment of regional governors as well as raising the minimum membership of a “political party” to 50,000 (up from 10,000) with at least 500 (up from 100) members in at least 45 of the 89 Russian Regions – Veronica Khokhlova translates an article from Natalia Gervorkyan, a Russian journalist, about the “orange threat” for Russia, which makes the point I made about the “orange solution” a couple of posts down – albeit in a far more emotional manner. Beyond private interests, Russia has no reason to be too worried about losing influence in Kyiev: the countries are structurally too intertwined in too many ways. But authoritarian model of governance being practiced in Russia today has all reason to be worried about the organizational change being implemented in Kyiv right now.

“[Ukrainians have] swept away the vertical supports and are bellowing so loudly it might wake our cattle, peacefully asleep for now. Orange threat! It’s crucial to act fast. First, to amend the anti-terrorism law, appropriately or not, with a ban on “actions that may affect the government’s ability to make decisions aimed at satisfying social and political demands and interests” of the protesters. So that it didn’t occur to them, God forbid, to come out into the streets and rally, as in Kiev, and to exert psychological pressure and demand their social and political rights.

99 Orange Balloons (and then some more…)

99 (and some more) orange balloons are floating over Kyiv today while protesters gathered again peacefully waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision. In the meantime, outgoing President Kuchma met with Russia’s President Putin at a Russian governmental airport near Moscow. There are differing reports about what exactly Putin said with respect to a possible Ukrainian revote – whichever form it may take. Deutsche Welle quotes President Putin saying “a rerun election would not help” while Reuters quotes him with “a repeat of the run-off vote may fail to work.” I suppose his statement was intentionally ambigous – yet according to the statement of President Kuchma (translated by Maidan), it seems, despite yesterdays sort-of-agreement, the Ukrainian administration is still trying to gain time. Here’s (part of) what he allegedly said after the meeting with President Putin:

“The most important thing is that the Supreme Court, as the highest organ, must say if the violation occurred or not. The parliament has adopted a political decision. It is quite right, we must find a political solution.

The next developments seem very simple: Supreme Court’s verdict and the constitutional reform that will allow the parliament to form a government in a few days. In this case the parliament will be responsible for the situation in the country. Then a commission will consider the issue of reelections.”

Quite frankly, reading this one should wonder if there was something wrong with his last Vodka. It becomes more and more apparent that – for all the power the protesters lend to Yushenko – they also significantly narrow down his mandate in negotiations. There is no way the protesters will simply go home and wait for the administration prepare another rigged vote in a couple of months.

The window of opportunity for a peaceful solution is already beginning to close. As important as the rule of law is under normal circumstances, in this case, the rules have run out, and the people (on either side) are vociferously declaring who is Ukraine’s sovereign. Any further administrational attempt to trick them is unlikely to go down well. This may still end like it did in Nena’s song.

99 dreams I have had.

In every one a red balloon.

It’s all over and I’m standing pretty.

In this dust that was a city.

If I could find a souvenier.

Just to prove the world was here.

And here is a red balloon

I think of you and let it go.

UPDATE: (21:56 CET) – Ukraine’s Supreme Court once again adjourned without reaching a decision. Meanwhile, behind the scenes dealing and public positioning in anticipation of the court’s verdict continues, as the rejection of two Yanukovich peititon by the court are interpreted by some opposition members as a very hopeful sign with respect to the overall decision. According to Spiegel Online and Reuters, Ukrainian President Kuchma has conditionally agreed to dismiss Prime Minister Yanukovich, who lost a vote of no confidence in the Ukrainian Parliament yesterday. His offer comes with some strings attached – while cautiously accepting the need for speed (Interfax) with respect to new elections, he still insists on holding a full election, not just the run-off demanded by Yushenko, and his concept of “speedy” still clearly exceeds the time-horizon of the opposition.

The deteriorating economic and budgetary situation in Ukraine may be the central element in the President’s realization that the stand-off cannot be dragged-on until the protesters have frozen – although it is hard to determine to which extent his statements could be considered a threat indicating the increasing economic inevitability to end the protests, one way or another.

As the Ukranian National Bank seems increasingly worried about massive outflows of foreign currency deposits, Interfax mentions that the President met with some members of the current government yesterday explaining that this year’s electoral turmoil had already cost Ukraine dearly –

“Revenues are shrinking in virtually all branches of the economy, partly due to a decline in foreign trade, Kuchma said. “Some regions, for instance Sumy, Zhitomir and Donetsk, in November brought only half of the required amount to the budget. That directly threatens the payment of wages, social benefits and pensions.”

Not Everybody Likes Orange

Or the idea that while Russia can bring hundreds of millions of goodies for Kuchma and Yanukovych, the European Union, Poland and other countries to the west have things to offer too.

One publication from Ukraine sees the conference we mentioned as evidence that Germany has been plotting a coup in Kiev. (The URL in the article takes me to a binary stream that I didn’t trust; maybe someone else can enlighten us on what temnik.com.ua is all about.) It doesn’t look like the authors — who considered the fall of Milosevic a coup, too — have discovered Fistful yet.

Anyway, below the fold is a taste of how the other side thinks. (Thanks to the Ukraine List for the translation.)
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Is this the resolution?

Ten days on, and we may be close to a resolution of the crisis in the Ukraine. There’s definitely been some agreement between Kuchma, Yuschenko, Yanukovich and the mediators (Solana, Adamkus, Kubis and Kwasniewski) but, as ever, the devil is in the details. The basic points seem to be that there will be a revote, there will be constitutional reforms before the vote occurs, protestors will stop blockading government buildings and an all-party working group will implement changes based on the rulings of the Supreme Court.

The questions that remain to be answered though, are:

  • What form will the revote take? The full election, or just the second round? Will new candidates be allowed to stand, and will existing ones be barred from standing? Will more observers be allowed in for the elections, and will Yuschenko’s other requirements, such as limiting absentee ballots, be accepted?
  • What form will the constiutional reforms take? The general opinion seems to be that the Prime Minister and Cabinet will gain powers from the Presidency, but is this to weaken a potential Yuschenko Presidency? And will the reforms address the regional issues?
  • Where do the protestors go now? Blockades are over, but will some remain on the streets to keep the pressure on?
  • Finally, what will the Supreme Court actually rule and when? It seems the election process can’t really begin until its deliberations are completed?
  • As I said, reaction seems to be mixed amongst both the media and the bloggers as to whether this is the end of this stage of the crisis, or whether it still continues. See the Kyiv Post, PA/Scotsman, Le Sabot, Foreign Notes, Notes from Kiev and SCSU Scholars for more.

    In related news, The Argus notes that while the events in Ukraine may have inspired protestors in Tajikstan Uzbekistan, while attention’s been focused elsewhere, Russia is demanding Abkhazia reholds its recent election.

    Finally, I’ve received a report from Tarik Amar, who reported from Ukraine on John Quiggin’s blog last week. He’s been talking to the people in the tent city and you can read the full thing below the fold.
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    The Genie Outside The Bottle.

    While we are waiting, Veronica Khokhlova offers her impressions from inside the Ukrainian Supreme Court hearing and finds the proceedings almost surreal given the atmosphere on the independence sqare – much better tv, for sure –

    The judges look tired, interrupt every once in while, but let the Yushchenko’s team guy finish. Channel 5 interrupts the broadcast from the Supreme Court midway through the questions from Yanukovych’s team guy, switching live to Yushchenko’s address at Independence Square.

    Yet there are equally important events going on in the Eastern provinces. With rising concern about a possible irredentist wave growing even within the Yanukovich camp – as indicated by President Kuchma’s statements today as well as by
    the resignation of Yanukovich’s campaign manager Serhiy Tihipko
    The Kyiv post notes that some oligarchs – notably Kuchma?s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk, valued at $3bn, may be ready to switch sides, while others, notably Rinat Akhmetov, reportedly Ukraine’s richest man and in “complete control of the Donetsk oblast”, do not yet appear to be ready to deal.

    Although his relation to Mr Yanukovich has not been friction-free, Mr Akhmetov has significantly supported Mr Yanukovich’s presidential campaign. Allegedly, he met him on a Kyiv airfield last Wednesday, complaining about his lost “venture capital”, and punching Mr Yanukovich in the face before leaving.

    Such episodes may not help Mr Akhmetov “to present a civilized face by patronizing the arts, learning to play the piano and being keen on football.” Yet the politically far more relevant question right now is – as noted by Yulia Mostovaya in her detailed analysis of the “Yanukovich nebula” – “has Akhmetov legalized his business enough so as to pursue an independent course or is he still vulnerable to state power, whatever name this power will have?”

    It is still unclear (certainly to me) to which extent the “secessionist movement” is based on true popular support in the East, and to which extent it is (merely) an element of a game plan by oligarchs who may or may not be able to correctly judge their ability to put the genie back into the bottle after the the power struggle is over.

    At the very least, it seems to me, the centuries-old ethnic/religious and linguistic cleavage will become an even more pressing problem in the future. Below, I have superimposed a couple of maps relating to the question.

    The base map is from Wikipedia and reports the regional results of the Presidential elections. The violet area on top of the blue, Eastern, districts denotes some sort of “Russian-Ukrainian ethno-linguistic zone”, according to a map from ethnologue.com referred to by Mark Liberman on the language log, while the red ares indicate settlements by ethnic Russians according to a CIA map from 1994 (which, as well as many other maps of the area, you can find here, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin)

    The difference of the two areas may explain why the CIA map refers only to 22% of Ukrainians as ethnic Russians, while “opinion polls conducted in 1994-1998 by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences in Kyiv show that the proportion of respondents who said that Russian was their native language ranged from 34.7 percent to 36.5 percent,” according a report by “The Ukrainian Weekly”, published in 2000.

    While Russian seems to have lost some ground – particularly in the educational system – since Ukrainian independence, once again referring to the article quoted above, “between 1994 and 1999 the proportion of Ukrainians who chose Russian as their language of “convenience” increased from 43.5 percent to 50.9 percent.” It seems to me that the most pressing linguistic problem may be a status issue: the recognition of Russian as an official language.

    So there may be a chance to put the genie back into the bottle.