`Orange' debacle

Published : Aug 25, 2006 00:00 IST

Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" comes to an end with the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovich regaining the post of Prime Minister.


THE "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, as it was conceived and promoted by the United States, is over. It took Ukraine less than two years to complete a full circle: Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich has regained the post of Prime Minister he held before the "Orange Revolution" catapulted the pro-West former central bank chief Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency in January 2005.

The comeback of Yanukovich meant the end of the "Revolution", which began shortly after the "Orange" government was sworn in. The new leaders who came to power on a wave of popular rejection of the corrupt oligarchic regime of President Leonid Kuchma, broke their revolutionary promises before long and got mired in corruption and infighting over the re-carving of economic assets. After barely seven months in power the "Orange" team fell apart, with Yushchenko sacking Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, the fiery spirit of the "Orange Revolution".

The "Orange Revolution" deepened and politicised the traditional split in Ukraine between the nationalist agricultural west and the Russian-speaking industrial east, with the western provinces applauding Yushchenko's singularly pro-Western course and the eastern ones seeing a rise of separatist movements that demanded re-union with Russia.

As Ukraine's economy nose-dived and support for the "Orange" forces dwindled, Yanukovich led his Party of Regions to victory in the March parliamentary elections, the first vote since he lost his presidential bid to Yushchenko in December 2004. Even though Yanukovich's party became the largest bloc in the 450-seat Parliament by winning 186 seats and 32 per cent of the votes, it was not given a chance to form a ruling coalition as the "Orange" parties of Timoshenko and Yushchenko, which came second and third, teamed up to cobble a majority with the help of the Socialist Party. However, the Socialists soon walked out after wrangling over Cabinet posts and policy goals, and the coalition collapsed before it could form the government.

Yanukovich seized the opportunity to form his own "anti-crisis" coalition with the Socialists and the Communists, which controlled 240 seats. This left Yushchenko with the unsavoury choice of either agreeing to nominate his political rival, Yanukovich, to the post of Prime Minister or disband the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) and call fresh elections. However, opinion polls showed that fresh elections would return Yanukovich's party with an outright majority and 50 per cent of the votes, while the "Orange" parties could end up with less than 32 per cent. After much horse-trading, Yushchenko signed a "National Unity Pact" with the anti-crisis coalition and endorsed Yanukovich's candidacy.

The Wall Street Journal accurately summed up the main result of the "Orange" debacle: "Mr. Yanukovych's resurgence serves as yet another reminder to the West that free elections in troubled lands don't guarantee a pro-Western result. From the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq to Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, democracy has empowered politicians and movements whose interests - and actions - often counter those of the U.S. and its allies."

What were the interests the U.S. pursued in masterminding the "Orange Revolution"? While official Washington claimed it had no other interests apart from promoting democracy, facts on the ground show that its main goal was to weaken Russia by drawing Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and setting it up as another U.S. bridgehead in the former Soviet Union. Ukraine's "Orange" elite also craved NATO membership in the hope that it would help it strengthen its authority over the Russian-speaking regions and facilitate nation-building in Ukraine, which has never existed as an independent entity within its present borders.

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor was on record as promising to get Ukraine a NATO ticket as early as 2008. Anxious to bring Ukraine into the Atlantic bloc before President George W. Bush leaves the White House, Washington pressed the alliance to make an exception for Ukraine on its demand that candidates for a NATO seat have no non-NATO troops stationed on their territory. (Russia's Black Sea fleet is based in Ukraine's Sevastopol, in Crimea, and will remain there until 2017 under a bilateral treaty.)

Simultaneously, the U.S. helped Ukraine breathe new life into the moribund GUAM, a group named after its members - Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova - and which was formed in 1997 to counter Russia's dominance of the former Soviet Union. Under Ukraine's leadership, the refurbished GUAM is to form a cordone sanitaire between Russia and "old Europe" - Germany, France and Italy, which favour cooperation with rather than containment of Russia.

If Ukraine joined NATO, this will set off tectonic geopolitical shifts. It would spell tragedy for millions of people in both Ukraine and Russia who belong to the same ethnic group and share a common history. There is no demarcated border between the two countries. Border crossing points have been set up only on major roads and railways, while people living on both sides of the border cross the virtual line every day to go to work, shop and visit relatives. As a member of NATO, Ukraine will be required to have a full-fledged border with Russia. Ukrainian authorities have already started digging deep trenches on the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia. Demarcation of the border, which has until now existed only on paper, would inevitably provoke disputes and conflicts, leave millions of people without jobs, and divide millions of families.

In Russia, the plans to induct Ukraine into NATO have provoked demands to define the Russian nation as a divided nation and set the goal of reunification of Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine with Russia as a top national priority.

Ukraine's accession to NATO would pose a major security challenge to Russia. According to Ukrainian media reports, NATO is already urging Ukraine to set up three radar complexes that would be able to monitor a major part of Russian territory. In the context of U.S. plans to deploy anti-ballistic missile defences in Eastern Europe, further expansion of NATO to the east is seen as a threat to Russia.

"Implications of Ukrainian membership of NATO would be 10 times greater than all previous enlargements of the bloc," the authoritative Russian analyst Alexei Arbatov said, suggesting that a resurgent Russia would strongly react to the move. "In a sense this would signal a return to the Cold War," the scholar warned.

The NATO bid has put the unity of Ukraine to test, with the country's west strongly supporting the move and the east just as strongly opposing it. When a U.S. ship brought American marines, arms and equipment to Feodosiya, in Crimea, to prepare for joint military manoeuvres with Ukraine and set up an army training centre, it provoked large-scale protests on the peninsula forcing evacuation of the U.S. military. The pro-Russian Parliament of Crimea declared the autonomous region of Ukraine a "NATO-free" zone.

The dangers of a NATO expansion to Ukraine are so stark that Washington simply cannot fail to factor them in. This prompts the conclusion that America's real goal was not to integrate Ukraine into Europe, but create a new hotbed of instability on the continent and disrupt the ongoing process of Russia's own integration with Europe. The mischievous nature of U.S. policy came out patently on the issue of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine.

William Taylor as well as his predecessor John Herbst, who left the post in May, expressed dissatisfaction with a natural gas accord with Moscow under which the price of gas for Ukraine went up by 90 per cent in January. Both said that Washington would support the Ukrainian government if it decided to renegotiate the deal.

Commenting on this outrageous interference in Russian-Ukrainian relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if anyone favoured Ukraine to pay lower prices for Russian gas, they would be welcome to foot Ukraine's bill for the extra $3-4 billion - the difference between the old heavily subsidised prices and the new market-based prices.

"The danger from NATO expansion was threefold: the certainty of Russian retaliation; the opposition of a large majority of Ukrainians, especially in the Russian-speaking east and south; and the fact that NATO membership was not going to be backed up by membership of the European Union, thereby anchoring that country in the west," Financial Times wrote recently.

The defeat of the "Orange Revolution" has killed plans for an early induction of Ukraine into NATO. The National Unity Pact that Yushchenko signed with Yanukovich and other members of the Opposition coalition in Parliament on August 3, while committing Ukraine to continued cooperation with NATO, stipulates that the issue of accession to the alliance must be decided through a national referendum. This amounts to an effective no to NATO as 70 per cent of Ukrainians are opposed to the idea, according to opinion polls. The "Orange" government had earlier rejected Opposition demands to call a referendum on NATO membership.

Even though Russia backed Yanukovich against Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential election, it stayed out of the current political battle in Ukraine, as it has no illusions that Ukraine under Prime Minister Yanukovich will revert to the Russian fold. The new Cabinet is a motley collection of anti-"Orange" forces, including Communists, and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc. Yushchenko, who is empowered by the Constitution to choose Foreign, Defence and Security Ministers, has used his authority to re-appoint Boris Tarasyuk, a staunch supporter of Ukraine's Western orientation, as Foreign Minister.

However, there is good reason to expect Kiev to follow a more even-keeled foreign policy now. The National Unity Pact, on the one hand, sets the goal of Ukraine's eventual membership in the European Union, and on the other, calls for further cooperation under a Common Economic Space (CES) project with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Reference to a CES was absent from Yushchenko's original draft and was inserted at the demand of Yanukovich. This reflects a shift in the balance of authority in Ukraine from the President to Parliament and the Prime Minister under a recent constitutional reform. The Prime Minister is now appointed by Parliament, rather than by the President, and is accountable also to Parliament.

After his appointment as Prime Minister, Yanukovich, whose power base is in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, declared that Russia would be Ukraine's prime strategic partner. But it would be wrong to describe Yanukovich as a pro-Russian leader, as Western media do. He is a pro-Ukrainian, and not pro-Western politician and recognises the importance of Russia being Ukraine's largest economic and trading partner and main source of oil and gas.

Under the new political dispensation, Ukraine is expected to perform the same balancing act that President Kuchma was famous for carefully calibrating rapprochement with the West and overtures to Russia.

The "Orange Revolution" has failed to achieve the U.S. goal: tear Ukraine away from Russia. But it may yet justify the hopes that millions of Ukrainians pinned on it: promote economic growth and higher living standards through mutually beneficial cooperation with both Russia and the West.

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