Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ukrainian Lighthouses & Landmarks

Little more than a month after becoming Ukrainian Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, seems poised to break his pledge to president Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine's continued western integration. Visiting Brussels on Thursday, Yanukovich put a moratorium on Ukraine's plans to join Nato, saying that: "Because of the political situation in Ukraine, we will now have to take a pause," according to International Herald Tribune.

However, what should be clear by now is that NATO and EU accession has become a parallel process in the integration of former Eastern bloc countries. Therefore, Yanukovich "pause" effectively means a halt - or at least a severe delay - for Ukraine's western integration.

That NATO and the EU are different organisations and deal with different issues should not disguise the fact that a majority of EU-members are also members of NATO. Combined with the backlash of the Orange revolution, Yanukovich statement is likely to further put off western leaders from any real association with Ukraine. Trust in Ukraine is at a low and the only real motivation for western efforts is to keep the country out of Moscow's orbit.

Still, Yanukovich's decision on NATO is logical. Popular support for NATO-membership has never reached any substantial levels, so his excuse to "play it safe" rather than to rush into something that Ukrainians will not accept is natural. This has tacitly been accepted by NATO-officials as a statement of facts rather than intent. At the same time, questions are raised what role Russia might have had in the decision. Yanukovich has previously declared that he would like Ukraine to be a "reliable bridge" between Europe and Russia, and NATO-membership seems incompatible with such a role. Russia has adamanttly opposed Ukrainian rapprochement to the Atlantic alliance.

Relations with Russia continue to be strained. Only yesterday, a Ukrainian court ordered that authorities should take control over 22 lighthouses in the Crimea that have been leased to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, BBC reports. As late as in June, Russia and Ukraine failed to reach agreement on settling the Kerch strait border dispute, which has been going on since 2003, according to RIA Novosti.

Ukraine's relations with Russia on the one hand and the West on the other have often been simplistically depicted as balancing between East and West. A similar balance accordingly applies to Ukraine's domestic scene - between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. As anyone who has dealt with Ukraine knows, realities are much more complex.

Still, the image of a Ukraine split between East and West lingers on in the minds of international leaders and is also exploited by a variety of actors. At a time when there are great doubts in the West as for Ukraine's willingness and ability to integrate, there is little room for a more straightforward public policy.

Yanukovich might have pursued a declaratory policy on NATO and EU membership at the same time as deepening relations with Russia. As long as no real steps towards NATO-integration were to be taken, such a situation might have been acceptable both to Russia and the West. That would have kept doors open for Kiev - both towards Brussels and Moscow.

Now, Yanukovich is closing the NATO-door and thereby - in a longer perspective - also the EU-door. This might however not open the door to Russia any wider, simply because the Kremlin has never accepted its loss of influence over Ukraine. A loss that one has not accepted is not regarded a real victory once it is regained.

Public postponement of NATO-integration is thus simply not a good idea at a time like this, when Ukraine needs the best of both worlds. The paradox is that what would probably serve Kiev's interests best at this point would be to say one thing and do the other, that is pledge western integration and cooperate more closely with Russia. In that way, Ukraine might have maintained safeguarded by the West at the same time as it could have remained part of the East. Now instead, Yanukovich has set a landmark in Ukraine's modern political history by giving away an important foreign policy instrument for no obvious reason. Cui bono? What does Ukraine or Yanukovich stand to gain from self-imposed alienation when one needs all the help one can get?

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