Europe, Headlines | Analysis

UKRAINE: War Brings Elections, Crisis Postpones Them

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Nov 25 2008 (IPS) - The Georgian-Russian war has detonated a political war in Ukraine. The governing coalition has collapsed, and new elections loom in a country struck by a grave economic crisis and facing accusations of trading illegal arms with Georgia.

The disagreements in the coalition of the nominally pro-Western “democratic forces” of President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and Prime Minister Yuliya Timoshenko’s bloc became irreconcilable in the wake of the conflict that saw Russian troops intervene in Georgian territory last August.

Initial plans to hold early elections are suspended as the country sinks into an economic crisis, but Yushchenko plans to hold them next year with the hope that voters will hold the prime minister responsible for the economic hardship.

Timoshenko and Yushchenko have been waging a year-long battle aimed at curtailing each other’s powers, to the West’s dismay.

Now they’ll need to take a break – Ukraine is one of the countries most affected among emerging economies by the global financial collapse. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has extended an emergency loan.

“All politicians understand that now it is more important to stabilise the economic situation,” Valeriy Chaly, deputy director general of the Razumkov Centre, a political think tank based in Kiev, told IPS.

Almost 80 percent of Ukrainians oppose an early election, which would come as the third legislative vote in three years. Most Ukrainians would like politicians to opt for neutrality and focus on Ukraine’s economy.

Timoshenko’s silence on the Georgian conflict and her opposition to limiting Russian navy movements in the Ukrainian Black Sea prompted Yushchenko’s aides to accuse her of treason in exchange for Russian financial and political support in future elections.

The Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet whose presence is regulated by an inter-state agreement. Most of Crimea’s population is Russian and its economy revolves around the activities of the base whose lease Yushchenko wants to terminate in 2017.

The Ukrainian President says Crimea, formerly a part of Russia and handed over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 as a friendly gesture, could be Moscow’s next target, though the Kremlin denies having any territorial claims.

Pro-presidential forces have accused Russia of massively granting passports to the region’s population in order to justify a future military intervention, something also denied by Kremlin officials.

But the overwhelmingly unpopular president was condemned by his opponents for siding too quickly with Georgia after the conflict broke out, and unnecessarily straining ties with Russia.

Yushchenko is the godfather of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s children, and the country’s more ardent proponent of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) membership for Ukraine.

Russia, Ukraine’s most important economic partner, is furious at Yushchenko’s pro-NATO rhetoric and his support for Saakashvili, and accused Kiev of engaging in illegal arms trade with Georgia.

Russian television has aired images with alleged proof of the presence of Ukrainian mercenaries among Georgian troops and of infantry fighting vehicles modernised in Ukraine being deployed in the Caucasus.

Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) responded by accusing its Russian counterparts of deliberately trying to portray Ukraine as a party in the conflict.

It was also confirmed by Ukraine’s Defence ministry that Ukrainian servicemen underwent training in Georgia ahead of the conflict, signalling a high level of cooperation between the two NATO aspirant countries.

Ukrainian officials admit selling weapons to both Russia and Georgia, but deny violating any international treaties.

“Ukraine traded with Russia and Georgia. And we sold far more volume to Russia,” SBU head Valentyn Nalyvaychenko told the local press.

But a Ukrainian ad-hoc parliamentary commission concluded that Ukraine had sold arms to Georgia ahead of the conflict at unreasonably low prices with the President’s involvement, and claimed there had been instances of arms smuggling.

The SBU swiftly interrogated Valeriy Konovalyuk, head of the ad-hoc commission and an opposition MP, and confiscated the server of a website revealing alleged state secrets connected to arms sales.

The showing of a documentary on the sale of Ukrainian weapons to Georgia, organised by Konovalyuk and arranged with the help of the Russian embassy in Kiev, was also banned by the SBU.

More could happen in the future: President Yushchenko last week asked the SBU to examine “the actions of certain individuals who are continuing insinuations around arms trade between Ukraine and Georgia.”

In the West’s eyes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO ambitions have been undermined by the recent Caucasus war. But the President and his supporters believe it was NATO’s failure to grant Georgia and Ukraine a membership plan in the NATO Bucharest summit last April that encouraged the Russian advance on Georgia.

They see in the recent war an additional reason to speed up Ukraine’s membership of the organisation to protect it from an “imminent Russian threat”, and their alarmism is a way to put pressure on the West to welcome it in its security structures.

But Chaly is skeptical anything will be decided at the upcoming Brussels NATO summit in December, as Yushchenko hopes. “Any decision will be more realistic when Ukraine has an effective government and parliament,” he told IPS. “Realistically thinking experts and politicians in Ukraine are now thinking not about a membership timetable but on how to maintain the level of cooperation with NATO.”

Enthusiasm is waning. Timoshenko herself, formerly seen as pro-Western, has adopted a more neutral stance which could boost her rating with Ukraine’s substantial pro-Russian electorate and help her negotiate a favourable price for Russian gas, on which Ukraine is highly dependent.

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