Round Two of the East Slav Feud


By Elizabeth Pond

In Round One, close to a million euphoric young Ukrainians occupied Kyiv's central square for two long months to protest mass fraud in the 2004 presidential election. Unbelievably, they forced a re-run. Their favored Orange Revolution candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, defeated the Russian-backed candidate from eastern Ukraine who had originally claimed victory. Yushchenko became president and appointed Julia Tymoshenko, his co-hero in the peaceful revolution, as prime minister. That was her rise to power. Together—with the enthusiastic support of western Ukrainian nationalists—the pair turned Ukraine's 1991 de jure independence from Russia into de facto independence.

For the first time since Soviet dissolution in 1991 Russian elites grudgingly admitted that Ukraine, after three centuries as the crown jewel of the Russian empire, really was parting from its elder Russian brothers. Senior Moscow politicians never forgave Tymoshenko and Yushchenko their victory in that first round of the post-Soviet feud between the fraternal East Slav Russians and Ukrainians.

Revenge came this month, with a few odd twists, as a Kyiv court sentenced Tymoshenko to seven years in jail. Ironically, Tymoshenko’s conviction has sparked Round Two of the East Slav fight. Tymoshenko was sentenced for having acted against Ukraine's national interest when she was prime minister by approving a deal to pay too much for the Russian gas that Ukraine depends on. Now, Viktor Yanukovych—the candidate from the Russophile east Ukrainian clan who lost the presidency back in 2004—occupies the president's seat. In the next presidential election in 2010 he edged out Tymoshenko, his only serious political rival these day. He benefited from the infighting of the Orange Revolution principals and their failure to reform institutions—as the West Slav Poles and Czechs did—away from clientelist political control toward impersonal rule of law. In office he has benefited as well from prosecutors who pride themselves as being on his team.

The oddity in this exercise is that Yanukovych has managed to alienate not only the West, which views the court pageant as a political trial aimed at barring Tymoshenko from running in forthcoming elections. He has also offended his one-time Russian patrons, since the grounds for the Tymoshenko indictment are seen in Moscow as anti-Russian. Once and future Russian President Vladimir Putin swiftly asserted that the gas deal under Tymoshenko "was signed in full compliance with Russian and Ukrainian legislation." And he is now increasing pressure on Ukraine on two counts.

First, he sent current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Ukraine this week to offer Kyiv (yet again) a lower price for Russian gas if only Kyiv will sell to Russia's Gazprom a controlling share in Ukraine's transit pipelines to western Europe. Second, he is leaning harder on Ukraine to join the fledgling customs union of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus in a new Soviet Union-lite that Putin calls a "Eurasian Union." In this union, energy-rich Russia, with its population of 143 million, would clearly dominate energy-poor Ukraine, with its 46 million.

Putin is by no means flexing his muscle out of any solidarity with Tymoshenko. She rose to the top in the murky south Ukrainian political-business clan, Donetsk, that monopolized Ukraine's import of Russian gas in the 1990s and is a veteran of the bruising mix of collusion and coercion between old intertwined Soviet Russian and Ukrainian clans. For some years Russia itself had a warrant out for her arrest. Putin's muscle must therefore be seen instead as a reminder to Ukraine not to insult Russia.

For its part, the European Union has been working ever since the election of President Yanukovych to offer him the kind of financial aid and better access to EU markets that—while not opposing the primary Russian influence in Ukraine—could still give Kyiv some leverage vis-à-vis its powerful northern neighbor. EU diplomats assumed that Yanukovych would follow the pragmatic dynamic they anticipated in the 1990s if Ukraine could just manage to maintain its new independence for a decade or two. He would settle for being a big frog in the small Ukrainian pool, they thought, rather than a small frog in the Russian pool.

Indeed, in his second campaign for the presidency Yanukovych assured Western contacts that he was a pragmatist and no front man for Russia. He had learned from the Orange Revolution, he said. He would unite Ukraine's bickering regional clans. He wanted to tie Ukraine's future to the secure and prosperous European Union. He was even studying English.

Once in office, Yanukovych did pursue, vigorously, an association agreement with the European Union. But he also reawakened doubts about Kyiv's real independence by his prolongation of home basing for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Ukrainian Crimea for 25 years beyond the originally agreed termination of 2017. And the blatant political trial of Tymoshenko—under old Soviet legislation still on the books—was too much of a transgression of the EU's values of democracy and rule of law to ignore. In the fortnight since the verdict Yanukovych has not only refused to find some diplomatic way to free his political rival from prison. Ukrainian prosecutors have also begun work on a new indictment charging Tymoshenko with 1990s' crimes connected with her one-time mentor and Ukrainian ex-prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko. Lazarenko is now serving his own nine-year jail term in a California prison after being convicted in the U.S. for embezzlement, money laundering, and extortion.

In its eyes the European Union now has no choice. It has publicly disinvited Yanukovych from his long-planned trip to Brussels this week to work out the last details of the association agreement that was to have been signed by the end of 2011.

Dominique Arel, Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa, summarized the present state of play in his latest Ukraine news list: "The evidence should be fairly clear by now that the Donetsk clan [in eastern Ukraine]—however close to Russian culture, and definitely close to Russian political culture—does not want to be subordinated to Russia… Political culture in Central-Western Ukraine is rowdy, exasperating in its incomprehension of the law, but open. Political culture in Eastern Ukraine is based on intimidation…Yanukovych learned nothing from the Orange Revolution and everything from Putin: to stay in power, you have to bully your opponents."

One German diplomat expressed hopes that Yanukovych might still find some face-saving way to free Tymoshenko. "The ball is now in his court," he commented.

Round Two of the East Slav contest could produce a hot winter in Kyiv and Moscow this year—and a slow one in the Brussels office for European Neighborhood Policy.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans and The Rebirth of Europe.

[Photo courtesy of Bohan Shen ]

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