Ukraine’s troubles

Ukraine has entered its latest gas war in a severely weakened state and with a paralysed government and parliament. What can only be called hatred between the erstwhile “Orange Revolution” allies of President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko is fast destroying the unity that Ukraine needs to face its acute economic crisis. In the meantime, the needless NATO question drives the country further apart.

Governance is poisoned by the war between Ukraine’s two most important politicians. In August Yushchenko virtually called Tymoshenko a traitor and in December she returned the favour by accusing Yushchenko of wrecking the economy for his personal advantage. In October Yushchenko dissolved parliament and abolished the court that ruled he could not do so. He has subsequently dropped the dissolution, claiming that the financial crisis forbade another election. Meanwhile, the fight between the two has broken Parliament. After months of bargaining, the remnants of the “Orange” forces cobbled together a coalition on 16 December but, as Yushchenko forbade his supporters to join, the coalition has no majority. As the year ended, an opinion poll in the country showed, not surprisingly, great displeasure among the victims of this power struggle; three-quarters said they did not support Yushchenko’s policies and only about 3% believed the country was heading in the right direction.

Bubbling in the background, and part of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko flame wars, is the arms trade scandal. The issue was not made clearer when Somali pirates captured a ship with Ukraine tanks bound for somewhere – no one seems to know – in Africa. The Ossetian war and Ukraine’s arms supplies to Georgia brought the issue to the fore and the chair of the parliamentary investigating committee, Valery Konovalyuk, asserts that Kiev supplied weapons during the war. Naturally, the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council disagreed, insisting that everything was perfectly legal. In the mean time, no one seems to know who paid for the 12 self-propelled guns, 70-plus APCs, 16 tanks, 8 helicopters and 58 air defence systems that SIPRI says Georgia received from Ukraine between 2004 and 2007; dark rumours of payoffs and secret arrangements abound.

Ukraine has been hit very hard by the world-wide financial crisis: its GDP is falling while inflation and unemployment are rising rapidly. Foreign debt had nearly doubled as of October and is still rising. Every indications is that these problems are getting worse.

Finally there is NATO. Since September I know of three polls taken in Ukraine on the issue; NATO membership was rejected by large majorities in each, as has been the case in every poll of which I am aware. In September 53% of respondents preferred economic integration with Russia and the CIS as against 40% who preferred relations with the EU. Nearly half agreed that NATO accession would be destabilising. Another poll that month showed that, in a referendum, 61% would vote against NATO membership and another poll two months later showed similar numbers. The November poll illuminated the geographical division over the question: NATO accession was supported by 16% in eastern Ukraine, 28% in central Ukraine and 68% in western Ukraine. Once again the two principals differ: Yushchenko strongly supports NATO accession and EU connections while Tymoshenko counsels caution. The population, principally because of the long history of the Ukrainian territory being divided between Polish and Russian rule, is split on many issues and the NATO question reminds all Ukrainians of these differences at a time when they must sink or swim together. One can only surmise that those who want Ukraine in NATO wish to split the country.

Ukraine is entering another gas war with Russia at a time when its two principal leaders are at each other’s throats and people are choosing sides in the power struggle, when its government and parliament are rudderless, when its economy is sinking fast, when the arms scandal is smouldering in the background and the NATO issue reminds all its citizens of the things that they do not have in common. As with its sister “Rose” and “Tulip” “Revolutions”, the day of reckoning for the “Orange Revolution” is approaching.