LONDON — The brawl in the Ukrainian Parliament on Nov. 11 was an undignified ending to the country’s two-month political crisis, but something important has changed. In the immediate aftermath of the Orange Revolution of 2004, the more extreme Ukrainian nationalists fantasized that the country could break all its links with Russia and become an entirely Western state, but realism is starting to prevail.
To the extent that ideas play a role in Ukrainian politics, they are mainly ideas about Russia. Is it a friendly neighbor, close to Ukrainians in language, culture and history, or is it a perpetual threat to Ukraine’s independence? The answer people give is mainly dependent on whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian at home — and about half of Ukraine’s citizens do speak Russian at home.
The more extreme nationalists would deny that, insisting that the great majority of the country’s citizens speak Ukrainian, but that is a wish rather than a fact, as a walk down the streets of any big Ukrainian city except Lviv in the far west of the country will quickly reveal. Centuries of Russian political domination mean that Russian is the dominant language of urban culture almost everywhere in Ukraine, and in the heavily industrialized east of the country even the ethnic Ukrainians mostly speak Russian.
Many, perhaps most Ukrainian nationalists, believe that Ukraine can safeguard its independence only by integrating itself into the major Western institutions. Since the old ex-Communist elite was finally forced from power by the Orange Revolution in 2004, President Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of that nonviolent revolution, has been pushing hard for membership in the European Union and NATO. But not all the leaders of that revolution think the same.
Yulia Tymoshenko, with her trademark braided hair, became almost as famous as Yushchenko during the events of 2004, and afterward she became prime minister. She subsequently fell out with Yushchenko, but was back as prime minister by December of last year. She is unquestionably a Ukrainian nationalist, but she was uncharacteristically silent when the conflict between Georgia and Russia blew up last August.
President Yushchenko, now her bitterest rival, was outspoken in his backing of Georgia against the Russian “invasion,” and urged the EU and NATO to speed up their response to Ukraine’s applications for membership. But Ukraine is deeply divided on those questions; around half the population opposes NATO membership. And neither Western organization responded with an unequivocal yes.
Tymoshenko didn’t say much about that, either, and then in September her party in Parliament voted along with the pro- Russian Party of the Regions in a move to curb the president’s powers. President Yushchenko saw this as a betrayal, since Tymoshenko’s party and his own Our Ukraine group were in a coalition in Parliament, so he dissolved the coalition and called an early parliamentary election in mid-September.
Quite a few people in Ukraine suspect that Tymoshenko has made a secret deal with the Russians. She intends to run for the presidency against Yushchenko next year, and the theory is that she promised to keep quiet about Georgia and not push for Ukrainian membership in the EU and NATO in return for Moscow’s tacit support in the presidential election.
Tymoshenko was quite right not to offer Georgia her automatic support, since it was the Georgians who started the war. She is right not to push NATO membership for Ukraine either, since that would infuriate Moscow and split Ukraine right down the middle. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t make that secret deal with the Russians; in fact, she probably did.
Moscow is very unhappy with the openly anti-Russian stance of President Yushchenko, and the September vote to curb his powers was just what it wanted to see. It couldn’t have passed without Tymoshenko’s support, and many see it as proof that she has made her deal. She is positioning herself as a Ukrainian nationalist who is not anti-Russian, and that may be enough to win her the presidency next year. But it unleashed two months of political chaos in Ukraine.
Aligning herself once again with the pro-Russian Regions party, she used their joint majority in Parliament to resist Yushchenko’s decree of fresh parliamentary elections: They simply refused to vote the funds for an election. Meanwhile, the global economic crisis swept into Ukraine, forcing it to seek a $16.5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Yushchenko has now accepted that he cannot force new parliamentary elections at least until the new year. It may well turn out that he cannot force them even then — and his party would probably lose if he did. Moreover, he is very likely to lose office himself when the presidential election rolls around later in the year.
So Tymoshenko and Moscow win — but so, perhaps, does Ukraine, for the extreme pro-Western and anti-Russian positions taken up by Yushchenko were not wise. Moscow does not appear to harbor any ambition to regain the control over Ukraine that it had in Soviet and czarist times, but it would see a Ukrainian government that joined NATO as an enemy of Russia. Ukraine’s independence is probably safer outside NATO than it would be inside it.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.