Ukraine at a Crossroads, as Rada Deputies Provide Comic Relief

December 17, 2012
Anthony T. Salvia
Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Last week, Mykola Azarov was returned to the post of Prime Minister with 259 votes in the Rada (33 more than needed). This sets the stage for President Yanukovich's re-election bid in 2015. Meanwhile, the government will have to come to grips with the major policy choices bearing down on Ukraine -- choosing between the Free Trade Area with the EU and the Moscow-sponsored Customs Union, satisfying IMF requirements for further lending, reviving the economy, implementing agricultural reform, etc.

Azarov's confirmation was entirely upstaged by brawling parliamentarians in the Rada. Mass media across the globe reported on the fighting, treating it as comic relief from serious news, and presenting Ukrainian politics as entertaining at best, and ridiculous at worst.

The melee stemmed, in part, from the opposition's anger over the defection of some of its members to the ruling coalition -- thus increasing the majority of the Azarov government.

The opposition had every right to be upset, but then party-switching, at least in the West, is not unusual, and is never seen as an excuse for fisticuffs. In 2001, a US Senator from Vermont switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party, thus annulling the will of the American people who had just voted for a Republican president, a Republican Senate and a Republican House. His solitary decision deprived the victorious party of its absolute majority. Un-democratic? Perhaps. Constitutionally valid? Absolutely. Again, no violence ensued.

And then there was the irony of opposition politicians (mainly Svoboda deputies) shouting "Shame, shame" at Rada members who dared to speak from the podium in Russian -- a language in which virtually 100% of Ukraine's population is proficient, and the native tongue of a large percentage, perhaps a majority. I say ironic because these are the very politicians who insist Ukraine is too liberal, enlightened and European to cast its lot with Russia (by joining the Moscow-sponsored Customs Union, for example) and should therefore play ball with the European Union by ratifying the Free Trade Agreement. It is hard to imagine anything less reflective of "European" values than demonizing fellow citizens for speaking their native tongue.

While Svoboda is engaged in sophomoric and potentially destabilizing endeavors, the Yanukovich-Azarov team has serious, adult decisions to make concerning, among other things, its perennial need to choose between Europe and Russia, and meeting IMF requirements for further lending.

The two things are linked. A deal with the Customs Union would, according to experts, save Ukraine $4.6 billion a year on gas imports, obviating the need to meet the IMF's politically untenable demand to reduce subsidies to Ukrainian gas consumers.

Will the President bite the bullet? In Ashgabat on December 5th, he made his most pro-Customs Union remarks yet, saying Ukraine would lose out if it did not "accede to certain provisions of the Customs Union." The statement was cautious and bold at the same time -- and strangely ambiguous. He knows that accession to some provisions and not others is not an option.

Then on December 13th, his prime minister, having just been confirmed by the Rada, said the government regarded the "signing" and "implementation" of the association agreement with the European Union "as soon as possible" as a "priority" of the government. And yet Azarov knows Brussels has made signature of the Free Trade Agreement contingent on definitive rejection of the Customs Union.

Is all of this ambiguity calculated? Is it part and parcel of the President's well-known efforts to play Moscow off of Washington/Brussels in hopes of getting the best possible deal? Is a deal with either party even desired, or is the balancing act an end in itself?

As the Yanukovich administration grapples with these weighty issues, it would do well to take into account the words of Valeriy Muntiyan in a recent interview.

He said that in joining the Customs Union, Ukraine, far from losing its economic sovereignty, would actually achieve it as the country would gain access to a "significantly more capacious and solvent market than it now has." [значительно более емкий и платежеспособный рынок, чем имеет Украина сегодня] This is critically important for key domestic industries. Belarus, according to Muntiyan, has already benefited from expanding its market from 10 million, to 170 million people.

As a member of the Customs Union, he said, Ukraine would unite with the other member states as an equal. This would not happen if Ukraine were to seek integration with the European Union, which seeks to impose its rules on Ukraine, and which is "declining" and experiencing "protracted stagnation." [А сегодня ЕС падает и находится в затяжной стагнации]. The Europeans, according to Muntiyan, seek to gain access to Ukraine's resources, while giving nothing in return. They will not transfer capital "because they do not have it"[Капитала не дадут, поскольку у них нет]; the same goes for technology, as they have no intention of building up a potential competitor.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently likened the Customs Union and associated Eurasian Economic Space to an effort to "re-Sovietize" the former Soviet Union. But, at a time when several ex-Warsaw Pact members (Bulgaria and Romania, for example), having submitted to the remote, bureaucratic colossus at Brussels, find themselves high and dry in what British journalist James Delingpole calls a "Soviet-style economic dead zone," it is an open question as to which system bears greater resemblance to the old Soviet Union