The world’s view of Ukraine has changed dramatically since Viktor Yanukovych was elected president.
Before that, Russia, the EU and the United States all thought that Ukraine’s energy problems and the future of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet could lead to acute crises and possibly even military intervention. Events in Ukraine were breaking news from the battlefield of geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West.
Since then, that torrent of Ukrainian news has shrunk to a rivulet of journalists’ complaints about government pressure. The investigation into the alleged crimes of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her entourage is proceeding at a snail’s pace, with European politicians only rarely speaking up on their behalf. Ukraine’s western and eastern provinces continue to debate whose version of history is correct, and sporadic warnings of an impending economic catastrophe have so far come to naught.
Ukraine’s gas transit talks with both Moscow and Brussels have essentially ground to a halt. Even the termination of constitutional reform, which restored the president’s powers, and the decision to extend its legislative and executive powers went almost unnoticed by the international community.
And lastly, the Russian-Ukrainian deal of April 2010, under which Russia agreed to cut the price of its gas supplies to Ukraine by 30% in exchange for a 25-year extension to the lease allowing its Black Sea Fleet to remain stationed in Sevastopol, were only in the news for a few days. Moreover, Russia’s expected economic expansion in Ukraine was limited to a few high-profile statements by Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s evasive replies.
Ukraine has been relegated to the political periphery. This is, in part, for objective reasons. The recent economic crisis has shifted the priorities of the world’s leading powers. The EU and the Untied States are busy dealing with their own internal problems and have little time for external developments. Economic recovery has done nothing to revive their pre-crisis interests. Instead it has bolstered new challenges, such as the impressive growth of China and Asia more broadly, and the ongoing revolts with an unpredictable outcome across the Middle East and North Africa.
These new events have overshadowed all those conflicts that, even recently, seemed dramatic. Nearly all post-Soviet republics are now less of a priority. When the pressure from the West eased, Russia, which almost always acts reactively, scaled down its aggressive policies there, too.
On the other hand, Ukraine has also changed. No matter what you think about the “orange” ideology, it is a fact that the reign of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko was marked by numerous domestic and foreign policy shocks. These upheavals were caused both by the entirely natural desire for change after stagnation at the end of Leonid Kuchma’s term in office, and the new authorities’ sheer incompetence and inability to formulate any reasonable strategy and coordinate their approach to reform.
They tried to compensate for their managerial flops by foregrounding ideology. But their attempts to effect a rapid change in the ethnic identity of such a complex country as Ukraine, while simultaneously splitting from Russia, only escalated internal tensions. On top of that, alliances collapsed as former allies started fighting each other.
While all these turbulent processes were underway, Ukraine remained the focus of international attention. Objective reasons included U.S. and European interests, with the subjective reason being that Yushchenko recognized that confrontation with Russia was a reliable way of holding his Western partners’ attention.
Although Russia’s policy was neither ideal nor fail-safe, Ukraine was far too willing to add fuel to even the smallest fire. Crucially, Yushchenko believed that the further Ukraine moves from Russia, the better its future will be.
But he went too far once too often. There came a day when foreign partners and Ukrainians alike became tired of endless domestic political scandals and clashes with Russia. Their current apathy is a result of this five-year “orange” rule. That is why Viktor Yanukovych needed only a year to virtually take complete control over the country’s political system without encountering serious internal or external resistance.
The fleet-for-gas swap has allowed the sides to settle two massive problems without needing to impose any unpleasant conditions. Russia turned money it would have never received from Ukraine anyway into a “gift,” while Ukraine allowed Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which has no influence over the balance of forces in the country, to stay put. Seeing this, the external forces relaxed: in any case the last thing they need is new hot spots.
A year after his inauguration, Yanukovych has consolidated power, eased tensions, and proved that Ukraine is not as unreliable as many had become accustomed to think. He has created conditions for a consistent political and economic strategy, which he should now formulate. But he has been working so hard to stabilize the country, that he has not had time to formulate this new strategy.
He is only at the beginning of his term, but life shows that political honeymoons do not last long. You cannot keep exploiting people’s disappointment with your predecessor forever, and the lack of any clear opposition soon becomes a major drawback: you can not continue to blame your predecessor for painful decisions or use him to help ease tensions.
Many post-Soviet republics lack an opposition, but Ukraine is not one of them, and besides, such regimes eventually become mired in deadlock that can only be broken by major social upheavals.
Geopolitically, the lack of external rivalry, which in any case was only tearing Ukraine apart, is certainly a boon. But Ukraine still needs to take a stand. The country now finds itself suspended between Russia, (and contrary to claims made by Yanukovych’s opponents, Ukraine will not cede its sovereignty to Russia) and the EU, which currently has little time for Ukraine.
Ukraine can only maintain this delicate balancing act for a short time because progress is impossible without movement. As Yushchenko’s presidency showed, moving in one direction only risks aggravating the problems the country faces while maneuvering requires both flexibility and careful consideration. If Yanukovych has these qualities, now is the time to prove it.