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Ukraine's NATO accession: politics as usual

18.08.2008 | 11:47

The recent crisis in Georgia has sunk that country’s chance to enter NATO anytime soon. But as analysts spar over whether Georgia’s NATO aspirations played a decisive role in precipitating the conflict, Ukraine’s entry looms ever larger on NATO’s agenda.

In all likelihood, the recent crisis in Georgia has sunk that country’s chance to enter NATO anytime soon. But as analysts spar over whether Georgia’s NATO aspirations played a decisive role in precipitating the conflict, Ukraine’s entry looms ever larger on NATO’s agenda.

With full view of Russia’s aggressive and disproportionate response to the South Ossetian crisis, will Ukraine be offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the forthcoming meetings of the Alliance in December 2008 or April 2009?

Whereas Germany and France are routinely accused of “blocking” Ukraine’s MAP in Bucharest, ostensibly in response to Vladimir Putin’s hectoring and NATO’s unpopularity among Ukrainians, it is domestic instability and indecisiveness of the Orange Coalition of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko that are the real culprits.

Given the right political will in Kiev, Ukraine’s chances of receiving MAP by next year are actually rather high. The Bucharest Summit last April ended with a joint statement that in unequivocal terms declared that “We agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.”

At the most recent meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on June 16, NATO leaders yet again praised Ukraine’s participation in joint military operations and maneuvers. Though a number of reforms are yet to be implemented, the general consensus is that Ukraine has so far “punched above its weight” in cooperating with the Alliance.

Thus, if Yushchenko and Tymoshenko manage to put their differences aside – and if necessary, risk their political careers – the Russia factor and low public support should not present a significant hurdle to Ukraine’s NATO aspirations.

Before the outbreak of recent hostilities in the Caucasus, Western leaders generally agreed that for all of Russia’s intransigence – ranging from the emotional incantations of a brotherly nation “losing its sovereignty” to brazen threats to aim missiles at that same brotherly nation – the Putin/Medvedev ruling tandem are scarcely interested in starting a new Cold War, even over Ukraine. That assumption will now undergo a significant rethinking in the West – and clearly not to Russia’s benefit.

Moreover, with Putin’s recent comments to President Bush that “Ukraine is not even a country” and Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov’s dogged insistence that Crimea is living on borrowed time as a part of Ukraine, one might think the Ukrainian elites – whether from L’viv, Kiev, or Donetsk – should realize that the real threat to their sovereignty lies to the East, not the West.

As the recent Georgia crisis was a direct result of longstanding and festering “frozen conflicts” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Ukrainian elites must now begin considering the frightening repercussions of allowing Crimea – or even the Black Sea port of Sevastopol – to descend into such muddy waters. 

As for public opinion, NATO membership should generally not be a matter of broad public acquiescence, but of a conscious geopolitical choice by a consolidated national elite. As part of NATO’s post-Soviet expansion, only Slovenia and Hungary have held referendums on membership – and Hungary’s was nonbinding. Slovakia’s 1997 referendum was declared invalid, as it gathered only 10 percent of eligible voters.

Yet, NATO detractors in Ukraine and abroad often showcase their greatest “counterpoint”: domestic public opinion polls, which routinely show only a minority support for entry. For instance, a poll conducted in June 2008 by the Fund for Public Opinion reported that 55 percent of Ukrainian respondents were against NATO membership, with only 22 percent in favor.  

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government recently approved a four-year, $6 million “information campaign” to improve NATO’s image. While the jury is still out regarding its effectiveness, even with the best of PR campaigns and outreach programs, the West by now has generally accepted the uncomfortable fact that NATO may never gain broad popularity among Ukrainians, especially in the eastern regions of the country.

Yet, the matter is wrapped up in domestic politics; President Yushchenko signed an agreement (the National Unity Declaration) in 2006 with then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, which stipulated a popular referendum before any decision can be taken on NATO membership. 

The last real push for NATO membership by the Orange Coalition came early this year. In January, President Yushchenko, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, and Speaker of the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) Arseniy Yatsenyuk sent a letter to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, reaffirming Ukraine’s commitment to join the Alliance.

When the letter became public, the opposition (Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and the Communist Party) blocked parliamentary work until March 6, relenting only after Yushchenko openly threatened to dissolve the parliament once again.

The deputies returned to work, but not until a resolution stating that “a decision on an international agreement on Ukraine joining NATO shall be taken only as a result of a national referendum” passed by 248 votes in the 450-seat body. Given that the Orange Coalition actually holds a slim two-seat majority, the vote clearly showcased the lack of commitment and party discipline for the Yushchenko/Tymoshenko camp. 

After this latest victory for the opposition, it became politics as usual in Ukraine. Gearing up for the 2010 presidential elections, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko remain perennially locked in domestic political battles. After Tymoshenko secured an agreement on gas prices with Gazprom in late July, the Prime Minister has been less willing to openly antagonize Russia on NATO membership.

Despite Yushchenko’s continued vociferous support for the MAP and a constitutional mandate to handle foreign policymaking, he has recently become embroiled in a high-profile public battle with his former political ally David Zhvania, whom Yushchenko accuses of instigating his September 2004 dioxin poisoning.

In addition, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko disagree on about every other domestic issue of relevance to Ukrainian voters:  from rampant inflation to the best way to handle the recent horrific floods in the western part of the country.

In short, Ukraine’s political elites lack the political courage and conviction to put aside petty political squabbles to ensure what would amount to a momentous geopolitical breakthrough for their country. The Russia-Georgia war does not change that. Those lambasting Berlin and Paris would do well to re-direct some of their criticism towards Kiev itself.

COMMENTARY & ANALYSIS: By Igor Khrestin

Central Europe Digest, Center for European Policy Analysis

Washington, D.C., Friday, 15 August 2008

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NOTE: Igor Khrestin is an analyst and writer specializing in Russian and East European affairs based in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

[Action Ukraine Report (AUR) Monitoring Service]


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