Amid smoke bombs and flying eggs hurled by enraged opposition deputies, Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday controversially agreed to extend the Russian Navy’s lease on the Crimean port of Sevastopol for 25 years in exchange for billions of dollars worth of discounted Russian gas.
“Today will go down as a black page in the history of Ukraine and the Ukrainian parliament,” said Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who was narrowly defeated by pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovich for the presidency in February polls.
Opposition leaders say it effectively maintains the Black Sea as a Russian-dominated lake, and compels Ukraine to involuntarily back Moscow’s military actions such as the Russian Navy’s blockade of Georgia during the brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
News agencies reported that 10,000 protesters rallied outside the parliament in central Kiev (Kyiv) Tuesday shouting, “Don’t sell Ukraine to Russia” and “Death to the traitors.” But lawmakers inside ratified the deal with 236 votes, a 10-seat majority in the 450-member Supreme Rada.
And that may be just the start. Ukraine’s dizzying geopolitical about-face appears to be picking up speed.
Experts say that Ukraine has been rapidly realigning itself away from the West and toward Moscow since the electoral triumph of Mr. Yanukovich, who heads the eastern Ukraine-based Party of Regions.
Yanukovich and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have met five times since the February elections, including a meeting in Kharkov last week where the Ukrainian leader signed the naval accord in return for a 30 percent discount, worth about $40 billion over the next decade, in the price of Russian natural gas – upon which Ukraine’s foundering economy is deeply dependent.
“Ukrainian politicians today have to be tough pragmatists,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Center for Political and Conflict Studies in Kiev. “Half of our trade turnover is with Russia, and we just can’t afford to be in a state of conflict with them. It’s a practical and unsentimental deal.”
Some analysts say Yanukovich may be ready to embrace a sweeping restoration of Soviet-era economic ties, including a customs union and joint industrial strategy, between Russia and Ukraine that has been long advocated by Moscow.
The 2004 Orange Revolution interrupted those plans. The peaceful street revolt overturned an election allegedly rigged by Yanukovich and brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power pledging to put Ukraine on a fast-track to NATO membership and integration with the European Union.
But Mr. Yushchenko was turned out by Ukraine’s electorate earlier this year, in part because many Ukrainians appeared anxious over souring ties with Moscow.
After being elected president, his rival Yanukovich ended Ukraine’s bid to join NATO earlier this month. Analysts say he is negotiating fresh deals that might reintegrate Ukraine’s aviation industry with Russia’s and allow Russia’s state-run gas behemoth, Gazprom, greater control over the country’s vital network of gas pipelines.
On Monday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is currently visiting Kiev, dropped another bombshell.
“We have just formulated an offer which we would like to discuss,” Mr. Putin said in a meeting with Yanukovich. “At issue is large-scale cooperation between our nuclear sectors. We are offering to establish a major holding, which would unite our generation, nuclear engineering, and nuclear fuel cycles. … If Ukrainian specialists find this to be too revolutionary, then we could act in phases.”
Russia has heavily invested in an expansion of its own nuclear power industry, and a union with Ukraine, which operates four atomic power stations with 15 Soviet-built reactors, would be a big boost to those plans.
It would also nail down Ukraine as a captive market for Russian energy companies for decades. Still reeling under the radioactive legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine had been moving to wean itself completely from nuclear power.
“I don’t see any reason to get upset if Russia and Ukraine are moving to restore some economic synergies,” says Dmytro Vydrin, deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, a key presidential advisory body. “The opposition thinks Russia is the source of all dangers and any cooperation with it is some kind of sell-out. But economic cooperation isn’t a threat to our sovereignty, and it can be very beneficial.”
But cooperation doesn’t mean a new Soviet Union
Ukraine’s leading pollster, Vladimir Paniotto, director of the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology, says Ukraine’s economically hard-hit public strongly supports the restoration of ties with Russia, at least for now.
“Over 60 percent of Ukrainians in recent polls supported the idea of joining the Russia-Belarus Union,” which is a common market and partial political union, he says. “As for extending the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease in Crimea, 63 percent say they are in favor,” Mr. Paniotto said in a telephone interview from Kiev.
But analysts say Yanukovich is likely to balk at joining a common market with Russia, and even nationalist politicians in Moscow aren’t much interested in restoring the former Soviet system with all its waste and unwanted burdens.
“There is no chance that developing economic cooperation will lead to reinventing the Soviet Union in any form,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
“Ukraine can play a good role as a bridge between Russia and the European Union, and we can all profit from that. But nobody wants to go back to the USSR.”
Olga Podolskaya contributed reporting from Moscow.