By Sophie Lambroschini and Askold Krushelnycky
President Vladimir Putin's unexpected appointment yesterday of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russia's new ambassador to Ukraine has sparked discussion in both Moscow and Kyiv about the significance of the choice. RFE/RL correspondents Sophie Lambroschini and Askold Krushelnycky spoke to analysts about what the naming of the on-again, off-again political heavyweight to the Kyiv post may mean for the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations.
Moscow/Prague, 11 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The surprise appointment yesterday of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russia's ambassador to Ukraine is seen by many as an openly political move by President Vladimir Putin.
Analysts say the appointment leaves little doubt about Russia's intention to resolve its differences with Ukraine, mainly over gas disputes. It is also regarded as a signal that Russia is looking to increase its political influence in Ukraine, which is more and more divided between its Eastern and Western interests.
The appointment still needs to win approval from Russia's lower house of parliament, or Duma. But that is not considered to be a problem.
Putin said yesterday that posting Chernomyrdin to Kyiv was meant to highlight the growing importance of a Russian-Ukrainian partnership: "The time has come for us to take a serious approach to developing the relationship with one of our essential partners, Ukraine. And it is essential to create the indispensable preconditions for that, including staff changes."
Chernomyrdin served as prime minister under former President Boris Yeltsin from 1992 until 1998. He is also the former head of Russia's natural gas monopoly, Gazprom.
His new job may be key to resolving a long-existent dispute between Moscow and Kyiv over Ukraine's outstanding debt to Russia for natural gas deliveries, which is estimated at between $1.4 billion and $2 billion. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has also admitted that Ukraine tapped gas from the Gazprom pipeline to Western Europe, confirming Russian suspicions.
Chernomyrdin, who has close personal ties with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, has followed the issue closely in the past, both as prime minister and as Gazprom head.
Analysts agree that appointing an energy expert as ambassador is a definite plus. Ukrainian political analyst Anatoly Gritsenko told RFE/RL that Chernomyrdin's behind-the-scenes experience qualifies him for finding a pragmatic solution to the gas dispute:
"He's a man who knows all the legal and shadowy schemes that allowed Russian and Ukrainian businessmen to build their capital in the early 1990s. He's a man who knows the economic interests of all the [players] involved on the Ukrainian side. He's a man who will have direct contact with the administration and president in the Kremlin -- and not only through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think he will add pragmatism and a practical approach to solving economic problems."
Other analysts say that at a time when Ukraine has the attention of both its Western and Eastern neighbors, the appointment signals that Russia is serious about pulling the former Soviet republic back under its control.
Kirill Frolov is a researcher at the CIS Institute, a think-tank that supports the return of Ukraine to Russia's sphere of influence. He says the appointment strengthens Gazprom's position in its dealings with the British-Dutch energy company Shell over control of Ukraine's gas pipeline to Western Europe.
"Of course, this appointment has to do with the [future] ownership of the gas transport system of Ukraine, and with the fight between Gazprom and Shell for control of this system. [Chernomyrdin] is the former head of Gazprom and has always defended the interests of this corporation. His appointment means that Gazprom is very serious in its intention to defend its positions."
Ukraine's pro-Western, outgoing prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko -- who was ousted last month in a no-confidence vote -- said that Chernomyrdin's appointment will improve bilateral cooperation between the two countries. He also described Russia's recent policy toward Ukraine as more transparent and honest.
But many Ukrainian politicians and observers see the appointment as demonstrating that Russia wants to increase its political hold over Ukraine.
Political analyst Volodymyr Polokhalo says the appointment was full of symbolism. He says Chernomyrdin -- a former senior Communist official in Soviet times with responsibility for the energy sector -- is well-connected to many Ukrainian "oligarchs," businessmen who have made huge fortunes from shady deals involving Russian gas supplies.
"Viktor Chernomyrdin -- who is not a professional diplomat but has a huge potential of influencing the Ukrainian business and political elite -- is immediately transformed [by this appointment] into a political figure and a political player who will operate on the Ukrainian political scene."
Polokhalo thinks that apart from dealing with Ukraine's energy debt, Chernomyrdin's task will be to pull Ukraine further into Russia's political orbit.
He says that unlike with Belarus, where Russia has pursued a policy of reincorporating the country into a new Moscow-led union, in Ukraine the attempt to secure a similar outcome will be done more discreetly. But he says Chernomyrdin will seek to pull the levers of Ukrainian power from behind the scenes.
"Now the Russian embassy [in Ukraine] will become a center of power, one of the centers of government in Ukraine that will influence Ukrainian political decisions."
Polokhalo says that Kuchma's acceptance of Chernomyrdin as ambassador indicates the Ukrainian president is tilting his policies towards a stronger relationship with Russia. But Polokhalo says that such a relationship will be detrimental to Ukraine's national interests: "This means that, fundamentally, Kuchma has turned away from his pro-[Western] European option and has set his course toward the northern neighbor, [Russia,] and toward his former and current political and business connections with the Russian political elite."
Some analysts question what Chernomyrdin's appointment will mean on Russia's domestic front. An article in Russia's "Vremya MN" daily today says that the appointment may be tied to Putin's desire to rein in Gazprom. By tapping Chernomyrdin to negotiate the gas-line issue for Russia, the paper says, the Kremlin is hoping to break Gazprom's habit of lobbying on its own behalf in ways that often contradict Kremlin policy.
Some also note that Putin's move may be part of a larger trend of tapping into a reserve of sidelined, but still influential, politicians. Chernomyrdin's fellow former prime minister, Sergei Kirienko, re-entered politics last year as Putin's special envoy to the Volga district, and former Primorye Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko was recently appointed head of the State Fisheries Committee.
Chernomyrdin has faded from public view since being ousted from his prime ministerial post by Yeltsin in 1998. Even though he never entirely left the political scene -- he was named by Yeltsin to act as Russia's negotiator in Kosovo and was elected to the Duma in 1999 -- Chernomyrdin was widely seen as being in political exile.
Political analyst Denis Rodionov of the investment bank Brunswick Warburg says Chernomyrdin's new appointment appears to be a sort of political comeback:
"It seems to me that this is his return to big-time politics. He had lost almost everything. He lost his post as prime minister. He lost his party -- Our Home is Russia -- which didn't get elected to the Duma. His role in Russian political life was reduced to a minimum lately."
The CIS Institute's Frolov says that a successful performance in bringing Ukraine around to more Russia-friendly relations could lay the groundwork for Chernomyrdin's further return to Kremlin politics.
The far-right -- and always provocative -- Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky has a more blunt assessment of the appointment. Referring to the implication of Chernomyrdin's government in several financial and economic scandals during the 1990s, he said: "He's lucky to have such a brilliant end to his career. After all, the tsar [that is, Putin] could have sent him to prison [instead of Kyiv]."