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Ukraine's New Rulers: What Do They Want?

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has brought his country closer to Moscow.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has brought his country closer to Moscow.

It's a tall order, in a country that's been paralyzed by political crisis and economic instability for decades. But Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych says he'll establish stability and prosperity by reversing the policies of the pro-Western predecessors he swept out of power in February.

In a state-of-the-nation speech on the eve of his 100th day as president on June 4, Yanukovych heaped scorn on the leaders of the Orange Revolution for leaving the country in what he said was a state of "ruin," and identified his administration's priorities.

"I propose a course of deep reforms and systematic modernization of the country that covers every area of public life and completes the new wave of much-needed socioeconomic transformations," Yanukovych said.

Included on the list was conducting a massive five-year privatization program, fighting corruption, and reforming the voting system.

Since taking office in February, Yanukovych has enacted sweeping changes, mainly aimed at reviving Ukraine's moribund relations with Russia. Among the measures was extending Moscow's lease for a former Soviet naval base at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.

In return, Moscow gave Ukraine a discount on the amount it pays for Russian natural gas, which could save Kyiv tens of billions of dollars. The deal helped roll back the previous administration's policy of minimizing the influence of Moscow, which has now even proposed to merge its state Gazprom monopoly with Ukraine's oil and gas company.

On June 4, parliament passed an initial draft of a bill establishing Ukraine's non-aligned status, fulfilling Yanukovych's pledge to halt the country's drive to join NATO.

Such moves may be popular in Ukraine's largely-Russian speaking east, which overwhelmingly backs Yanukovych. But the opposition -- whose base is in the mostly pro-Western west of the deeply divided country -- says Yanukovych is really interested in profiting from plundering Ukraine's economy with Russia's help.

‘Away From Europe’

Serhiy Sobolev, a member of parliament from the bloc of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, says Yanukovych's main goal is to increase the assets and power of the industrial oligarchs who back him and who want "cheap Russian gas at any price."

"It's clear that Russia will sell gas cheaply for only one thing: the flogging of key state assets to the Russians: the oil and gas industry, nuclear energy, and aircraft production," he says.

Sobolev says such policies are in the interests of the handful of powerful billionaires who financed Yanukovych's campaign and are plotting "a direct course away from European values and European integration."

"Instead, they've chosen to back [Moscow's] plan for so-called European security in which Russia plays a key role, to the point of entering into any alliance possible with Russia, including even a military one," Sobolev says.

Analysts agree oligarchs play a key role in decision-making, working through a group of influential cliques within the president's inner circle. The first is headed by Yanukovych's chief of staff, a 37-year-old former police colonel named Serhiy Lyovochkin, who's backed by one of Ukraine's biggest oligarchs, Dmytro Firtash, and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko.

But is Lyovochkin really interested in hawking Ukraine's independence to Russia? He denies that improving ties with Moscow means Kyiv is turning its back on Western values, stating that “the European vector remains the most important of the president's foreign policy priorities."

Lyovochkin's main rival for access to Yanukovych's ear is deputy administration chief Hanna Herman, the former head of RFE/RL's Kyiv bureau, who is now the president's main speechwriter and image-maker. She's allied with Yanukovych's former campaign chief Borys Kolesnikov and metals magnate Renat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, and is said to have an especially close personal relationship with the president.

Herman dismisses the opposition's criticism, saying it's only natural the new government would seek to improve ties with Russia. Anyway, she says, "Europe doesn’t need a poor, crisis-ridden neighbor."

"What have we actually sold to Russia? The criticism is just empty words and speculation,” Herman says. “Our administration was left with huge debts and a ruined economy, people without pensions and wages, and something had to be done about it."

Business First

Analysts say the deal for cheaper gas with Moscow is partly a pragmatic move to relieve pressure on Ukraine's crisis-ridden economy.

Vadym Karasyov, director of Kyiv's Global Strategies Institute, says the government sees the Black Sea Fleet agreement with Russia less as a geostrategic move toward the Kremlin than a pragmatic business deal. He says Yanukovych's backers "think like businessmen" who are chiefly concerned with cementing their own power.

"They rose on the collapse of the Soviet Union and formation of capitalist, oligarchic Ukraine,” Karasyov says. “They now see their task as using their political control to grow their businesses and cement their influence inside Ukraine and abroad."

But critics say the government has done nothing to carry out the economic reform it's promised. Yanukovych pledged to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund, which last year froze a $16.4-billion bailout. But the talks appear to have stalled over disagreements on social spending and economic reform.

Opposition legislator Sobolev says instead of the economy, the government has focused on "cultural" issues he says are aimed at "minimizing Ukrainian national identity."

Courts have overturned a decision by Yanukovych's predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, to bestow the title Hero of Ukraine on two anticommunist nationalist leaders. And Yanukovych's Regions Party has moved to boost the status of the Russian language.

More disturbing, Sobolev says, is the government's move to control the judicial system by giving the president power over the hiring and firing of judges.

He says Herman has also spearheaded a drive to blunt criticism over such measures by cracking down on the media and pressuring small- and mid-size businesses, which he says are the opposition's backbone of support.

"She's very active in trying to make freedom of speech a forgotten thing in Ukraine, so that newspapers and other media publicize about Yanukovych only what they want to see," Sobolev says.

Officials from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Europe's main human rights watchdog, have expressed concern over attacks on press freedom in Ukraine after journalists complained about censorship and physical attacks since Yanukovych took power.

Herman denies the allegations against her, saying her role in the administration is to ensure every Ukrainian "feels equally comfortable regardless of which region he lives in and what language he speaks."

Despite his sweeping promises, there are signs Yanukovych is pausing his policy overhaul. Analyst Karasyov says the government "doesn't want complete dependence on Russia" and is trying to figure out how to balance cooperation with Russia and Western countries.

Yanukovych's Regions Party recently voted in parliament to take part in joint military exercises with NATO forces, something it consistently voted against under the old pro-Western administration.

"The administration doesn't want to completely sell out to Moscow," Karasyov says. "It understands there's a danger Moscow could possibly simply buy Ukraine."

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.

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