Accessibility links

Breaking News

Analysis: Building Coalitions -- And Nations -- In Ukraine

Anti-NATO protest in Simferopol, Crimea, June 6 (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, June 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- the three allies in the 2004 Orange Revolution -- have been busy for the past two weeks preparing a coalition accord to form a new government. Meanwhile, pro-Russian opposition groups have engaged themselves in fanning anti-NATO protests in Crimea and declaring Russian a "regional language" in some regions.

The June 7 session of the Verkhovna Rada, resumed after a two-week recess, has not clarified the conundrum of who will form the next government in Ukraine. The Orange Revolution forces once again passed a motion adjourning the parliamentary session for one more week in order to finalize a coalition accord.

But the Orange Revolution allies, if reunited after their split in September 2005, are set to restart their government career in a turbulent political climate, in which the Russian language and NATO membership have once again become bitterly divisive issues.

Since the March 26 parliamentary and local elections in Ukraine, regional legislators have declared Russian as a "regional language" in a number of eastern and southern Ukrainian regions and cities, including Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Mykolayiv.

"In the first place it is necessary to show the authorities' strength. That is, the decisions of local self-government bodies that overstep the limits of their authority should be indisputably canceled by prosecutors." -- analyst

President Viktor Yushchenko made clear on June 6 that these decisions are unconstitutional: "Article 10 of the Ukrainian Constitution defines a common status of the state language, which is Ukrainian. And no regional or city council has the authority to change the status of any language."

However, Yushchenko can do little more beside making indignant statements on this account. Only Ukraine's Constitutional Court can rule that a decision by a legislative body is unconstitutional and subsequently cancel it.

But the Constitutional Court has been nonoperational for nearly a year. The Verkhovna Rada refuses to swear in new judges, fearing that Yushchenko will ask the court to cancel the 2004 constitutional reform that strips him of some substantial powers in favor of the parliament and the prime minister.

Crimea Protests

Another blow to the apparently dwindling authority of the president came last week from Crimea, where pro-Russian opposition groups -- including the Party of Regions, the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc, and the Communist Party -- have launched anti-NATO protests.

The pretext for the protests was the visit in the port of Feodosiya of a U.S. naval cargo ship, which brought construction equipment and materials to upgrade a training range in Crimea before the multinational military exercise Sea Breeze 2006 in July. The protesters see the U.S. naval visit as an unwelcome NATO intrusion into Ukrainian territory and demand the sacking of the defense and foreign ministers over the incident.

The deployment of foreign troops on Ukrainian territory must be approved by the parliament for each individual case. It is not clear whether the Verkhovna Rada will be able to grant relevant permission before the Sea Breeze 2006 exercise. If not, then President Yushchenko will suffer international humiliation, since participation in the exercise has already been confirmed by 17 countries.

On top of that, the Crimean autonomous legislature on June 6 passed a resolution declaring Crimea to be a "NATO-free zone." Perhaps, as President Yushchenko asserts, the resolution will have no impact on Ukraine's relations with NATO. But the resolution flagrantly defies Ukraine's official policy of integration with NATO.

Why is there no clear and decisive reaction from Kyiv to what is happening in Crimea?

Ukrainian political scientist Ihor Losev says the Orange Revolution forces are so busy with haggling over the composition of a future government that they have no time to think about national interests: "When today we are watching this shameful story with the coalition [building], when it is necessary to save Ukraine but the authorities are totally focused on how to prevent [Yuliya] Tymoshenko from taking the chair of prime minister -- it is a pathological situation. It is something outside the boundaries of common sense."

According to Losev, the political class that came to power in Ukraine following the Orange Revolution pursues similar "clannish" and "egoistic" interests that were characteristic of the ruling elite during the previous presidency of Leonid Kuchma.

Russian Influence

There are also many commentators who see the current anti-NATO protests and the rekindled Russian-language controversy in Ukraine as elements of a broader campaign inspired from Russia in order to undermine Yushchenko's authority in Ukraine.

According to this line of reasoning, Moscow has realized that Ukraine under Yushchenko has a real chance of integration with Euro-Atlantic structures.

Therefore, Gazprom's increase of gas prices for Kyiv in January and the current political turbulence in Ukraine can be seen as Moscow-supported attempts to discipline Yushchenko and keep Ukraine "in the Russian orbit."

Ukrainian-Russian relations have become strained

Incidentally, President Yushchenko and Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk have both suggested that the ongoing anti-NATO protests are sponsored by anti-Ukrainian forces in Russia.

Kyiv-based political scientist Hryhoriy Perepelytsya says that Ukrainians, because of their blurred national identity, can still be provoked by pro-Russian politicians into conflicts around the Russian language and Ukraine's foreign-policy goals.

"The problem is that a large part of Ukrainians, particularly those living in eastern regions and Crimea, cannot identify themselves as Ukrainians. They consider [Ukrainians] to be an alien nation with relation to themselves. They do not want to learn or speak the Ukrainian language. This puts them in a situation of terrible discomfort, psychological and ideological discomfort, and this leads to conflict," Perepelytsya says.

According to Losev and Perepelytsya, President Kuchma did not actually want to bridge the West-East divide in Ukraine during his rule, while President Yushchenko has not yet proposed any plan how to do it.

What does President Yushchenko need to do in order to defuse the current rebellious sentiments over the Russian language and NATO in the country?

Ukrainian political analyst Oleh Doniy believes that Yushchenko must employ a carrot-and-stick tactic: "In the first place it is necessary to show the authorities' strength. That is, the decisions of local self-government bodies that overstep the limits of their authority should be indisputably canceled by prosecutors."

This refers to the Russian-language controversy. As for the anti-NATO protests, Doniy advises to be cautious and even abandon the idea of holding military exercises with NATO troops. And here is why.

"If the population is now against [staging exercises with NATO troops], it is not [advisable] to break the people's will by force. The worst will happen when this [opposition to NATO] becomes a romantic idea among the population. One thing is to fight political opposition or to fight Russia [and] the Kremlin, but it is quite a different thing if [you have to fight] a romantic idea among Russian-speaking youths in the south and east [of Ukraine]. It is impossible to kill a romantic idea," Doniy says.

Whatever President Yushchenko is going to do in this situation, it is already evident that he needs to be guided not so much by short-term concerns connected with coalition building as by long-term considerations linked to nation building.

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

Russians In The Former Soviet Union

Russians In The Former Soviet Union

Click on the map to see how many Russians live in each of the former Soviet republics.

RUSSIANS OUTSIDE OF RUSSIA: A total of some 30 million ethnic Russians remain in the republics of the former Soviet Union, including large diasporas in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This historical legacy has often been a source of tension between Russia and its neighbors. "Support for the rights of compatriots abroad is a crucial goal," Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his April 2005 state-of-the-nation address. "It cannot be subject to a diplomatic or political bargaining. Those who do not respect, observe, or ensure human rights have no right to demand that human rights be respected by others."


To view a complete archive of RFE/RL's coverage of Russia, click here.

To subscribe to "RFE/RL's Russia Report," click here .