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Russia: Ukraine Crisis Looms Large

The parliamentary crisis has divided Ukrainians (AFP) MOSCOW, April 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The recent spat in Ukraine between the president, Viktor Yushchenko, and his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, has been followed closely in Russia.

Russian politicians have been eager to speak out about the mounting crisis, with the Duma issuing a statement on April 6 supporting the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada and denouncing Yushchenko's decision to dissolve parliament.

But a member of a Russian State Duma delegation visiting Ukraine, Duma Deputy Aleksandr Krutov, denied today that Russia was interfering in Ukrainian politics.

The Duma's statement "is not interference in [Ukraine's] internal affairs. It is an assessment of the Ukrainian president's decree," Krutov said. "Anybody, any organization, any country may give their assessment to any legal act in any country. The State Duma has given its own assessment and it is fully entitled to do so."

Old Ties

Events in Ukraine have provoked strong feelings among many Russians.

Russian television news programs have devoted hours of airtime to the current crisis in Ukraine. The escalating row has dominated the news and the front pages of most of the newspapers in Russia for several days.

'The idea of Ukraine becoming a completely independent state is very hard for Russians to understand.'

Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Moscow branch of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, says Russia and Ukraine are bound together.

"The idea of Ukraine becoming a completely independent state is very hard for Russians to understand," Volk says.

"It always used to be that when something happened in Ukraine, we regarded it as something that was happening to us. We'd watch it with a great deal of attention. And of course the question of Ukraine joining the West, becoming a member of NATO or the European Union -- this is the worst imaginable nightmare for Russian public opinion."

Winter Of Orange

Three winters ago, when demonstrators wearing orange jackets took to the streets in Kyiv to contest fraudulent elections, they had the strong support of Washington and the European Union. The results of the election were overturned and the Western-leaning Yushchenko came to power in what became known as the Orange Revolution.

But three years later, there are signs that the West's support for Ukraine has waned.

Western countries supported Orange forces in Ukraine in 2004

Sam Greene, a political researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says things look different now.

"Unfortunately, attention spans, particularly in Washington -- but I think not only in Washington -- I think are sometimes shorter than we would like them to be, and I think that interest has moved on. I think we saw similar dynamics probably in Georgia and probably in Kyrgyzstan," Greene says.

But has the void left by the Western governments that supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan left an opportunity for Russia to regain influence in these former Soviet republics?

Greene says the issue is a little bit more complicated.

"The attention deficit from Washington's side may provide some opportunities to Moscow. They're more aware of an opportunity when it comes up and they might be able to take better advantage of it," Greene says.

"But in the long run, the real meat and bones of the relationship is something that is played out and fought over on a daily basis, not just in these moments of crisis and specific opportunity, but something that is part of trade negotiations and diplomacy and investment."

Saving Face

In recent years, Russia has taken steps to exert political influence in the region. At the beginning of 2006, an energy row between Moscow and Kyiv took on broader implications when Russia said it would no longer supply gas to Ukraine at reduced rates. Eventually, Ukraine was forced to accept the new terms. A few months later, Georgia agreed to pay market rates for Russian gas, too.

Greene says part of Russia's show of force is about saving face.

"The other thing they're sensitive to is image and prestige, partly for domestic reasons, partly for maintaining this international rhetoric that obviously makes them feel very good on some level," Greene says.

"They certainly would not want to see Ukraine join NATO or Georgia join NATO. They certainly would not want to see American antimissile systems and radar bases directly on the other side of the Russian border."

At the same time, he says, Moscow is coming to realize that the influence it used to wield over countries like Ukraine and Georgia is on the wane.

The decision makers in the Kremlin are under no illusion they can bring these countries into line -- now, he says, their primary concern is to do business with them.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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