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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Specter Of Disintegration

Washington, 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A spate of articles in the Moscow press this week have suggested that the current political crisis in Kyiv is already increasing regional tensions in Ukraine and could lead to the disintegration of the Ukrainian state.

But like similar reports just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these commentaries appear less a genuine prognostication of what is likely to occur than an obvious effort to put pressure on the Ukrainian government to turn to Moscow for its security needs.

As the political crisis in Ukraine has deepened over the last few weeks, the Russian media have been full of ever more items concerning the challenges President Leonid Kuchma faces in trying to quiet demands that he resign because of his alleged involvement in the murder of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze last fall. Moscow outlets have given extensive coverage both to the Gongadze case and to demonstrations against Kuchma.

This week, however, the Russian media have contained some more apocalyptic predictions. Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," for example, on 20 March featured an interview with the president of the ethnic Russian community in Ukraine who said that Russians there are angry at the Ukrainian authorities and now seek to develop closer ties with the Russian Federation in order to promote the creation of a new union state.

On 21 March, Russian wire services carried the results of a poll in Ukraine showing that the citizens of that country have ever less trust in the central Ukrainian government and ever more trust in regional authorities. And earlier this week, another Russian article explicitly suggested what many had talked about a decade ago but which has seldom been discussed in recent years: the possibility that Ukraine could in fact disintegrate into three sections.

The article in question argued that not only was there the possibility that Ukraine could split between the ethnic Russian eastern portion and the ethnic Ukrainian central portion but also that the six western oblasts of Ukraine, the most nationalistic region of all, might break away as well, given its orientation toward Rome rather than toward the Orthodox East.

Such articles inevitably attract attention by their apocalyptic quality, and indeed some of their authors may be making these predictions for no other reason than that. But the appearance of so many such articles all at once, together with ever more explicit Russian government calls for working with the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine and elsewhere, suggests that more may be at work than the desire of some journalists for attention.

Indeed, in many ways, this current upsurge of such predictions inevitably recalls two earlier periods when Russian media carried similar suggestions. Just before the end of the Soviet Union, journalists around then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, suggested that an independent Ukraine would inevitably break apart on ethnic lines, with a significant portion of the republic choosing to join Moscow.

A second media upsurge on this subject took place in 1992 and 1993 when Russian analysts routinely suggested that Ukraine, a compound country of Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and Russian-speaking Russians, was unlikely to be able to sustain itself as an independent country.

In both of these earlier cases, it now appears, these predictions were intended to be less a description of some future reality than a means of intimidating the Ukrainian government and even the Ukrainian people to follow Moscow's line lest they lose even more. But for most of the last decade, most observers in Russia and elsewhere have become convinced that Ukraine's multinational population is among the least of the challenges Kyiv faces.

Indeed, these analysts and commentators have suggested, Ukraine's simultaneous efforts at nation and state building have been far more successful than many had expected. The problems Kyiv faces have arisen not from ethnic or regional divisions but have been largely self-inflicted by a Ukrainian political leadership that has remained divided, corrupt, and uncertain in its goals.

Now, as almost a decade ago, Moscow appears to be invoking again the threat of Ukrainian disintegration not so much to warn of what is likely to happen but rather to put pressure on embattled President Kuchma to conclude that close ties with Moscow are his and his country's only salvation.

Some people around Kuchma may in fact be convinced, but the experience of a decade ago suggests that many Ukrainians are likely to see through this new specter of disintegration and to become more, not less, committed to the defense of the independence of their country. If that happens, then this specter may acquire a reality but one directly opposite to what its creators appear to intend.