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Ukraine: Kyiv Gains From Playing East Against West

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, is in Ukraine this week, the third visit by a top Western official in a month for Ukraine. It follows recent high-level visits from Russian and Chinese leaders and is the latest sign Ukraine is zigzagging in its foreign policy between East and West.

Prague, 1 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana today begins the private portion of his visit to Ukraine, where he spent the last two days meeting with top officials including Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh and President Leonid Kuchma.

Solana, who concluded the official part of his visit last night, praised the country's reform process, and received promises that Ukraine will hold fair and free elections next year and will halt arms sales to Macedonia.

Solana is the third top Western official to visit in less than a month, coming three weeks after NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson's trip in early July, and a week after a visit by U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

But Western officials are not the only ones to pay recent visits to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled there on 29 July for a joint fleet review with Kuchma. Before that, Chinese President Jiang Zemin was in town, and before him, Pope John Paul II.

Taras Kuzio is a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies in Toronto. He says this zig-zag approach to foreign policy used to be interpreted in the West as reflecting the split between East Ukraine, bordering Russia, and the West of the country, which has close ties to Poland and Eastern Europe.

But Kuzio says the real reason for the East-West approach is that it suits those with vested political and commercial interests -- whom he calls Ukraine's "elites" -- just fine.

"From the elite point of view -- particularly the business and oligarch and ideological elites surrounding President Kuchma -- it makes a lot of sense, [in terms of] personal profit [and] power purposes, to be able to play off East and West and reap the benefits of having and maintaining ties to both East and West."

He says many of these influential people naturally lean eastward for reasons of language and culture. They also prefer to have a "semi-reformed" economy similar to Russia's, and are not keen on increasing transparency, as would be demanded if Ukraine was to adopt a pro-Western foreign policy:

"At the same time, these elites, who may have a cultural and economic orientation eastwards, also desire to maintain themselves in power. They don't want to be transformed into some kind of [province] of Russia or some kind of Russian protectorate, because they like the trappings of power. They therefore see President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's [pro-Russia] antics in Belarus as being rather peculiar, because they see that as a kind of submission to Russia and a losing of sovereignty. And the one thing the Ukrainian elites have always been interested in during the 1990s is maintaining a sovereign state. To do that they therefore need contacts in the West."

Many of those Western contacts were strongly supportive of the popular and reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, who was ousted earlier this year after an alliance of communists and business elites -- the so-called "oligarchs" -- pushed a no-confidence vote against him through parliament.

But Solana still had words of praise for Yushchenko's successor -- Kinakh, a close associate of Kuchma's -- at the start of his visit this week:

"We are very pleased to see how the reform process is moving. The prime minister has discussed in detail the economic situation and the process of reforms and we have encouraged the prime minister to continue along that line."

Christopher Langton is an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He says that given Ukraine's geographical position and its historical ties with Russia, it's normal that it should feel torn between Europe and Russia.

He says even the increasingly warm relations with Russia have had their chillier moments -- such as Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's remark earlier this week, made in front of officials from both countries, that the Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia and not Ukraine.

It was this issue that dampened relations last year and resulted in Ukraine closing air space to Russian military aircraft flying to the Crimean base of Sevastopol, home port for Russia's Black Sea fleet.

Langton says another sore spot is Ukraine's membership in GUUAM, a regional grouping bringing together Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova:

"Some of these countries, if one were to put it bluntly, are not the best of friends with Russia. So, indeed [Ukraine] is carrying out a very delicate but very obvious and natural balancing act in that region."

Solana's scheduled five-day trip marks a longer foreign visit than is usual for the EU foreign policy chief. But neither Langton nor Kuzio place much importance on the length of his stay, saying at most, it reflects the importance that Solana -- as a former NATO chief -- gives to Ukraine's geopolitical position.

Kuzio says what is probably not on Solana's agenda is discussion of any real possibility of Ukraine joining the EU down the road. He says if the West were serious about Ukraine's reform process, it would offer real incentives -- such as EU membership in 10-15 years' time -- and not empty diplomatic words:

"But as the West isn't offering any real membership of its Western structures -- either NATO or the EU -- Ukraine's elites therefore continue to espouse, in a declaratory manner, that they want to rejoin Europe. But in reality they are comfortable where they are, in between Europe and Eurasia as a kind of buffer zone. So there's actually rhetoric on both sides, most of it pretty empty."

Kuzio says Ukraine's direction could change over time, with the rise of a new, more westward-looking generation.