The Australian, Australia
Dec 4 2004

Too close for comfort

Peter Wilson in Kiev
December 04, 2004

IT was not what you would call a great public relations coup. Leonid
Kuchma, the former manager of a Soviet missile factory, who has been
one of Russia's most loyal allies during his decade as President of
Ukraine, flew from the political crisis in his country early
yesterday to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at an airport near
Moscow, in what looked like an anxious visit to report to head office
for new instructions.

The Russians have loomed as the shadowy but ominous presence behind
Kuchma's regime during the past two weeks of confrontation on the
streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, with housewives,
shop-owners and young anti-government activists all convinced that
Russian special forces were already hiding in the city, or would soon
appear if Kuchma's regime began to fall.

But as the orange-clad protesters continued to rally in the streets,
dancing to rock music as they celebrated the momentum of their
campaign for fair elections, Kuchma decided he needed to huddle with
Putin even if the television broadcasts of their meeting cast him as
Moscow's puppet.

Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko rubbed in the humiliating fact
that Kuchma could get an audience with Putin easier than he could get
into his own office - which has been blockaded by opposition
activists. "The source of power is located in Ukraine - it's the
Ukrainian people", not the Kremlin, chided Yushchenko.

The visit reminded Ukrainians that while the anti-government campaign
has mainly been a backlash against domestic corruption and economic
mismanagement, it has also become a new fault line in East-West
relations and will determine whether their 48 million-strong nation
will look more to the West in the future or drift into a closer
embrace of Russia.









The worried look on Putin's face as he commiserated with Kuchma about
the precarious situation in Ukraine testified that the unprecedented
dispute there is also a turning point for Russia and his own
international ambitions.

Putin has reason to be worried. He has been embarrassed at home and
abroad after rushing to congratulate Kuchma's hand-picked successor,
Viktor Yanukovych, for "winning" an election that has been declared
rigged by observers, Western governments, Ukraine's parliament and
many of the Government's own backers.

Putin now has the potential discomfort of having a real democracy on
his doorstep as an uncomfortably relevant example of the sort of
civil rights that his citizens are losing as he strengthens his
already tight hold on Russia's media, business, political parties and
regional governments.

Growing in confidence at home and abroad, Putin has openly mourned
the passing of the Soviet Union 13 years ago as "a national tragedy"
for Russia and launched a new bid to reconstitute a "joint economic
space" on the ashes of the USSR, taking in Russia, Ukraine,
Kazahkstan and Belarus.

He has already interfered in Georgia and Moldova by supporting
ethnically Russian separatist movements, has smiled on rigged
elections in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and has reasserted
Moscow's role in Central Asia's Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and
Uzbekistan, where there is solid evidence the Government has boiled
at least one dissident alive.

But of all the countries in Russia's "near abroad", Ukraine is easily
the most important. It is the largest, having taken one-fifth of the
USSR's population when it declared independence in 1991. It has the
best farmland in Europe, it is a vital transit point for the
pipelines that supply one-third of the European Union's oil and gas
imports, and culturally it is more Russian than any of Moscow's
neighbours. In fact Ukraine is the cradle of Russia's Orthodox Church
and Slavic culture.

Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Krushchev were Ukrainians,
and Ukraine built the nation's heavy industries, staffed largely by
Russians. Even today, manufacturing production lines straddle their
border, as do thousands of extended families. The family ties are so
strong that Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons to Russia after
independence and allows Russia's Black Sea fleet into its port of
Sevastopol.

Russian is still the language that most Ukrainians speak at home, and
if Yanukovych had become president he would have made it the second
official language and introduced dual citizenship for millions, while
rejecting Opposition calls for EU and NATO membership.

"We have been brothers and cousins for three centuries," says Alla
Sokolovskaya, a 30-year-old teacher from Kiev with a Russian mother
and Ukrainian father.

"We are one. Putin supports us because we are all Slavs, and we have
to stand together against NATO, which looks more and more
aggressive," she says as she stands in the snow at a pro-Yanukovych
rally drowned out by the Yushchenko protests that crippled the
capital.

Until now, western Europe and the US have accepted Russia's role in
Ukraine. The EU has never offered it membership, even though Ukraine
is plainly more European than long-term aspirant Turkey.

In 1991 US president George Herbert Bush visited Kiev and tried to
persuade its leaders not to seek independence from the Soviet Union,
in what was derided as his "Chicken Kiev" speech.

One of the main drafters of that speech was a little-known expert on
Soviet affairs named Condoleezza Rice, but as GeorgeW. Bush's next
secretary of state, she is sure to take a rather different attitude
on the need to maintain Ukrainian independence.

It is not surprising that Russian leaders have been so sensitive
about the sophisticated and well-funded US campaign of recent years
to fund and train democracy activists prepared to take on
authoritarian regimes in elections across eastern Europe.

It is certainly not paranoia when the Russians claim Washington has
been funding activists and election campaigns against Moscow's
friends in places such as Serbia, Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Direct US funding of pro-Yushchenko campaigners is estimated to be
more than $US10million ($12.9 million), and more money and skills
have been provided by democracy foundations run by the main US
political parties and donors such as billionaire George Soros.

In one of their most provocative moves, the US and other Western
embassies bankrolled the exit polls that provided a standard to judge
the officially declared results.

Putin was more open in his support for Yanukovych, twice visiting to
campaign for him and sending his chief spin doctor to work in Kiev,
where Yushchenko, whose American wife Katherine used to work for the
State Department, was portrayed as a US puppet.

The truth is that although Yushchenko is a pro-Western liberal
economist and reformer, he has more in common with his rival than it
appears. He served for two years in the job Yanukovych now holds,
prime minister under Kuchma, before breaking away to oppose him. He
is known as an opponent of corruption but, like Yanukovych, he has
his own tight circle of wealthy business backers.

There is little doubt the Government and its business allies, who
have grown rich on the privatisation of state assets, stuffed ballot
boxes, abused their control of most TV stations and even put
invisible ink in pens used to mark ballots in some Opposition areas.
Few observers doubt that Yushchenko would have won a fair vote.

But while international attention has focused on the dubious turnout
of 97 per cent in Yanukovych's home region, Russian-speaking Donetsk,
where many booths somehow registered turnouts of more than 100 per
cent, the rorts were not all one way.

Yanukovych's implausible 96 per cent of the vote in Donetsk was
almost matched in some regions in the west of the country by supposed
votes of up to 94 per cent for his opponent.

The explosive threat by the leaders of some Russian-speaking regions
to break away from the nation if Yanukovych was not installed as
president was backed by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhov, who attended a
meeting of eastern Ukrainian leaders and denounced the Opposition as
a "sabbath of witches" pretending to "represent the whole of the
nation".

That separatist threat soon melted in the face of a nationalist
backlash across Ukraine and because of the realisation by the tycoons
close to Kuchma, whose fortunes are largely based in the east, that
it would not help their businesses if a reconstituted Iron Curtain
was placed through the centre of Ukraine rather than the middle of
Germany.

Neither side went into the election campaign wanting to turn totally
away from either Russia or the West, and the conflict in Iraq shows
the complexity of the diplomatic balancing act that Ukraine has at
times achieved.

It was the usually pro-Moscow Kuchma who sent a solid contingent of
troops to Iraq to improve his standing in Washington, with his
protege Yanukovych vowing to extend their tour of duty while
Yushchenko has promised to pull them out.

The danger for Putin is that his high-profile and apparently
unsuccessful intervention in Ukraine's political problems may have
tipped its balance of opinion much further towards the West,
especially if Yushchenko emerges as president - a prospect that is
not yet guaranteed, but is increasingly likely.