Walker's World: Ukraine's grim vacuum

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Feb. 3, 2014 at 12:04 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- The verbal support given over the weekend by top United States and European officials to the embattled opposition in Ukraine hasn't greatly clarified the country's prospects.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government ministers have resigned. President Viktor Yanukovych has declared himself sick and has withdrawn from day-to-day administration of the country.

Optimists say this means his days are numbered.

Pessimists say it means he can claim to have clean hands as and when the riot police move in to crush the protests that have occupied central Kiev and other towns and cities.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the young technocrat and former central banker and foreign minister who leads the opposition Fatherland party, has made a compromise suggestion that his and other opposition groups should lead a government of national unity. He suggests Yanukovych could remain nominally as head of state until elections, scheduled for next year.

The key, however, for the opposition parties is that Ukraine should commit to a future within the European Union. They and the protesters, who have camped out in bitter cold for weeks, are adamant that they reject the "revamped Soviet Union" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Reacting to what now seems to be a vacuum of power in Kiev, Putin has declared that his promise of $15 billion in aid to Ukraine is on hold until he sees what form of government emerges.

The opposition has three main worries, beyond the prospect of a ruthless new assault by riot police who have already arrested and wounded hundreds of demonstrators in clashes that led to several deaths.

Their first concern is lukewarm support from the West. The European Union, still mostly mired in recession, has little appetite for the kind of economic bailout that Ukraine requires and even less for the prospect of thousands of Ukrainian refugees seeking work in Europe.

The Ukraine protesters want Europe more than Europe wants them, since they come with the baggage of a deeply corrupt and monopolistic economic system, and an average income per head of less than one-third European levels. Bringing Ukraine formally within the EU orbit would also complicate Europe's relations with Putin's Russia.

Western support might improve after U.S Secretary of State John Kerry and EU President Herman Van Rompuy at a weekend conference in Germany began discussing sanctions that might be taken against Ukrainian officials who authorize violence against demonstrators.

The second concern of the Ukraine opposition is their own disunity. Yatsenyuk's Fatherland party could get on well enough with Vitali Klitschko, the former champion boxer, who is now a Kiev city councilman and leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance Reform party, better known by its Ukrainian acronym, UDAR, which means "punch."

The Fatherland party's future is also clouded, since it was led by the former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, imprisoned on dubious charges, and reportedly ill. The Ukraine government has rejected German appeals for Tymoshenko to be treated in a German hospital.

The third main opposition party, however is the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party led by the right-wing and bitterly anti-Russian Oleh Tyahnybok.

In a speech he made at the grave of one of the Ukrainian nationalists who fought for the Nazis against the Soviet Union in World War II, Tyahnybok declared, "You are the one ones whom the Moscow-Jewish mafia ruling Ukraine fears most" and has called for a parliamentary investigation into the "criminal activities of organized Jewry in Ukraine."

He wants Ukraine to join NATO but is critical of the European Union as "a super-state that would erode our national sovereignty."

The third problem for the opposition is that Ukraine is a divided country. Around one-quarter of the population, mainly near the Russian border where the dominant coal and steel industries are located, are ethnic Russians and one-third of the population says Russian is their first language.

Because of border changes after World War II, much of western Ukraine used to be Polish territory and the main religion is Roman Catholic rather than Russian Orthodox. An eventual partition might once have been an option but no Ukraine politician dares suggest it and towns and cities in the traditionally pro-Russian east of the country have now joined in the demonstrations.

The final problem for everybody is the massive budget deficit, now more than $11 billion, much of it through corruption for which Yanukovych's family is widely blamed.

Yanukovych was traditionally supported by the country's top businessmen, known as the oligarchs and whose wealth was helped by government grants of monopolies and special favors. But they increasingly have turned against him and his businessman son Oleksandr and have been hurt by Russian customs holdups as Putin tries to use financial pressure to bring Ukraine within Moscow's orbit.

The blunt fact is that for reasons of strategy and prestige Russia wants Ukraine more than Europe appears to do. The United States doesn't want to complicate its relations yet further with Moscow. Ukraine itself is a financial and political mess, whose opposition has already failed in government, after the famed Orange Revolution of 2005. And the Russians retain their stranglehold over the pipelines that deliver Ukraine's oil and natural gas supplies and provide much of Europe's energy.

For all their courage and determination Ukraine's opposition have a weak hand and face a grim future even if they win.

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