Georgian Connection

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The short but destructive war between Russia and Georgia has put Ukraine's bid for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) membership, and its relations with Moscow, sharply back into focus. Opinion in Ukraine is divided on what stance the government should take. Meanwhile, the conflict and its repercussions are hardening dividing lines between NATO members who are calling for Ukraine's membership process to be accelerated and those who seek to slow or halt it.

Parallels (some of them admittedly somewhat far-fetched) have been drawn between the Georgian President and his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yushchenko, another pro-Western figure who strongly supports his country's NATO and EU membership, and who has some support from the West and uneasy relations with Russia. Both leaders came to power in so-called "colour revolutions" backed by the US and the EU.

Perhaps more importantly, Georgia and Ukraine have been bundled together as applicant countries for NATO membership. In April, a NATO conference on the countries' accession was somewhat inconclusive, with the alliance's Secretary General Jaap de Hoof Scheffer promising that they would become members at some point in the future, but more sceptical parties - including France and Germany - blocking moves to set a clear timetable.

Finally, while Ukraine does not have any breakaway regions, it does have a large Russian-speaking population, and a large proportion of its citizens consider Moscow as the country's primary ally.

Ukraine's political leadership has been divided by the crisis. Yushchenko unequivocally sided with Saakashvili, flying to Tbilisi to demonstrate his support for Georgia and proposing a raft of policies seemingly designed to put Ukraine firmly in the Western camp while alienating Russia. Angered that Russian ships based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol had launched attacks on Georgia, Yushchenko announced tough new restrictions on the Russian Black Sea fleet's movements from the city. Perhaps most strikingly, the President offered to integrate Ukraine's missile defence system - until now shared with Russia - into Europe's. Recent weeks have seen a dispute between Washington and Warsaw, on one hand, and the Kremlin, on the other, over the US's plans to install a similar defence system in Poland.

Yushchenko's rival Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has kept a low profile, however. Accusations have started to fly that she has abandoned her previously pro-Western stance in exchange for Russian support in the 2010 Presidential election, in which she is expected to stand against Yushchenko. One of the President's key allies has accused Tymoshenko of showing "signs of high treason", and has said that Russia is using the crisis to drive a split in Ukraine.

A somewhat more sanguine analysis might suggest that Tymoshenko is reluctant to take sides vocally until the dust has settled somewhat, and that she does not believe angering Russia - a major trading partner and energy supplier to Ukraine - is in her country's interests. Russia has in the past cut gas exports to Ukraine at times of political tension. Similarly, reports in the international press have implied that Yushchenko may be taking a stridently anti-Kremlin line to boost his flagging popularity.

However, the situation is considerably more complicated than a clear NATO-Moscow split. Those supporting Ukraine joining the alliance (for example, the US and several former Warsaw Pact members) argue that the conflict has indicated how important it is to lock the country into the Western sphere to protect it from what they see as Moscow's malign influence. However, sceptics, led by France, take the view that pushing forward NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia will only further antagonise Russia. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has been quoted as saying that Moscow "feels besieged completely by NATO", adding that "we don't want to pour oil on the fire". Furthermore, sceptics point out, were Ukraine part of NATO, all other members of the alliance would theoretically be obliged to protect it from an attack. There is considerable reluctance to make a hypothetical commitment to going to war on the behalf of Ukraine (or Georgia), given Russia's demonstration of its military strength and willingness to step in to protect its citizens and strategic interests. Moscow has made no secret of its determination to "safeguard" Russians in Ukraine.

Yushchenko appears to have made something of a gamble, sacrificing relations with Russia with the hope of galvanising the West behind Ukraine's accession to NATO. So far, the results are at best inconclusive. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel, previously a leading sceptic, has conceded that Ukraine and Georgia should become members, British Foreign Minister David Milliband appears to be softening the UK's line against the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Russia is likely to be deeply displeased by Ukraine's support for Georgia, and heightened tensions could once again play out in the economic sphere.

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