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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cold Breeze in Crimea, Unease in Kyiv

Amid an interregnum caused by foundering coalition talks in Kyiv, swarms of Crimean protesters are celebrating a petty victory over Euroatlantic imperialism. Over the past two weeks, the hornet’s nest of Russophilic rednecks has successfully targeted preparations for the US-Ukrainian naval exercise Sea Breeze 2006 scheduled for July-August. Following the evacuation of the US Army reservists, who came there to set up the infrastructure, the toll continues to rise. Due to increasing political turbulence, the British-Ukrainian airborne exercise Tight Knot 2006 planned for June 14 in the neighboring oblast of Mykolayiv, has been postponed.

On closer examination, such well-coordinated effort goes way beyond the framework of knee-jerk Yankee-bashing carnivals so commonplace in Southeast Ukraine. Heavily Russified by tsars and the Soviets, Southerners never approved of the multinational exercises held in the Black Sea since 1997. Nor did they ever obstruct them to any significant degree. What accounts for the sudden buildup is the protracted power struggle in Kyiv over cabinet seats.

Ten weeks into gestation, the tripartite Orange coalition has became a sore spot even for the most resilient grassroots supporters. But as the Orange ones negotiate their way through egomania, the Blue ones, aka the Regionalists, were stuck with maniac depression, desperately trying to repaint the coalition their way. Their last-ditch takeover strategy aims to seduce whoever they can into playing the surrogate mother they need in order to produce a coalition.

Last week, negotiations in the Orange camp ground to a halt, with the final bone of contention being the Speaker’s seat. The Socialists (SPU) booked the country’s third-highest post for their leader, Oleksander Moroz. Craving control over the legislature, they threatened to pursue the opposition track unless their demand is fulfilled. The cravings represented in this ultimatum case are also embedded in nostalgia, something of a call of nature for Mr. Moroz, Speaker of the Rada, 1994-98.

Nasha Ukraina (NU), which fell from fame in the March election, but still came ahead of the SPU, has refused to pamper the Socialists. In fact, the NU talent pool is teeming with midcap tycoons willing to accept Spartan, if not doggy-style, accommodations from the Regions Party (PRU). Rumors persist that members of Yushchenko’s inner circle have strongly advocated for an NU-PRU alliance, despite an obvious death knell for Yushchenko’s reelection chances stemming from this alliance. (If only that could save them from the gender thing about Tymonatrix.)

Of course, the likelihood of defection remains largely academic. Still, in the event of either player swinging to the other side, an open-arms reception from the PRU is guaranteed. And if he is lucky, the defector will even qualify for a few crumbs off the Cabinet’s table. Needless to say, draconian scenarios of the above kind would leave Yuliya Tymoshenko, the matron of the would-be coalition, in severe distress.

Against this background, the ‘Crimean Carnival’ appears to be part of a publicity campaign designed to stoke the PRU brand, prominently displaying Yanukovych as the ‘doer’ type of leader capable of uniting Ukraine and keeping it safe from harm. To establish follow-up rapport with their voters, the bourgeois Regionalists and their Communist and Progressive Socialist alter egos, featuring this election’s unsung diva Nataliya Vitrenko, went on a media rampage. They aptly tossed the Crimea into the nationwide cauldron of public opinion and stirred it with Cold War agitprop leftovers.

From the days Greek and Roman colonies spread along the coastline to the chronicles of the Crimean War, the Nazi atrocities and the Yalta Conference, the Crimea’s relations with Western civilization span millennia. By banking on the bloody chapters and the legitimate sentiment they evoke in the audience, the Regionalists exploited the Crimea for their own benefit.

The sizzling reports of ‘Southern hospitality’ that resulted from the Regionalist rampage conveniently resonate with the ‘Uncle Sam lovers’ in the Kremlin. Indirectly, they help rock the deadlocked negotiation boat, until, driven off the edge by the greedy companions, somebody feels free to board the back of the Regionalist bus. Upon achievement of this objective, the Regionalists would banquet in the Kremlin and take further instruction.

Poor babushkas. Little did they know that their gods have been cheating them left and right, hiring American PR talent by the ton. Now what would these elderly ladies think of them who badmouth Uncle Sum on Tuesday if they received a tip that these very guys had bought from Uncle Sam on Monday? And by the way, up until their leader’s ouster in 2004, the Rada Regionalists had never hesitated in putting their stamp of approval on Ukraine-NATO military exercises.

Ukrainian officials clearly goofed when they ‘forgot’ to obtain the Rada’s permit, but the NATO lobby is not the only party who took a beating. The kiss off episode involving USS Advantage, whose cargo of materiel and munitions remained port-bound, under the tight surveillance of anti-NATO activists, boomeranged on the local denizens financially. Unless it was a calculated risk, they simply let themselves be taken advantage of by the cause they espouse.
Like all Black Sea resorts, Theodosia hugely depends on tourist revenue. Based on this fact of life, it turns out those patriots waving Russian tricolors are in the business of buzzsawing the branch they’re sitting on. One can only guess at the revenues lost to the town’s budget due to the hysteria, as Yankees went home with their money unspent and Russkies did a great job of siphoning customers away to Black Sea resorts of their own.

Despite the whole syndicated show the Regionalists made out of providing protective status to the Russian language — in regions where it is spoken by an overwhelming majority — communications gaps have not ceased to exist. When you tell them in Russian that Moscow’s liaison with NATO surpasses Kyiv’s both in scale and scope, they’re not listening.

True, the majority of Ukrainians still do not approve of NATO membership. Whatever their views, nationals of Ukraine have the right to peaceful assembly. But this right does not apply to foreign nationals, namely Russian activists, who customarily pull sneak attacks on the Crimea.

Their voyages to Ukraine obviously do not pass the reciprocity test. Should a group of Ukrainian activists break camp near a Russian naval base on the Kamchatka peninsula, protesting against a Sino-Russian military exercise, how would the Russian authorities react? Would they ever make it past the Russian border?

Thankfully, the Ukrainian authorities have finally learned to say no. Persona non grata status has been awarded to Russian Duma MP Konstantin Zatulin and Vice Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky. These Kremlin-appointed missionaries to Ukraine, known by their venomous verbiage and utmost disrespect for things Ukrainian, deserve no other treatment. Now they can save on airfare and make do with videoconferencing.

One, two, Puttie's coming for you; three four better lock your door; five six, grab your crucifix… The comic dimension of Moscow’s ‘good neighbor’ policy knows no boundaries.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Dispelling Putin’s Gas Rhetoric

Lecturing the Western media, President Putin found himself in one of those rhetorical roller-coaster loops where he managed to put a brave face on a grisly case. The Kremlin’s highly articulate Tarzan thumped his chest, taking credit for years of subsidizing the Ukrainian economy.

He also shamed the West for not being cooperative as Russia struggled hard to get the monkey off its back. (Now see this! Ukraine piggy-backed by Russia — fantasy meets hardcore, eh?)

The moment Ukraine checked out of Putin’s paradise, the West should have taken the poor crittur under its wing, so his argument went. After all, having welcomed the Orange Revolution, the West should now shoulder the burden. It should not shun helping Ukraine pay its way to the EU. And that includes the energy bills. Why in the world should the Russian heartbreak hotel pay for it?

On the face of it, Putin’s mounts a no-nonsense defense of the Russian taxpayers’ money. However, a casual perusal of a history textbook would reveal that the subsidy portion of his argument may not be as solid as it seems.
For over three hundred years Ukraine had been a colony of Russia. A waste of imperial resources? The tsar’s treasurers had had enough of a time frame to determine whether Ukraine added any value.

Thousands of Ukrainian Cossacks left their bones in the marshlands from which St. Petersburg, Putin’s native city, sprang. By that time Ukraine was called the breadbasket of Europe.

In the 1930s, Stalin carried out his business plan of industrialization and collectivization. Some 7 million Ukrainian farmers lost their lives ‘cross-subsidizing’ it.

Back in the 60s, when Puttie was a pioneer, the Soviet equivalent of a boyscout, Ukraine supplied a good share of the coal and gas within the country whose Communist ideals he worshipped. And he worshipped them with a devotion so intense that he couldn’t resist a career with the KGB. The Soviet Union’s deadliest line of ICBMs, including the SS-18 'Satan,' was made by Yuzhmash, the Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine-based aerospace powerhouse. That’s where Putin's eager beaver buddy Kuchma bossed around. Any Freudian interpretations?

In the 70s and 80s, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic dispatched its human capital to the newly discovered oil fields in Siberia, a region where the Gulag relocation program had already placed millions of Ukrainians. Almost 3 million Ukrainians, most of them with college degrees, are now living in Russia, according to the 2002 census. Any schools where their kids can learn Ukrainian? One or two in the entire Russian Federation.

Following Ukraine's independence, Russia had indeed supplied Ukraine with oil and natural gas at discount prices. Still, there's something Putin failed to mention.

First, transit fees for Russian gas, 80 percent of which is exported to Europe via Ukrainian pipelines, had conveyed equal generosity.

Second, common Ukrainians were not the only ones who cashed in on the energy subsidies Putin talked about. With the steel boom that took off at the turn of the millenium, Ukraine's already privatized yet energy-guzzling industry accounted for the bulk of the energy consumed in the country. The profits went straight to offshore companies run by Moscow-friendly uber-oligarchs like Pinchuk and Akhmetov, the driving force behind Yanukovych. Mr. Putin had campaigned for this candidate on Ukrainian national television and even prematurely congratulated him.

Third, once the 'Energizer Bunny 2004' was gone with the Orange Revolution, Putin and his Kremlin strategists dove into a state of watchful hibernation. They resurfaced on New Year's Day and sent shock waves throughout the world with their second shot at Ukraine. Nothing could be more favorable for the 'big one' they held in store than the monthlong Orange ordeal raging on in Ukraine, so they thought. In Ukraine's parliamentary campaign they set out to inflate Yanukovych with the gas issue so as to land him in the high-stakes PM seat. Starting with Jan. 1, 2006, a constitutional amendment trimmed the powers of the President while empowering the Prime Minister.

Somehow, Yanukovych fell short of gaining a majority in the election. As soon as the Orange coalition gets hammered out, he will helm the opposition.
Unfortunately, Russia's commitment to market pricing does not extend to the Crimea. For an annual price that resembles the revenues of a soccer stadium, Russia rents a naval base there the size of a city.

Without the shadow of a doubt, Ukraine has outstayed its welcome on Russia’s energy welfare rolls. Despite that, through a panoply of proxy parties operating in Ukraine the Kremlin keeps comi
ng back propositioning. The deal boils down to this: gas in exchange for freedom.

May there come a day when the Ukrainians will live in a neighborhood where they won't have to wear gas masks. And if their government keeps its breath free of gas, the Russians will be better off too.