Russia warns Ukraine of the danger of disintegration

MOSCOW, (Tatyana Stanovaya for RIA Novosti) - Political battles being waged in Ukraine for the creation of a coalition government are nearly over.

Russia has said that it is not the makeup of the coalition that matters to it but the strength of Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Strategically, the issue is not who forms the government, but the policy such a government would pursue. Ukraine has been split ideologically, and excessive pro-Western sentiments may have very serious consequences.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that the Ukrainian authorities should forget about their personal ambitions and act in the interests of the common people.

He said that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko would most probably succeed in creating a coalition. It may be "orange or yellow, or any other" he said, "provided it is viable. The main objective is to do everything to strengthen the country's territorial integrity." Putin added that Russia "is in no way trying to interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs."

For some reason, it is believed that what Russia wants in Ukraine is not an "orange" coalition, but a union of the pro-presidential block Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions led by 2004 presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich. During the latest presidential elections Russia placed its stake on Yanukovich.

But how pro-Russian is Yanukovich? This question will become even more difficult to answer if his party joins the ruling coalition, which is a possibility even if the latter is predominantly "orange".

On the one hand, Viktor Yanukovich may respect Russia's interests more than anyone else; he has to because he relies on the southeastern electorate, which has a closer affinity to Russia.

About one-third of Ukraine's population considers Russian its native tongue, but the figure is about 85% in the Crimea, more than 60% in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, and about 50% in the Kharkov, Zaporozhye, and Odessa regions. The southeastern regions are strongly critical of the Euro-Atlantic bent in Ukraine's policy, and are keen on promoting close, friendly relations with Russia.

Yanukovich as a politician has to take these sentiments into account.

On the other hand, he is a pragmatic and much more realistic man than the ideology-dependent politicians from the western parts of Ukraine. He has agreed without any hesitations to join a coalition with his former rivals, who advocate accession to NATO and oppose the idea of granting Russian the status of a second official language even at the regional level.

Yanukovich also sharply criticized the January 4, 2006 gas agreements with Russia, though they were clearly in the latter's interests. And lastly, Yanukovich was the heir apparent of Leonid Kuchma, the previous "pro-Russian" president, who had also called for joining NATO, despite Russia's opposition, and abandoned the idea only to win Kremlin support for Yanukovich's presidential campaign.

Would Russia benefit from Yanukovich as a member of the ruling coalition? Or does it want him to remain the opposition leader? And the crucial question: Will the coalition's policy depend on its makeup?

If Yanukovich's Party of Regions joins the "orange" coalition, he would have to make fundamental ideological concessions, sacrificing the interests of his electorate for political advantages. This would distort his representation of the interests of Ukraine's eastern regions.

If the Party of Regions remains in opposition, Yanukovich would keep intact a substantial part of his political identity. His party would have little access to administrative resources, which would encourage it to energetically build up its political strength.

In short, if the Party of Regions stood in opposition to the government, it would potentially be a much more pro-Russian force than if it joined the coalition.

Geopolitically, Russia should create a situation where the pro-Western Ukrainian government would have to take into account the interests of the eastern parts of the country. As of now, the "orange" authorities only represent the views of the western Lvov, Ternopol and Ivano-Frankovsk regions and are completely out of touch with the eastern regions.

But this situation would not benefit Moscow. When Putin spoke about the strengthening of Ukraine's territorial integrity, he referred to the risks of a growing ideological divide, which would have unpredictable consequences for Ukrainian unity.

An "orange" government balanced by a strong opposition relying on the pro-Russian electorate would be much better for the country's territorial integrity than an "orange" government including an "orange-tinged" Yanukovich, with Yulia Tymoshenko's much more pro-Western bloc as the opposition force.

In any case, the only way to narrow the divide is to stop forcing pro-Western views on the eastern regions. This would suit the interests of Ukraine more than the interests of Russia.

Tatyana Stanovaya is chief expert at the Center for Political Technologies.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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