The ongoing political crisis in Ukraine has reached a tipping point, following the dissolution of parliament by President Viktor Yushchenko on 8 October.
The dissolution sends Ukrainian voters to the polls on 7 December — for the second time in less than a year. But at a time when the world’s focus is on the US, the political turmoil for the people of Ukraine, and its ramifications, is largely slipping by unnoticed.
Ukraine is a nation used to suffering caused by deep political divisions, both externally and internally. With a fractious Russia to the east and an increasingly cosy relationship with the EU to the west, Ukrainian voters are faced with a very difficult choice on 7 December: a vote in one direction means a shift to the West; the other, to rebuild ties with the East. And with both the EU and Russia very keen to hold some form of control over this strategically vital nation, the decision faced by Ukrainian voters has never been more important.
It was the Orange Revolution that, four years ago, gave every outward indication that Ukraine had settled on a political path to the West. A coalition was formed between Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko and, for a time, it appeared that the ruling team would be able to steer Ukraine gently, but firmly, in the direction of Brussels. Attempts to join NATO were put into motion and the nation’s dealings with the EU prompted some analysts to claim that while the EU had not accepted Ukraine into the fold officially, it was only a matter of time before that membership would be granted.
But recently, divisions between the three major players in Ukrainian politics have caused the ruling coalition to split, setting the country on a course of instability and infighting once more. The 7 December election was prompted by the collapse of the coalition formed between President Yushchenko and former "Orange Revolution" ally and current Prime Minister Tymoshenko, when the latter sided with overtly pro-Russian Opposition Leader Viktor Yanukovych to strip powers from the Presidential office.
The collapse of the coalition leaves Tymoshenko’s position as Prime Minister in doubt. The Ukrainian constitution provides one month for a new coalition to be formed in the event of any ruling coalition’s collapse. That deadline passed on 3 October. Tymoshenko passed up the opportunity to form a ruling coalition with Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, a move designed to make it harder for Yushchenko to criticise her as pro-Russian when the voters go to the polls.
Tensions between Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych are reportedly at their highest level ever. Yushchenko, in particular, has been striving to bring political and economic stability to Ukraine, in the wake of increasingly friendly overtures from the heads of the European Union, as well as pushing hard for Ukrainian inclusion in NATO. Meanwhile, both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych are said to be pushing for stronger ties with Russia.
The ramifications of renewed domestic instability for Ukraine are potentially severe. The vote to accept Ukraine into the NATO fold is also due in December. Analysts are predicting that the slim chance Ukraine had of achieving this goal has evaporated to nil. Polish commentator Wieslaw Romanowski said recently, "It is not Yanukovych, nor Yushchenko, nor Tymoshenko who is the ally of Russia in Ukraine. The ally of Russia in Ukraine is crisis." Romanowski’s interpretation of the current political state suggests that as long as the infighting continues in Ukraine, the pro-Western, pro-democratic movement will stall.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his feelings toward Yushchenko’s desires for a more pro-Western Ukraine. In February, after an otherwise friendly meeting between the two heads of state, Putin warned Yushchenko that Ukraine could face targeting by Russia’s nuclear arsenal in response to the push to sign up to NATO.
The Russia-Georgia conflict is also a sticking point in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Putin’s description of Ukraine’s granting of military aid to Georgia as a "criminal act" only heightened tensions between the neighboring countries. Russian sabre-rattling cannot be ignored by Yushchenko – and will only harden his resolve to see Ukraine become part of NATO and the EU. Any move in that direction by Ukraine, however, could have a serious detrimental effect on relations between the former Soviet Union allies.
Sergei Kulik, director of Nomos — an independent think tank based in Sevastopol — expressed his concern that there are definite parallels between the Russia-Georgia conflict and potential trouble brewing in Crimea. The Russian constitution provides for the protection of Russian citizens abroad, and it was under the auspices of Article 61 that Russia sent troops into Georgia in August.
A broad interpretation of Article 61 would allow for Russian interference in Ukrainian domestic affairs. Ukraine is home to the largest domestic minority in Europe — 8.2 million residents of Ukraine’s Crimean region identify as Russian-Ukrainians, and despite explicitly being forbidden by Ukrainian law, suggestions are surfacing that many of those residents have been granted Russian passports.
"Many people in Crimea have both Russian and Ukrainian passports, which makes it possible to one day declare that the rights of Russian citizens have been violated and must be defended," Kulik said. "That would bring us to the same situation we saw in Georgia."
While that potential crisis is not imminent — Crimea is not regarded as a separatist region like South Ossetia — Kulik’s assessment of the situation is bleak. The answer, it seems, is once more in the hands of Ukrainian voters. And while Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych all campaign once more for their respective parties and blocs, the real decision is a large one. To whom will the voters of Ukraine turn on 7 December?
They go to the polls to decide not only the leaders of their country, but also their nation’s strongest international ties and the long term political future of their nation.
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