Aug 30, 2010

Response to Chatham House Briefing Paper “The Mortgaging of Ukraine’s Independence"

UNPO's response to the Chatham House Briefing Paper


The August 2010 Chatham House Briefing Paper entitled “The Mortgaging of Ukraine’s Independence”, written by James Sherr, is a welcome addition to the debate on the future direction of Ukraine’s foreign policy and domestic politics. The paper draws attention to the complicated subject area of stability in the region and the potentially wide-reaching consequences in Europe and Russia.

After the January 2010 elections Ukraine is caught in a triangular position between Russia on one side and the EU and other Western countries on the other end. The briefing paper’s author seems to believe that aiming for an equal balance between the two powers would achieve the greatest possible stability. However commitments towards both the EU and Russia may not be in Ukraine’s best interest and moreover impossible to achieve and maintain.

Recent agreements between Ukraine and Russia on gas imports and the stationing of Russian navy troops in Crimea indicate that Moscow will play a greater role in Ukrainian politics in the future. The briefing paper mentions a number of ways in which the increased commitment towards Russia has led to greater interference in Ukrainian domestic affairs and increased the country’s dependency on Russia.

Besides an over-reliance on gas imports and the increase in Russian military presence, the ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine also plays a role, particularly in already conflict-riddled areas such as Crimea. The presence of Ukrainian, Russians and Crimean Tatars has already led to disputes over land, language rights, political influence and autonomy on the peninsula.

As Sherr suggests, Russian intelligence organisations have been linked to pro-Russian groups and provocations against Crimean Tatars. After a failed assassination attempt on the spokesperson of Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Jemilev, in October 2009, evidence suggested that the FSB may have supported a radical Islamist group to carry out the attack on the leader of the moderate Muslim minority.

The enhanced Russian presence in Ukraine has spurred ethnic Russian Ukrainians to affirm their allegiance with Moscow. After the terrorist attacks on the Moscow underground transport system in March 2010, which was carried out by Chechen groups, pro-Russian politicians in Crimea have made unfounded accusations against Crimean Tatar organisations of having links to Islamic terrorist groups. [As local media reported, t]hey demanded that the Crimean Tatar parliament, the Majlis, be closed as they considered it a legislative body representing “criminal organisations” and operating “parallel power structures”[i].

The current Minister of the Interior, Anatoliy Mokhylev, who was previously head of the Crimean Electoral Commission and the chief of police in Crimea, is hostile towards the calls of the Crimean Tatar minority. He has accused them of collaboration with Nazi occupiers during World War II and thus defended their deportation in 1944. During his time as chief of police it was alleged that he unfairly targeted Crimean Tatars and ignored acts of violence committed against them. The Crimean Tatars are currently preparing a trial against him at the European Court of Human Rights on charges of inciting hatred and are campaigning in favour of a less controversial person to hold the position.

The decision to establish a closer relationship with Russia may have been unfairly categorised by James Sherr as an attempt to gain more power for the sake of having it. As he indicates public opinion prefers ties with Moscow over a closer integration with Europe and the lack of protest over Yanukovych’s decisions may not be a sign of apathy but of agreement. Even if Ukraine wanted a closer relationship with Europe it may not be able to manage it since, as the author demonstrates, Brussels has not extended an offer.

Recent developments and the tightening of the relationship between Kyiv and Moscow cannot be blamed entirely for pro-Russian politics in the Ukraine and in order to counteract a too close connection between the two countries it may not be necessary to break up the newly-established ties or begin an unpopular alliance with Europe.

Keeping check on pro-Russian groups and the predominant influence of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, as well as strengthening other ethnic minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, would be a step towards allowing Ukraine to re-affirm power over its domestic affairs.

Considering the circumstances, Yanukovych’s stance on foreign policy may actually be in the best interest of his country. At the very least it avoids the disputes over gas imports which have become an annual winter event. Negotiations may not have brought optimal results but the pragmatic response minimises the downfalls of the country’s delicate situation.

Ukraine is in a demanding position of having to achieve stability on its own terms while balancing the demands of Europe and Russia and keeping in control of its domestic affairs.

A key role in this effort falls to Crimean Tatars and ethnic minorities in general: Meeting their demands would lead to a more stable situation within the country and offer less opportunity for groups outside Ukraine to interfere.



To download the Chatham House Briefing Paper:

“The Mortgaging of Ukraine’s Independence” by James Sherr

published August 2010-08-30, click here