Between 19 and 21 March, Viktor Yanukovych was visiting Russia. On the first day, the Ukrainian President was an observer at the session of the Eurasian Economic Community in Moscow. On the second day of his visit, he met with the newly elected President, and still incumbent Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. Yet the events most significant for Ukraine-Russia relations, however, took place not in Russia but in Ukraine.
The day before his visit to Moscow, Ukrainian head of state explicitly determined the aim of it in an interview for the Russian ITAR-TASS agency: “Enough of beating about the bush. The problem needs to be solved. We cannot pay such high and ungrounded prices for gas. It is inappropriate and unfair … It is an urgent matter that needs to be solved”, emotionally explained Yanukovych. To achieve such a clearly defined goal, the Ukrainian side undertook numerous diplomatic actions. It would be in vain, however, to look for them in the context of talks with Russian partners. Journalists and observers did not discover any particular effects of Yanukovych’s visit to Russia. As usual, neither Russian leaders, nor Ukrainian head of state commented on the meetings and talks that had taken place. Much more effective, however, seems to be an analysis of the events accompanying the visit of Ukrainian President. They indicate much more on the condition of Russia-Ukraine relations, than any account of the visit itself would ever do.
Watch Viktor Yanukovych’s interview for ITAR-TASS agency [ru]:
The first attempt at winning Putin over was Yanukovych’s declaration on giving Russian a status of state language. Yanukovych suggested the following solution during the aforementioned interview: “There were periods when language issues were a source of conflicts. I don’t see that problem anymore. There’s no need to inflame the matter which emerges near the elections over and over again. It should simply be regulated at a legislative level. … It is in the best interest of Ukraine and Ukrainian society, which speaks two languages – Ukrainian and Russian”, stated the Ukrainian President.
Though Yanukovych did not say straight that Russian will be given the state language status, the mass media interpreted the President’s words unambiguously, which yet again inflamed discussion on this matter in the Ukrainian media. Meanwhile, the leader of the parliamentary pro-presidential faction at the Party of Regions Oleksandr Yefremov referred sceptically to the matter: “In accordance with the procedure, such a motion (on state language status of Russian – editorial note) has to be supported by 300 MPs in order to be put forward. I don’t think it’s possible”. Volodymyr Lytvyn, the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, said: “There’s no project of such bill”. Obviously, Yanukovych’s intention was to initiate another nationwide discussion on the Russian language in Ukraine. The impression of the President’s alleged “pro-Russian-ness” is a typical Ukraine’s courtship of Russia. The aim was to lay the ground for business Yanukovych had to do in Moscow.
Watch the coverage of Eurasian Economic Community in Moscow [ru]:
Conditions made by Russia for reducing gas price have been known for a long time: selling Ukraine’s pipeline system, which supplies gas from Russia to Europe, and Ukraine joining the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. In exchange for these concessions, Russians are offering prices lowered by 10 percent. However, while Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych were discussing the matter at Putin’s residence at Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow, the Ukrainian parliament was adopting a bill on a reform and reorganisation of the national “Naftogaz” company. The bill forbids privatisation of Ukrainian system of gas supplies.
This unfriendly gesture still leaves Russia with some room for manoeuvre – Ukrainian MPs from the ruling coalition anticipate that by the time of the second reading, amendments to the bill can be made. Thus, it is still a matter of conditionality – the favourable circumstances mean obviously the price of Russian gas.
When it comes to the second condition of lowering the price for gas, President Yanukovych himself somewhat vaguely commented on the matter in the interview mentioned before. He misleadingly explained the reasons for Ukraine’s dilatoriness in ratifying the free trade agreement with the Commonwealth of the Independent States: “It is a difficult road. With kindness we witnessed that our neighbours took it, but we’re not ready to do the same yet … The terms of this process are still incomprehensible to Ukraine”.
Having come to Moscow, the Ukrainian head of state more decidedly commented on the perspectives of joining the Customs Union: “According to the Constitution, Ukraine cannot join organisations with supranational organs. We don’t have the right to give away our sovereignty”. Yanukovych added that Kyiv would not join the Customs Union, unless there were some amendments to the Constitution made either by the Parliament or in the nationwide referendum.
Watch the coverage of the meeting of Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych [ru]:
The last element of the Ukrainian-Russian meeting was accepting the report of the investigative commission on Yulia Tymoshenko’s 2009 gas contracts by Verkhovna Rada. Ukrainian deputies determined that the actions of the Former Prime Minister grossly damaged the state interests and should be treated as high treason. The deputies sent the evidence gathered by the commission to General Prosecutor and highest authorities in the country.
The report punlished at the time of Yanukovych’s talks with Putin should be considered an intentional gesture. The Ukrainian Parliament’s motion that law enforcement bodies should investigate the circumstances of signing the agreement suggests Russian participants of those events, including Vladimir Putin, should testify. The whole case indirectly strikes at the Russian Prime Minister, who is presented as a person corrupting Ukrainian politicians and forcing them to treason. (Read: Behind the Scenes of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Trial).
Soon after the talks with Putin, Yanukovych went back to Kyiv. Another round of negotiations ended in a fiasco. As Piotr Skwiecinski aptly notices, after the September Medvedev-Putin-Yanukovych talks, there was no agreement either. The approaching period when flats are centrally heated was an argument for Kyiv to abandon its demands quickly. Meanwhile, winter is over and Ukrainian resistance does not cease. The authorities of Ukraine make more or less realistic plans of diversification the gas supplies and lowering the demand for energy from the eastern neighbour (read: Gas Illusions). The ruling Party of Regions with Viktor Yanukovych, considered pro-Russian only a few years ago, now speaks of Russia and gas in the language of the old Orange camp. Ukrainian pragmatism to the full.
Translated by Marta Lityńska