News & Current Affairs

September 5, 2008

Ukraine ‘must live without fear’

Ukraine ‘must live without fear’

US Vice-President Dick Cheney (r) and Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko

Mr Cheney aims to strengthen ties with Russia’s neighbours

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has said Ukraine has the right to live without fear of invasion, adding that the US stands by its bid for NATO membership.

Mr Cheney met both the prime minister and president in Kiev, the last stop of a tour aimed at underlining support for US allies in the former Soviet Union.

Mr Cheney reassured the president that the US had a “deep and abiding interest” in Ukraine’s security.

Analysts fear Ukraine could be the next flashpoint between Russia and the West.

“We believe in the right of men and women to live without the threat of tyranny, economic blackmail or military invasion or intimidation,” Mr Cheney said, in an apparent reference to Russia’s military intervention in Georgia.

‘Hostage’

Mr Cheney arrived in Ukraine just days after the country was plunged into political turmoil.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party blocked a motion condemning Russia’s actions in Georgia, and sided with the opposition to vote for a curb on the president’s powers.

Members of President Viktor Yushchenko’s party walked out of the coalition government in protest, leading the president to warn that he could be forced to call a snap general election.

Mr Cheney urged the politicians to heal their divisions and be “united domestically first and foremost”.

“Ukraine’s best hope to overcome these threats is to be united,” he said following separate meetings with Mr Yushchenko and his former ally turned political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko.

Mr Cheney expressed support for Ukraine’s bid to become a member of Nato.

Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko (image from February 25, 2008)

“Ukrainians have a right to choose whether they wish to join Nato, and Nato has a right to invite Ukraine to join the alliance when we believe they are ready and that the time is right,” he said.

Russia is strongly opposed to any further expansion eastwards of Nato, and is furious that Ukraine and Georgia have been told that, one day, they will be offered membership.

But Mr Cheney – recognizing Ukraine’s contributions to NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo – said that no country beyond NATO would be able to block Ukraine’s membership bid.

President Yushchenko says Ukraine is a hostage in a war waged by Russia against ex-Soviet bloc states.

The strategically-located country is important to Russia, with pipelines that carry Russian gas to European consumers and its Black Sea port, home to a key Russian naval base.

Russia has a powerful tool at its disposal, namely the large ethnic Russian population in Ukraine’s southern province of Crimea.

Open aggression

Mr Yushchenko has restricted Russia’s naval operations, and insists Moscow must leave when an inter-state treaty expires in 2017.

Ukraine has said it is ready to make its missile early warning systems available to European nations following Russia’s conflict with Georgia.

Mr Cheney’s visit comes at an awkward time for President Yushchenko, with the country’s largely pro-Western ruling coalition divided in its attitude toward Russia.

The leaders’ faltering relationship has now boiled over into open aggression, with Mr Yushchenko threatening to dissolve parliament and call a snap election.

The president has been a staunch supporter of his Georgian counterpart, Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Ms Tymoshenko has avoided outright condemnation of Russia, leading analysts to suggest she may be hoping for Moscow’s backing in a possible bid for the presidency in 2010.

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September 3, 2008

Ukraine in snap election warning

Ukraine in snap election warning

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Mr Yushchenko said he would call a poll unless a new coalition was formed

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has threatened to dissolve parliament and call elections after the collapse of the country’s ruling coalition.

Mr Yushchenko’s supporters walked out in protest following new laws trimming the president’s powers.

The laws were introduced by the pro-Russian opposition and backed by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party.

Former allies, the prime minister and president are now at odds despite sharing pro-Western political goals.

All but one of 12 ministers from Mr Yushchenko’s party boycotted Wednesday’s cabinet meeting.

“A political and constitutional coup d’etat has started in the parliament,” Mr Yushchenko said in a televised speech.

“I will use my right to dissolve parliament and decree early elections if a new coalition is not formed within 30 days,” he said.

‘Irresponsible behaviour’

But Ms Tymoshenko blamed her rival for the chaos, vowing that the Ukrainian cabinet would continue its work despite the break-up of the coalition.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (l) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

“I am sorry that the president behaves irresponsibly,” she said at a cabinet meeting. “The coalition was destroyed under his instruction.”

Mr Yushchenko’s popularity is at rock bottom at the moment with opinion polls giving him single-digit levels of support.

The prime minister and president are believed to be jockeying for position before next year’s presidential election, though our correspondent says Mr Yushchenko’s chances of winning with current popularity levels would be slim.

The crisis follows mounting tension between the president and prime minister with Mr Yushchenko accusing Ms Tymoshenko of treason for allegedly siding with Moscow over the conflict in Georgia.

Mr Yushchenko has been a vociferous supporter of Georgia during the conflict but the prime minister’s party on Tuesday blocked a parliamentary resolution condemning Moscow.

The flare-up comes a day before a planned visit to the country by US Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The trip is part of a tour of former Soviet states which the US sees as key allies.


Are you in Ukraine? Are you concerned by developments? Send us your comments and experiences

August 23, 2008

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

It is easy to assume that escalating tensions between Russia and the West could mean an end to the blurry fudges of the post-Cold War years and a recasting of East-West relations into black and white antagonism, with two opposing camps, each surrounded by its own sphere of influence.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is flanked (right) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Tbilisi on 12 August

Ukraine’s leader (R) went to Tbilisi to back President Saakashvili

But look at how the Georgia crisis is being received around Russia’s edges. The response is often evasive, and sometimes downright surprising.

Among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which 20 years ago were constituent parts of the USSR whose loyalty to Moscow was automatic, Russia has won remarkably few endorsements. Some Central Asian states have sent in aid to South Ossetia. But on the whole the response has been decidedly muted.

To be fair, Georgia too has drawn criticism. But gone are the days when Moscow could rely on satellite states to speak up for it. For Russia’s leaders to declare that Russia was and always will be the “guarantor of stability” in the Caucasus is now a risky statement that could repel as well as draw regional backing.

Its neighbours are now independent countries whose priority is not to please the Kremlin but turn any crisis to their advantage, or worry about how it might adversely affect them.

Economic interests first

Next door to Georgia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s top concern is to keep the pipeline that runs from Baku through Georgian territory to Turkey free from threat of attack.

But President Ilham Aliyev is also apparently wary of aggravating Russia. He has now publically backed Georgia’s territorial integrity, but steered clear of more vigorous support of Tbilisi.

Elderly refugees from South Ossetia sit in a refugee camp in North Ossetia, Russia,  on 10 August

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have donated aid for Ossetian refugees

Landlocked Turkmenistan too, with its immense gas fields on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has a lively interest in making sure the Baku pipeline is not disrupted and Georgia remains a stable reliable partner.

It competes as well as collaborates with Russia as an energy supplier. It does not want one of its main outlets threatened.

And beleaguered Armenia, at the southern tip of the Caucasus, has even more reason to be alarmed. Any prolonged conflict in Georgia would disrupt all its supply routes.

Further west and closer to Europe in the “former Soviet space”, there has been an even more marked shift in governmental responses.

Tiny impoverished Moldova, on the border between Romania and Ukraine, has its own “frozen conflict” unsolved from Soviet days: the Russian-supported and heavily armed enclave of Trans-Dniester.

So this week Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin pointedly turned to the European Union for help in finding a peaceful way out of that stand-off.

Ukrainian ambivalence

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko from the very start saw Russia’s military intervention in Georgia as an implied threat. Ukraine too is a Nato aspirant, and Russia has frequently warned it that Nato membership is something it will not tolerate.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (image from 14 July)

Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to run in the next election

So President Yushchenko was swift to define himself as the champion of Ukraine’s right to join Nato and defy Russian pressure.

Not only did he fly to Tbilisi to offer moral support, he issued a presidential decree to remind Russia that its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea does, after all, use a Ukrainian port.

In future, he demanded, Russia must give 72 hours’ notice before moving its vessels and he once again raised the prospect that Ukraine might not renew its lease for the port when it expires in 2017.

But how Russia’s relations with Ukraine might unwind is not straightforward.

The fear has certainly been expressed in Kiev that a restive pro-Russian population in the Crimea might provide a pretext for another Russian military intervention. Russian nationalists who see the Crimea as historically Russian territory would seize any pretext to realise their ambitions, goes the argument.

What is certainly true is that a clash between Moscow and Kiev over the Crimea would probably cleave Ukraine in half and open up a dangerous conflict with widespread repercussions. But a more likely scenario is less dramatic.

Russia has only to wait for a change in Ukrainian politics. President Yushchenko may be a prominent leader but his long term-durability is not guaranteed. Opinion polls put his popularity at under 10%.

With presidential elections due in 18 months, the Kremlin may well reckon it can look for a more reliable partner in his likely opponent and current Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been remarkably quiet on the Georgia crisis.

Mixed signals from Minsk

But perhaps the most interesting response has come from Belarus and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Belarussian police arrest demonstrators outside the Russian embassy on 11 August

Belarussian police pounced on anti-Russian protestors during the conflict

Only a few years ago Russia was such a close ally, there was talk of the two countries merging, so one might have expected him to back Russia’s action in the Caucasus.

But Belarus has had a series of bad-tempered rows with Russia over energy supplies and has recently shown more interest in improving Western contacts.

The initial response from Minsk to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was decidedly ambivalent – so much so, that the Russian ambassador there even publicly expressed his displeasure.

President Lukashenko then travelled to Sochi to reassure President Medvedev that Moscow’s military operation had been conducted “calmly, wisely and beautifully”.

But he took steps to clear the way for better relations with the US and Europe.

In the last few days the final three political prisoners in Belarus have been suddenly released – the beneficiaries, it seems, of an unexpected presidential pardon.

“It’s very significant,” said Britain’s Ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould Davies. “For the first time in a decade Belarus does not have any political prisoners.”

And watch this space. Whether Belarus is really serious about improving its relations with the West will be tested in September, when it holds parliamentary elections.

August 22, 2008

Russia to keep posts in Georgia

Filed under: Latest — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 4:59 pm

Russia to keep posts in Georgia

A senior Russian general says Moscow intends to maintain a military presence of more than 2,000 troops in Georgia.

Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn said Russian forces would be stationed around the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the focus of recent conflict.

Correspondents on the ground say they have seen what appears to be a significant troop movement from Georgian positions to South Ossetia.

Georgia has said it will not accept any “annexation” of its land by Russia.

Russia’s land forces commander earlier said that all Russian combat troops would be moved back from Georgia proper to South Ossetia by the weekend and that most of the soldiers sent to the region as reinforcements would return to Russia within 10 days.

Correspondent says he has witnessed hundreds of Russian armored vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, withdrawing from the town of Igoeti, about 35km (21 miles) from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Our correspondent says buses of Georgian police are arriving to take control after Russian troops removed their road block and pulled out.

There are also reports of a pull-back from the Georgian flashpoint town of Gori to South Ossetia.

‘Snail’s pace’

At a briefing in Moscow, the deputy chief of the Russian military general staff, Gen Nogovitsyn, said the withdrawal of all combat troops was going according to plan.

“The troop pull-back has been started at a rate to make sure that the Russian troops be within the zone of responsibility of the Russian peacekeeping contingent by the end of 22 August,” he said.

“We are not going to correct this plan or increase the speed of withdrawal.”

Gen Nogovitsyn said Russian troops were setting up checkpoints on the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia.

The so-called zone of responsibility also includes Georgia’s main airbase at Senaki, and cuts across Georgia’s main east-west highway, which stretches from Tbilisi to the Black Sea.

Russian officials say the zone was established in principle in an agreement between Russia and Georgia which pre-dates this month’s conflict, but was never put into force.

Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili told Reuters that such a zone was “a violation of any agreement”.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Russia’s four-day war with Georgia began after Tbilisi tried to retake the Moscow-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia on 7 August, following days of clashes with separatists.

The fighting ended with an EU-brokered ceasefire deal, and a promise by Moscow to pull back its forces by 22 August.

But the commander of US forces in Europe, Gen John Craddock, said Russia was taking too long to pull back, saying “if they are moving, it is at a snail’s pace”.

The first of the Russian Black Sea Fleet warships, which have been deployed off the west coast of Georgia’s province of Abkhazia, has returned to its base at Sevastopol in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko criticised Russia’s use of ships from the base leased to Moscow, saying there was a danger of his country being passively drawn into an international conflict against its will. Protesters reportedly greeted the ship’s return on Friday.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has arrived in the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, to assess the humanitarian situation there.

Thousands of civilians are reported to be in urgent need of relief supplies.

The UN estimates that nearly 160,000 people have been displaced across the whole of Georgia since the conflict began.

The Georgian government is seeking $1-2bn (£0.5-1bn) in aid to repair and develop infrastructure following the conflict with Russia, the head of the US government aid agency, USAid, said. The World Bank has also announced that it is sending a team of experts to the country to assess its reconstruction needs.

‘War with Nato’

Diplomatic efforts at the UN have reached deadlock over rival resolutions on the crisis from France and Russia.

A woman walks down a destroyed main street in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia

Thousands of civilians are reported to be in urgent need of relief supplies

Russia has reiterated its opposition to a rival French text, which reaffirms Georgia’s territorial integrity.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili told the BBC he would never accept what he called Russia’s “annexation of its territory”.

He warned that Russia’s involvement in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia were intended to send a strong message to the West.

“If Nato fails now to come up with a united response, nobody’s safe, even if they are in Nato already,” he said.

“It’s all about reconsidering the role of Nato, the role of international law and borders in this part of the world. This is no longer about Georgia anymore.

“Russia decided to win war with Nato without firing a single shot at it.”

A Nato spokeswoman says Russia’s defence ministry has decided to halt all military co-operation with the bloc to protest at what Moscow calls the alliance’s biased, pro-Georgian view of the conflict.

The move by Moscow followed a Nato statement that there would be no “business as usual” with Moscow unless its troops pulled out of Georgia.

Georgia map

August 17, 2008

Ukraine offers West radar warning

Ukraine offers West radar warning

Viktor Yushchenko (file)

Mr Yushchenko said only a collective security pact could protect Ukraine

Ukraine has said it is ready to make its missile early warning systems available to European nations following Russia’s conflict with Georgia.

The foreign ministry said Moscow’s abrogation earlier this year of an accord involving two tracking stations allowed it to co-operate with others.

President Viktor Yushchenko said his country could ensure its sovereignty only through collective security.

Last week, Kiev limited the freedom of movement of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

The move came after several of the fleet’s warships, based at Sevastopol in Ukraine’s Crimea’s peninsula, were deployed along the Georgian coastline.

Moscow denounced the restrictions as anti-Russian and said its military commanders would answer only to the Russian president.

‘Unprecedented situation’

In a statement, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said that because the country was no longer party to the 1992 agreement with Russia on the use of its radar stations, it could now “launch active co-operation with European nations”.

Only a collective security system will provide the highest international guarantees… that could prevent any actions like those which occurred in… South Ossetia
President Viktor Yushchenko

This might include “the integration of Ukrainian elements of missile early warning and space control systems with those of foreign countries that are interested in gathering space data”, it said.

Earlier this week, President Yushchenko issued a decree putting an end to Ukraine’s participation in the accord in view of Russia’s abrogation of it.

He said the situation was unprecedented and showed that his country could only ensure its national sovereignty through collective security.

Only that, he said, “could prevent any actions like those which occurred on 7-8 August at first in South Ossetia, and then in other regions of Georgia”.

The decision is evidence Ukraine is now more desperate to embrace the West as its fear of Russia intensifies and Moscow seemingly becomes more determined to prevent any neighboring states from joining Nato.

Russia clearly sees Nato as America’s sphere of influence, despite US President George W Bush’s insistence that it is a purely defensive alliance of sovereign democracies, our correspondent says.

Increasingly, the events of the past 10 days demonstrate Russia has gone back to arm-wrestling with its neighbours and the West after the immediate post-Soviet years, when it felt too weak, he adds.

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