Ukraine-Russia relations: Why Kiev made a dramatic U-turn back toward Moscow
President Viktor Yanukovich was elected in February on pledges to restore Ukraine-Russia relations. But he has acted more swiftly than anyone imagined, reversing the pro-West moves of the Orange Revolution.
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Opposition leaders promise that when the Rada returns from its May Day recess next Monday, they will raise hell inside the parliament and on the streets. They warn that Ukraine's fragile democracy could follow the country's economy down the Russian path, and Yanukovich could create a Putin-style authoritarian regime in Kiev.Skip to next paragraph
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"This is a totalitarian merger of Russia and Ukraine, and it's all being decided behind closed doors with no public discussion," says Olga Bodnar, a parliamentary deputy with Ms. Tymoshenko's bloc. "What Yanukovich is doing does not coincide with the desires of the Ukrainian people; he is acting as if he were president of one part of the country and not the whole of Ukraine. When parliament reopens, you will see the opposition's response."
Moscow isn't surprised
In Moscow, where many people regarded Ukraine's pro-West fling under Mr. Yushchenko as a strange aberration from what they see as Ukraine's natural destiny within Russia's orbit, some analysts are predicting many more surprises to come.
"I think we are headed toward a full-fledged strategic union between Russia and Ukraine," says Kirill Frolov, a Ukraine expert with the Kremlin-backed Institute for the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Five years of anti-Russian propaganda [under Yushchenko] obviously had no effect on Ukraine's population, who clearly see their future together with Russia. There is only one explanation for why Yanukovich is able to accomplish these big changes so fast: he enjoys massive public support."
U-turn less shocking than may appear
But other experts say there is less than meets the eye in Yanukovich's pro-Moscow policy U-turn. After all, they say, polls have consistently shown that the idea of NATO membership was never popular among Ukrainians and, in any case, Yushchenko failed to acquire a solid invitation to join the organization from increasingly leery Western leaders.
Trade keeps the neighbors close. Russia remains, by far, Ukraine's largest trading partner. Many Ukrainians, particularly in the heavily-russified east, still take their political and cultural cues from Moscow, while 1 in 3 Ukrainians are native speakers of Russian.
Military ties also ensure the two countries are in step. Russia's Black Sea Fleet has been stationed in the ethnically Russian-populated Crimea for over 200 years. Pollster Vladimir Paniotto, director of the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology, says that more than 60 percent of Ukrainians in recent surveys expressed no objection to it staying there for another quarter century.
"This speedy pace of rapprochement contributes to a false impression that we're headed for some sort of full-on union," says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Center for Political and Conflict Studies in Kiev. "It's true that a lot of logical steps are being taken, rather quickly, to restore practical benefits for both sides. There is no doubt that Russia is a strategic partner for Ukraine, and we need to have good relations with it. But there are limits. Ukraine isn't going to do anything that isn't in its national interests."