(CNSNews.com) – The calling of an early parliamentary election in Ukraine launches a campaign that will further expose deep divisions in the former Soviet republic over whether its future lies with Russia or the West.
Based on current polls, candidates favored by Moscow look set to triumph.
In a bid to resolve the latest in a string of political crises, President Viktor Yushchenko late Wednesday announced he was dissolving parliament, after efforts to build a new coalition government failed.
The ruling coalition fell apart early last month after Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party, the junior partner, withdrew amid accusations that Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko had been unwilling to condemn Russia over its war against Georgia.
The pro-Western president and his estranged former “Orange Revolution” ally accuse each other of being responsible for the crisis, which will see Ukrainians vote for a new parliament for the third time in as many years
(Presidential elections are not due until 2010, when Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and possibly also pro-Russian opposition leader and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovich, are expected to run.)
The president in a televised statement accused the prime minister of putting personal ambition above national interest, while Tymoshenko said Yushchenko was leading Ukraine towards “chaos.”
The election will be held on December 7, less than a week after NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels to decide whether Ukraine and Georgia should be admitted to the first step in a drawn-out process of becoming members of the 26-nation alliance.
Russia strongly opposes the move, as does Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, which opinion polls currently place in the lead, several points above the Tymoshenko Bloc. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine trails far behind.
A NATO summit in Bucharest last April put off a decision on Ukraine and Georgia, with the alliance split between the U.S. and some eastern European member states on one side, and Germany and France leading the opposition on the other.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August, following a Georgian military offensive against pro-Moscow separatists in South Ossetia, appears to have reinforced the views on both sides of the NATO debate.
Ukraine and other former Warsaw Pact members and Soviet successor states say the Russian action underlined the critical need for NATO membership for the two.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Yuriy Yekhanurov, in Macedonia on Wednesday, and said afterwards that Washington’s position in support of a NATO membership plan for Ukraine “in principle, remains unchanged.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, told the Russians during a recent visit that her government’s stance on the matter had not changed since the April summit.
Located between Russia and the European Union, Ukraine is an important transit route for Russian energy supplies heading westward. Past spats with Moscow have affected not only supplies to Ukraine, but also those crossing Ukraine to Western Europe.
Germany and others heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil have accordingly been reluctant to antagonize Moscow. But in justifying their positions in Bucharest they also pointed to unresolved territorial disputes in Georgia and low levels of public backing for NATO membership in Ukraine.
Ethnic Russians make up almost one-quarter of Ukraine’s population, and polls show that most of them oppose NATO membership. Yekhanurov told reporters after his meeting with Gates that 31 percent of Ukrainians support membership while 40 percent are undecided.
While the NATO issue will hang over the election campaign, there have also been differences between the former allies over division of powers. Tymoshenko earlier sided with the opposition in a bid to curb presidential powers.
‘In Putin’s sights’
But for the outside world, Ukraine’s relationship with its giant eastern neighbor, and Russian intentions for the region, are of primary interest and concern.
“Watch Ukraine,” Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain said Tuesday. “Ukraine right now is in the sights of [Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin, those that want to reassemble the old Soviet Union.”
Speaking during the presidential debate in Nashville, McCain and Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama both said the U.S. should provide “moral support” for the former Soviet republics. McCain said the U.S. must advocate for NATO membership, and Obama added that there should also be “financial and concrete assistance to help rebuild their economies.”
In comments that may have been intended as a response, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during an address at a conference in Evian, France Wednesday advised against “the rhetoric of confrontation, which, as we know, sooner or later takes on a life of its own.”
“Sovietology is [a] has-been, but sovietology, like paranoia, is a dangerous disease. And it is a pity that part of the U.S. administration still suffers from it,” he said. “People should be studying the new Russia and not reviving Soviet phantoms.”
Since the Georgia war, relations between Moscow and Kiev have chilled considerably, over Yushchenko’s strong show of support for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is reviled by Putin and Medvedev.
Tymoshenko, in contrast, has called for “balance” in Ukraine’s ties with Russia, a stance Yushchenko claims is designed to win Moscow’s support for her likely presidential bid in 2010.
Crimea has emerged as a key flashpoint in bilateral relations. Stalin transferred the peninsula from Russia to Ukraine when both were part of the Soviet Union, but it has a ethnic Russian majority and nationalist lawmakers in Russia have been pushing for the Kremlin to reclaim the area.
Yushchenko was angry when Russia deployed ships from its Black Sea Fleet, based at the Crimean port of Sevastopol, to the Georgian coast during the conflict. The president wants Russia to vacate the base when its present lease expires in 2017.
An opinion poll carried out by the Levada Center in Moscow in mid-September found a growing number of Russians expressing a “bad” or “very bad” attitude towards Ukraine – 52.6 percent compared to 33.5 percent in a similar poll taken in April.
Levada Center spokesman Oleg Savelyev attributed the shift to the Georgia crisis, the row over the Black Sea Fleet and anti-Ukraine propaganda in Kremlin-friendly Russian media, the Kyiv Post daily reported last week.
The same poll found the level of anti-U.S. sentiment among Russians at 67 percent, the highest recorded in a decade of polling.