Yushchenko looks for friends in high places

  • 2006-05-17
  • By Ben Nimmo

LEND A HAND: Yushchenko had only good things to say about Vike-Freiberga, and in return the Latvian president encouraged Ukraine's aspirations toward NATO integration.

RIGA - "We met in an atmosphere of friendship and openness, a traditional feature of our bilateral relations," President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine told journalists after meeting with Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in Riga at the end of April. Beaten into third place in recent elections, Yushchenko certainly needs all the friends he can get abroad to boost his image at home.

Whirlwind diplomacy
It has been a busy month for the leader of the Orange Revolution. After paying his respects to the Latvian president, he moved on to the conference of Baltic and Black Sea states in Vilnius, meeting a range of leaders from Mikhail Saakashvili to Dick Cheney. Last week he went to Poland, where he discussed national reconciliation and energy security with President Lech Kaczynski. In all these summits, the theme of Ukraine's reorientation toward the West was high on the agenda.
"Every sovereign country has the right to choose its own model for security," Yushchenko said after talking with Vike-Freiberga. "The Euro-Atlantic policy corresponds to our needs."
"Ukraine has made its own choice to pursue the road of integration into NATO," Vike-Freiberga confirmed. "We support those aspirations."

In Vilnius, meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana offered EU support for Ukraine both in development and conflict resolution, as long as Kiev continued with the construction of strong, transparent systems of law and government. The message will not have been lost on Yushchenko, who spoke of the need to continue the reform process during his visit to Riga.
In Poland, finally, the tone was one of reconciliation. This weekend Yushchenko and Kaczynski attended a memorial service for the victims of ethnic strife between Poles and Ukrainians on their mutual border in the last days of World War II. Both sides carried out massacres in an attempt to create an ethnically homogeneous homeland, and the incidents have soured relations between the countries ever since. The two presidents' attempts to heal the breach is a clear sign of the increasing importance both place on the reinforcement of Ukraine's westward ambitions.

Neighborhood watch
At the heart of Yushchenko's frenzied neighborhood policy lies a very real concern over his other neighbor's intentions. Ukraine is dependent on Russia for the great majority of its energy, and Moscow has no scruples about using its commanding position to dictate Ukraine's internal politics. The point was bludgeoned home this January when Russian energy titan Gazprom shut off its gas supplies to Ukraine after Kiev protested the company's doubling of its gas tariffs. President Vladimir Putin has made it abundantly clear that his country intends to use its oil and gas wealth to restore its influence throughout the former U.S.S.R., and Yushchenko needs powerful friends to keep him warm.

As a result, energy concerns topped the agenda in the Latvian meeting. "President Vike-Freiberga and I raised the issue of energy supplies, and we concluded that no EU country is able to create a stable energy policy in isolation. Ukraine has huge transit possibilities, and energy supply to the Baltics would be interesting in terms of mutual support," Yushchenko said.

"Energy supplies to Europe must be diversified in the future, and we would like to see energy coming to the EU through Ukrainian energy channels," Vike-Freiberga confirmed.
Similarly, in Poland, energy alliances were at the top of the pile. The two presidents confirmed that their countries intend to co-host a conference on regional energy security this October, and discussed plans for a fuel pipeline to run from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to the Polish port of Gdansk.
"Stable supplies of energy products to other national markets can only be possible thanks to dialogue and co-operation," Yushchenko said.

Conference call
Energy is not the only issue on Yushchenko's agenda. The other strand of his concerns is the forthcoming NATO summit of heads of state and government, scheduled for November. Part of Yushchenko's message in the Orange Revolution was the promise to move Ukraine toward the EU and NATO, and with the EU still wringing its hands over the effects of its current expansion, NATO membership is the less implausible of the two goals.
"I do not exclude the possibility of a political invitiation to discuss a NATO membership action plan before the autumn NATO summit," Yushchenko told journalists after his meeting with Vike-Freiberga.

His words received strong support from Latvia, which will be hosting the conference.
"The autumn summit will focus on restructuring NATO, but the alliance's plans include future enlargement, and it is very possible that Ukraine will receive an action plan," said Vike-Freiberga. "Latvia would welcome such a development. We would like to see Ukraine move forward."
Latvia, as host, will wield considerable moral influence during the summit, but it remains one of the smallest countries in the 26-member alliance. For that reason, support from Latvia's Baltic neighbors, such as Lithuania and Poland, will be crucial. It is no coincidence that Yushchenko has visited both countries in recent weeks.

However, even with such support, Yushchenko may face an uphill struggle to have his westward aspirations realized. At the first press conference to be organized for the NATO summit, held on May 12, Edgars Rinkevics, state secretary at the Latvian Ministry of Defense, stressed that "This autumn's NATO summit will be a summit for NATO. We do not at present expect there to be a session of the NATO-Ukraine council, and we do not expect any invitations to join the alliance."

However, he was careful to leave room to maneuver. "The summit should not only encourage our partners in the Balkans and Ukraine to keep up the good work of reform which they have begun: it should establish clear criteria and mechanisms for closer cooperation," he said.
"We cannot exclude the possibility that decisions regarding a membership action plan for Ukraine will be made prior to the summit in Riga," he added. "But of course, this depends on a decision by all 26 allies."

All in the same boat
And therein lies the rub. Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics are all in the same boat as far as military and energy security goes. For Yushchenko, as for Baltic and Polish policy-makers, the single greatest foreign-policy threat is Russia. The single greatest need is a strong ally such as the United States to counterbalance Moscow; it is no coincidence that the Poles, Ukrainians and Latvians all joined the "coalition of the willing" in the most recent Iraq war. The more regional allies each country can bring into the NATO fold, the more chance they will have of influencing the alliance's crucial decisions.

But even if Latvia and Poland do manage to keep Ukraine's membership prospects on the NATO agenda, they will still have to steer them past the organization's other members. With 24 other countries in the group, many of them also dependent on Russia for a large part of their energy supplies, foreign trade and regional security, getting a unanimous go-ahead for Ukraine to join the club will not be easy. Despite all of Yushchenko's painstaking diplomacy, his country's westward ambitions and his own political career will depend less on decisions made in Riga and Warsaw than on the power balance between Washington, Berlin, Paris and Moscow.