News Analysis: Ukraine resentments sank EU's mediation

Posted in Europe | 30-Nov-04 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko (C), European Union's Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana (L) and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski pose for photographers during their meeting in Kiev.
Poland and Germany avoid the vacuum

BERLIN During a visit to Berlin last week, a senior official from Ukraine's Foreign Ministry made a direct request to German government officials: He asked them not to send the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to mediate in the growing crisis in Ukraine.

His German interlocutors listened, according to a German official who was present, but they did not act on the request. Solana arrived in Kiev on Friday in an attempt to broker a compromise involving Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who claimed victory in the presidential election; Viktor Yushchenko, who said the elections had been rigged; and the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma. Solana returned empty-handed.

It was never going to be easy for Solana to forge a compromise. The past few days have shown how the events taking place in Ukraine have a momentum of their own, making it difficult for any mediator. More important, for many months Kuchma and Solana have been barely on speaking terms.

Kuchma and the Yanukovich camp loathe Solana because, as former secretary general of NATO, he took Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the military alliance in 1999, increasing Ukraine's sense of isolation from Europe. This reaction later allowed President Vladimir Putin of Russia to take advantage of what was viewed as Europe's indifference toward Ukraine.

But Ukraine's liberal political elites also resent the EU, mainly because it has failed to offer any long-term possibility that the country will join the bloc. They also resent the EU's devoting far more attention to its relationship with Russia - often, Ukrainian diplomats say, at the expense of Ukraine.

Some foreign policy experts have suggested that, if the EU cannot broker a solution for Ukraine, perhaps Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany and President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland might have a better chance of success, working as a team.

"These two are possibly the only two leaders who are respected in the region," said Alexander Rahr, an expert on Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Germany and Poland understand Ukraine much more than the bureaucratic machine in Brussels. Schröder could try and do something, but he is hiding behind the EU."

Schröder's advantage, according to Rahr, is his close relationship with Putin, a relationship he could use in seeking to persuade the Russian president to adopt a more flexible attitude toward Ukraine.

But Schröder, who last week sharply criticized Yanukovich and the conduct of the elections, has had to walk a fine line between supporting democracy in Ukraine and maintaining his special relationship with Putin. Russia is one of the cornerstones of Germany's foreign policy, and Schröder is not willing to jeopardize the close business and energy links the countries have forged.

"The choice for Germany is either to work together with Russia to reach a compromise in Ukraine or have all-out support for the Yushchenko camp, which could mean toppling the established institutions," said Hannes Adomeit, senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "Russia has made it clear where it stands with the developments in Ukraine. It will not give up the 'near abroad,"' as Russia calls the other former Soviet republics.

Russia's position has left Schröder with little room to maneuver. If Schröder did visit Ukraine, Ukrainians and Russians might react more positively than they did to Solana's visit, analysts say. In practical terms, however, Schröder cannot go to Ukraine without offering some concrete incentives. For Ukrainians, these would have to include the possibility of eventual membership in the EU, an option Russia would strongly oppose. And because the EU has no such policy for Ukraine, Schröder is in no position to make any such offer, which explains why, so far, he has not been in a hurry to visit Kiev.

Poland's role is just as complicated. Kwasniewski, a former Communist minister, was a participant in the 1988 roundtable talks when the Communists and the Solidarity trade union negotiated the transition from one-party rule to democracy. More recently, after Poland joined the EU in May, Kwasniewski has openly supported Ukraine's joining the EU and has called on Brussels to adopt a much clearer strategy toward Kiev.

Over the past week, Kwasniewski has been at pains not to take sides, despite criticism from other politicians and the media for not openly supporting Yushchenko. On Friday, Kwasniewski joined Solana in Kiev to mediate.

"Kwasniewski knows what is at stake; he knows how explosive the situation could become," said a Polish diplomat, who asked not to be identified. "He wants to be able to talk to all sides in the conflict."