Intelligence Brief: Internal Divisions Continue to Afflict Ukraine

Posted in Europe | 06-Jun-06

On June 2, a powerful anti-American protest took place in the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. Crimea is a predominantly Russian-speaking region and is home to Sevastopol naval base, which houses both the Ukrainian and Russian Black Sea Fleets. A group of 100 Marines went on shore as part of the U.S.-Ukrainian joint military exercise that is scheduled for July. As they were transported by bus to join other military personnel at a Ukrainian Defense Ministry resort in the seaside town of Feodosia, the protesters blocked their route. The crowd surrounded the bus, began to rock it back and forth, shouted anti-American slogans, and forced the convoy to turn around and alter its route.

This public outburst is a major embarrassment for the pro-Western and pro-N.A.T.O. government of Viktor Yuschenko and his fledging "orange coalition" that is yet to form a working government after the peaceful March elections. The protest should not be seen as an isolated incident, but rather the continuation of the division that has split the country with the advent of the Orange Revolution in 2004. Beginning with the fall protest that eventually brought the Yuschenko-Timoshenko coalition to power, the country has been split into rival camps -- nationalistic, Western-leaning and mostly Ukrainian western regions, and mostly Russian-speaking, Russia-leaning eastern and southern regions.

The ensuing differences of opinion over which course Ukraine should take ushered in economic stagnation and an impasse that eventually resulted in the March 2006 parliamentary majority of the Regions Party of Viktor Yanukovych, Yuschenko's opponent who advocates a closer relationship with Russia and a more cautious approach toward the West and N.A.T.O.

The public protest symbolizes yet another impasse that will have to be overcome by Yuschenko's government if he is to be successful in steering the country past nationalistic rhetoric and obstructionism. He staked the success of his government on joining N.A.T.O. in the near future and on an overall pro-Western approach. For many pro-Western members of Yuschenko's and Timoshenko's political parties, the recent Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute underscores the importance of "Western Shelter" against a perceived Russian economic threat. Thus, any public display of pro-Western actions, such as joint military exercises, is a show of "force" in order to attempt to establish the overall Western trend in the country.

By itself, such exercises are not of crucial importance since Russia cooperates with N.A.T.O. and the United States when it comes to military advice and intelligence. However, in the country that is entering a second year of its "identity crisis," smooth and successful actions with the West are critical to proving to the public that Ukraine can and should be oriented toward Western Europe and the United States. The recent protest is an unwelcome, and probably not the last, "bump" on the road to a pro-Western orientation.

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