Mykola Lazarenko/AP
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko
and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Gas Price Conflict Latest Sign of Divisive Ukrainian Politics

January 23, 2009 11:00 AM
by Josh Katz
The recent gas price conflict between Ukraine and Russia underscores the lingering dispute between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko, and the paralytic effect it has had on government.

Ukrainian Leaders Quarrel Over Gas Deal

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko called the agreement she forged in Moscow over gas prices a “victory” for Ukraine, and argued that the National Security and Defense Council does not have the authority to kill the deal, Reuters reports.

President Viktor Yushchenko, however, has argued that the deal, which allows Ukraine to pay 20 percent less for its gas than Western European countries, is not in the best interests of Ukraine. While not referring to the prime minister by name, Yushchenko said, "We must not blindly believe alluring promises. We must not blindly believe politicians who, within an instant, betray the national interest,” according to Reuters.

The prime minister was similarly disparaging about Yushchenko’s leadership during the episode. “I believe that if the president could have secured better conditions, there was no one to stop him,” Reuters reports her as saying.

The Russians allegedly looked to Tymoshenko to negotiate the gas dispute because she is considered more “flexible” than Yushchenko. Although she is a “nationalist,” she does not focus as much of her attention on Ukraine’s NATO membership as her counterpart does. But Ian Bremmer of Foreign Policy notes that the clash between the two has essentially paralyzed decision-making in Kiev and, “Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych is waiting for both to fail.”

Tymoshenko has also been highly critical of the way Yushchenko has handled the economy and the country’s central bank, Reuters writes. In her comments about the gas accord she asserted that, “speculative maneuvers led to such an abrupt and groundless fall in the hryvnia (currency), which has placed the economy in such a difficult position.”

The next Ukrainian presidential election is not for another year, but Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian ally who was first declared the winner of the corrupt 2004 presidential elections, currently leads in early polls. Tymoshenko is close behind with Yushchenko “far behind,” according to Reuters.

Background: The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko split

The strained relationship between the two leaders has taken its toll on the country, which is currently struggling with serious economic issues. Yulia Mostova, a writer at Dzerkalo Tyzhnya, a weekly newspaper published in Kiev, told The New York Times in November 2008 that, “The chain of authority in Ukraine is broken. It’s at war with itself.”

When the Times wrote the article, Yushchenko had tried to force snap elections in order to get rid of Tymoshenko.

Yushchenko has taken an antagonistic approach toward Russia, while Tymoshenko has become more conciliatory. Yushchenko sided with Georgia during the clash between that nation and Russia, and he has been a strong advocate for Ukrainian membership in NATO. Russian opposition has successfully thwarted that membership so far, as Russia fears NATO’s influence on its doorstep.

The New York Times spells out how Ukraine’s leadership woes and political and economic troubles are significant for the West: “It is a country of 46 million in a strategic spot between European Union countries and Russia, and its stability is crucial to the region.”

Historical Context: Orange Revolution; Yushchenko’s poisoning

In November 2004, Ukraine held its third presidential election since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The battle between pro-West and pro-Russian politicians soon boiled down to a contest between their respective presidential candidates: Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych.

In September, Yushchenko fell ill, and accused his opponents of poisoning him. He recovered in time for the election in November, but the formerly telegenic politician returned to campaigning with a face disfigured by toxins. Yanukovych won the November election, but the results were annulled amid accusations of vote rigging. A rerun was held in December in which Yushchenko and his “Orange” party took power, and Yulia Tymoshenko became prime minister. Ukraine’s shift to the pro-Western Yushchenko is known as the “Orange Revolution.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines