Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ukraine: Riot In Parliament Over Pragmatic Law

By now you’ve likely seen the video of the absolute brawl that broke out in Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday over the passage of a deal pushed by President Viktor Yanukovych to extend Russia’s lease on their naval base at Sevastopol, Ukraine (home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet). But in case you haven’t, or would just like to see it again, you can check out the video clip below.

Ukraine’s opposition parties threw eggs, smoke bombs and tried to unfurl a giant Ukrainian flag, all to protest the deal, which they say is a complete sell-out on the part of Yanukovych to Moscow. A little background: Sevastopol has been the home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for more than 200 years; Sevastopol and the rest of the Crimean peninsula were themselves part of Russia until 1954, when in an act of Soviet solidarity, then Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred ownership of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. At the time, it was no big deal since both were part of the Soviet Union, after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 though it became a very big sore point between the two now-independent nations. Russia quickly struck an agreement to lease the Sevastopol base until 2017; a date that much to the Russians dismay is now rapidly approaching. Under the terms of the new deal, approved by the parliament under a hail of flying eggs, that lease is now extended for 25 years until 2042. Not coincidentally, Russia also struck a deal with Ukraine to subsidize natural gas sales, a move Russian sources say will cost their country up to $45 billion over the next ten years.

Strong feelings on the part of the Ukrainian opposition aside, the deal Yanukovych signed got rid of two lingering problems for Ukraine – the almost annual feud they’ve had with Russia in recent years over non-payment of bills for natural gas, and the question of what would happen in Sevastopol later this decade. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet makes up a sizable portion of their naval force and helps to provide security to southwestern Russia, so the base is vital to Russia’s military operations. Thanks to the long history of the naval base at Sevastopol, and because retired sailors often settle near where they served once they retire, nearly 60% of Crimea’s population are ethnic Russians. To make matters more complicated, Crimea has autonomous status within Ukraine and recently Russia began issuing Russian passports to ethnic Russians living in Crimea (even if they are already Ukrainian citizens), much like they did with ethnic Russians living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s five-day conflict with Georgia in August 2008 was motivated in part by Russia coming to the defense of “Russian passport holders” (their term) living in the two territories, which Georgia claimed as their own. Some Russia experts I spoke with would not rule out a version of this scenario playing out in Crimea if Ukraine tried to forcibly evict Russia from Sevastopol in 2017 – Russian passport holders in Crimea rising up and demanding independence from Ukraine, with Russia stepping in militarily on behalf of their “passport holders.”

So by striking the base-for-natural gas deal that he got, Yanukovych managed to get rid of the gas payments that had been a serious drag on the Ukrainian economy, while also kicking the base closure question far enough down the road that it will not be a problem for at least a generation (assuming that a future, more nationalist Ukrainian government doesn’t try to renege on the lease agreement). All in all, it was a pragmatic move by the new Ukrainian president, even if it was not a politically popular one.
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