[b]Ukraine and Belarus enter new level of mutual relations[/b]Viktor Yanukovych’s victory at the presidential elections is hardly a surprise to anyone but has drastically changed the political landscape in Ukraine. Moreover, it has seriously changed the position of forces on the region’s geopolitical map. Relations between Kiev and Moscow are entering a period of trust — which neither Europe nor the USA opposes. The European Union is currently rehabilitating its own economy and the euro, so is unable to take on the financial problems of Ukraine. Brussels has clearly let our southern neighbour know that it won’t be accepted into the EU — either in the short or long term, and Kiev understands. As regards the USA, Barack Obama’s administration believes it’s far more important to co-operate with Russia on such issues as nuclear disarmament rather than to compete for post-Soviet territory. ‘Ukraine can be on friendly terms with both of us’, wrote The New York Times — known to be the voice of American democrats.
Viktor Yanukovych’s victory at the presidential elections is hardly a surprise to anyone but has drastically changed the political landscape in Ukraine. Moreover, it has seriously changed the position of forces on the region’s geopolitical map. Relations between Kiev and Moscow are entering a period of trust — which neither Europe nor the USA opposes. The European Union is currently rehabilitating its own economy and the euro, so is unable to take on the financial problems of Ukraine. Brussels has clearly let our southern neighbour know that it won’t be accepted into the EU — either in the short or long term, and Kiev understands. As regards the USA, Barack Obama’s administration believes it’s far more important to co-operate with Russia on such issues as nuclear disarmament rather than to compete for post-Soviet territory. ‘Ukraine can be on friendly terms with both of us’, wrote The New York Times — known to be the voice of American democrats.
Of course, Belarus is not a geopolitical force on the continent but it has its own national interests regarding Ukraine. Minsk is more interested in strengthening the bilateral contacts achieved during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency; we could even make them warmer under Mr. Yanukovych’s rule. Belarus and Ukraine are natural allies in many spheres: dialogue with Russia, transit, energy, the alleviation of Chernobyl consequences, the European direction of foreign policy and the Eastern Partnership programme. The pragmatism of collaboration is evident and direct contacts are being made. It’s vital to take into account the psyche of Mr. Yanukovych. He was born in Vitebsk region and, during one of his previous visits, went to his famous village of Yanuki. Recently, this Ukrainian President with a Belarusian family name made one of his first top level visits to Minsk, as promised.
Ukraine is an important strategic partner for Belarus. Setting aside geopolitical issues and relying on data, we see that, in 2008, Ukraine occupied third place as our trading partner (Belarus was the seventh largest trading partner for Ukraine). That year, bilateral turnover reached almost $5bn — a significant figure, taking into account that, in the previous three years, it had already tripled. Growth has been unprecedented, so it’s no surprise that bilateral political relations have been actively developing…
Today’s goal is to restore trade lost during the global crisis. In 2009, turnover fell by almost 40 percent but, in the first months of 2010, it rose by almost 25 percent (in comparison to the pre-crisis period). Mr. Yanukovych believes we could achieve $4bn of mutual trade this year. Despite difficulties, another five joint enterprises have been launched. Additionally, five more branded stores have opened — selling ‘Serge’ underwear and ‘Marusya’ children’s clothes. At present, over 100 commodity distribution networks are operational in Ukraine, selling Belarusian products. We are moving from direct trade to higher forms of co-operation. Assembly facilities for Belarusian tractors, lifts and other equipment have opened in Ukraine and the recent presidential meeting aimed to inspire greater collaboration, including between businessmen.
Strategic decisions are another focus. Minsk and Kiev have already demonstrated their readiness to agree on the most complicated problems. Mr. Lukashenko agreed the ratification of an agreement on the Belarus-Ukraine state border, with procedures finalised by the Belarusian Parliament on the eve of Mr. Yanukovych’s visit. For a long time, the agreement remained signed but unratified as Minsk and Kiev could not settle the financial issues dating from Soviet times. Pleasingly, relations are now on a better footing, allowing practical issues to be solved.
The presidents’ face-to-face talks in Minsk lasted six hours. As Mr. Lukashenko noted on meeting his guest, the arrival of Mr. Yanukovych in Belarus ‘is not a courtesy visit but a respectful visit’. The presidents had no plans to conclude any grand agreements; the list of documents ready to be signed included only short agreements between culture ministries. However, the air was laden with expectation as the leaders chatted behind closed doors in the Presidential Residence’s Blue Hall. As journalists readied their dictaphones, and cameras awaited Mr. Lukashenko and Mr. Yanukovych, someone from the organisational staff suddenly ran into the room. “Where is the Energy Minster? Call him quickly! Bring an additional chair for him,” he cried. Besides the heads of the two presidents’ administrations and foreign ministers, the presence of energy heads was suddenly needed, stirring speculation.
Of course, it’s no great surprise. Not long ago, a tanker from Venezuela docked at Odessa, bringing 80,000 tonnes of light ‘Santa Barbara’ oil for Belarus’ Mozyr Refinery. If everything goes well — as it should do — supplies of raw fuel (so important for us) will be arriving via Ukraine for years to come. In turn, Ukraine plans to generate $120-130m from the transit of four million tonnes of Venezuelan oil to Belarus (via its territory). This has been announced by Ukraine’s Transport and Communications Minister, Konstantin Efimenko. Kiev has proposed extremely profitable railway tariffs for Minsk. If the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline comes into operation, it will be a real breakthrough in the field of energy security — for Belarus and Ukraine. The latter has been unable to fill this pipeline’s capacity alone, being obliged to run it in reverse mode — pumping Russian oil (from which it was initially planned to at least partially deviate).
Venezuelan oil is one avenue of co-operation. Kiev is also keen to liaise with Caracas, as Belarus has done. Meanwhile, Hugo Chбvez is interested in the new Ukrainian President. Belarus and Ukraine have broad opportunities open to them if they act together, since the lion’s share of oil products transits via our countries from Russia to the EU. A Ukrainian song tells us: ‘Together, we are rich’. Of course, it’s from another political age but the meaning remains topical. “I’m convinced that we’ll be able to change the geopolitical situation, making our geographical position work to the benefit of our people,” noted Mr. Lukashenko. “We’ll always look for possibilities to unite — to protect our national interests,” added Mr. Yanukovych.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that, on the eve of his leaving Kiev for Minsk, Mr. Yanukovych signed a document allowing the extension of the stationing of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea for several decades. As he personally admitted, this was not an easy decision, perhaps as difficult as Hetman Khmelnitsky writing a letter to Russian Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich. There was no need to receive Mr. Yanukovych’s confession, since his appearance on the Verkhovna Rada Ukrainian TV Channel was telling. It’s not hard to imagine public feeling on this matter. However, the Kremlin left no other choice to the new Ukrainian President.
Recently, Ukraine has been purchasing Russian gas at the highest price in Europe — without taking into account the expense of transportation. The previous contract with the Kremlin was tortuous for Ukraine, rather like being placed on the rack. However, it led to major chemical and other energy-intensive branches becoming unprofitable, with the hrivna losing strength against other currencies. Most importantly, it was impossible to outline a good budget; consequently, it was impossible to receive promised anti-crisis loans from the IMF.
Being well aware of the situation, Moscow decided to push Ukraine towards a compromise: the promise not to join NATO was not enough. Sevastopol is another important focus for Russia and the existing agreement was due to finish in 2017. Judging by Ukrainian law and public opinion, no foreign military would have been allowed to remain within the country’s territory.
Mr. Yanukovych went to Moscow to solve the economic problems of his country and, in this respect, he succeeded, receiving a discount of $40bn over ten years (he wrongly reproved himself at the press conference). Ukraine is receiving this money now but who knows what will happen in 25 or 30 years’ time. The President will change and, probably, energy sources will also shift. America has found an application for its shale gas and refused Russian supplies....
Russia is making an increasing number of demands of Ukraine, which are difficult to refuse. Moreover, Moscow isn’t satisfied with symbolic gestures — like the abolishment of national hero status for Stepan Bandera. Vladimir Putin wants to unite Naftogas and Gazprom (with ‘unite’ meaning ‘absorb’ — the two companies can hardly be compared). Even those on Mr. Yanukovych’s side have been taken aback by this incredible idea. In recent years, the pipeline has become a symbol of independence — like the Pylyp Orlyk Constitution (Ukrainians believe Hetman Pylup Orlyk made the first constitution worldwide, not just in Ukraine)…
Belarus and Ukraine would benefit from each other’s support in a range of issues. As Mr. Lukashenko stressed on summing up the long talks, with mutual respect and consideration of partners’ interests, a solution can be found to any problem. He hopes a broad programme can be formed, ‘significantly contributing to strengthening the sovereignty and independence of our countries, while greatly enhancing the role of our region across Europe’.
“Another party is nervous regarding our relations but we won’t turn against anyone,” noted Mr. Lukashenko. “Belarus won’t become embroiled in geo-strategic games; it’s not in our interests. I doubt it’s to the benefit of Ukraine either. We have similar problems: we need to build our economies to raise living conditions to match those of the European states we border and those situated far away,” he added.
These two European leaders are well aware of the role their policy plays on the continent and, with this in mind, European affairs were discussed in much detail. The Belarusian President mentioned the ‘road map’ (a notion common in Western diplomacy) which relates to developing bilateral relations, for example, in the sphere of electricity supply to the Baltic States.
Minsk and Kiev can and must speak in unification to the East and to the West. The Eastern Partnership is, of course, stalling now that Brussels is engaged in saving Greece and the Euro. However, there are no grounds to doubt that this huge European structure will somehow ‘digest’ the Greek problem and return to its neighbours in the future. Belarus and Ukraine are offering the EU a range of projects which look beneficial to everyone within the Eastern Partnership.
Mr. Yanukovych also mentioned another European organisation with whom he believes liaisons are vital: the Council of Europe. “Much has been done to bring Belarusian legislation in line with that of Europe,” he admitted. “You are gradually moving forward.” According to the Ukrainian President, Belarus will soon become a Council of Europe member — although contacts between Minsk and Strasbourg are limited to the PACE initiative at present. Mr. Yanukovych is the next potential chairman of the organisation, since Ukraine is to head the Council in 2012. He notes that this will, ‘open new possibilities for the development of co-operation on issues interesting to both parties’.
Mr. Lukashenko has managed to establish trusting relations with the last two Ukrainian presidents, although Mr. Yanukovych and Mr. Yushchenko are not on friendly terms themselves. Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of Mr. Yanukovych’s Belarusian roots, although this adds a pleasant flavour to our relations. Meanwhile, this year, Ukraine is celebrating the 300th anniversary of its Pylyp Orlyk Constitution. When schoolchildren in Kiev, Chernigov and Lvov study his life, they’ll discover that their famous Hetman was born not far from Minsk…
By Igor Kolchenko