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Gas Crisis Deepens a Rift in Ukraine's Pro-Western Camp

A pro-Moscow party leads in polls ahead of parliamentary elections as Viktor Yushchenko and his former ally Yulia Tymoshenko spar.

January 09, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

KIEV, Ukraine — After last week's signing of a five-year natural gas agreement with Russia, President Viktor Yushchenko was basking in self-congratulation. "I would call it a brilliant achievement," he told Ukraine's NTN television.

But former ally Yulia Tymoshenko thought otherwise. "Only a person with a huge New Year's hangover can call this a success," declared Tymoshenko, who was a partner in the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought Yushchenko to power and was his prime minister until last fall. "It's clear that the government has systematically and consciously betrayed the national interests of Ukraine."

Just a little more than a year ago, the duo were a "dream team" that stood, hands clenched triumphantly together in the air, in Kiev's Independence Square. For much of the world, they came to symbolize democratic aspirations throughout the former Soviet republics.

But just two months before parliamentary elections that could make or break Yushchenko's efforts to steer Ukraine toward Europe, the showdown with Russia over gas has left the two reformists more divided than ever.

In an alarming sign for Ukrainian liberals, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party got just 13.7% in a poll taken before the gas deal, putting it in third place, trailing Tymoshenko's bloc.

Leading the pack is the party of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed candidate who faced Yushchenko in 2004 and was defeated only after hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians occupied the streets and demanded new elections. His party now commands 26.6% in the polls.

Many here felt Russia's move to quadruple natural gas prices was an attempt to punish Ukraine for its drift to the West. It presented the Yushchenko administration with its most serious crisis yet -- the prospect of billions of dollars in higher gas costs.

Yushchenko successfully called on a broad range of Ukrainians to rally against the Russian enemy and emerged with a pact that he said guaranteed the nation "true independence" where it counts. "We have guaranteed ourselves a stable gas supply in the next five years, and this is the most important thing, believe me," he said. But Tymoshenko has charged that Russia shrewdly outmaneuvered Ukraine and took home a deal that gave it almost everything it wanted.

Last week, cellphone text messages spread through Ukraine, recalling the history of famine, secret police arrests, and other low points in Ukraine's history with Russia: "Remember gasoline? Tuzla? Famine? NKVD terror? ... Don't buy Russian gas. If you are a Ukrainian, send this to your friends."

Of course, most Ukrainians are only too well aware that when it's 5 degrees and snowing outside, boycotting Russian gas is hardly an option.

"Russia is our closest neighbor, and he should be supporting our closest neighbor," said Larissa Svyetenko, 56, a Kiev homemaker who, like many Ukrainians, had misgivings over Yushchenko's handling of the conflict.

"Russia just wants to strangle Ukraine. It doesn't want to lose its influence, especially if it's a very tasty piece of pie," Larissa Sokolovskaya, a retired publisher, countered.

The difference in perceptions defined the presidential election a year ago, when Yanukovich and Yushchenko split the tally during two rounds of voting.

The rift has scarcely healed since then.

Now, the split with Tymoshenko is fragmenting the pro-Western camp, amid growing disillusion with events of the last year.

Although tax revenue has skyrocketed with a clampdown on corruption, overall economic growth is down and prices are up. Foreign investment is a fraction of what the new government hoped it would be.

Yushchenko's supporters blamed much of the difficulty on the populist economic policies of Tymoshenko, who threw investors into retreat when she threatened to nationalize about 3,500 businesses and imposed controls to check skyrocketing gasoline prices.

Since the pair split ways in September, they have traded insinuations of corruption in each other's camp, producing more dismay than outrage among their supporters.

"We hoped that the responsibilities assumed by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko would prevail over their personal ambitions. We hoped that cravings for power would not trump efforts to meet the people's needs," the weekly Zerkalo Nedeli wrote in the fall. "What we did not expect was that so soon and bitter would be the disappointment."

When former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko returned to Ukraine to run for parliament, he joined neither Yushchenko's nor Tymoshenko's party -- though he had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Orange Revolution and had worn an orange flag on his boxing trunks during his last title fight.

Instead, Klitschko is running under a new alliance formed in part by the youth group Pora, whose supporters flocked to Independence Square a year ago but have been critical of the government's progress since.

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