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Ukraine is divided on Russia

The ruling coalition is near collapse as leaders spar over how to treat their newly assertive neighbor.

September 15, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

KIEV, UKRAINE — They are at each other's throats again, this country's political lions: the president whose face is pocked from the poison that didn't quite kill him four years ago, and the prime minister with the golden braid who once fought alongside him in the name of democracy.

The president's office now calls Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko a traitor who refuses to speak out against Moscow. She shoots back that President Viktor Yushchenko is a loose cannon who has antagonized Russia to the point of endangering Ukraine.

The war in Georgia is over. But the war over the war in Georgia rages unabated in Ukraine, the former Soviet state that, like Georgia, has drawn the wrath of Moscow by building ties with the West. The collapse of this country's ruling coalition is widely expected to become official this week, the final gasp of a threadbare alliance that has barely hung together in recent months.

The delicate balance was upended by a widening dispute over how to respond to a newly aggressive Russia. The political turmoil is, in part, early jockeying for the 2010 presidential election, but it is also a clash over the existential angst that bedevils this country, where identity is stretched awkwardly between Russia and the West.

The war between Russia and Georgia has brought a sense of crisis and anxiety to the region. Fattened on oil and gas riches, Moscow has made it plain that it intends to exert power on neighbors formerly part of the Soviet Union, that it feels justified in demanding "privileged interests," as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev explained last month.

More than anyplace else, that means Ukraine, bonded to Moscow by deep, ancient imperial and cultural ties. To the fury of Moscow, Ukraine has emerged as a close ally of the United States, its leaders berating Russia as they lobby for membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But many Ukrainians continue to feel a strong affection and loyalty toward Russia.

Today, instead of pulling together and steeling for geopolitical maneuvers, the leaders of Ukraine are mired in internecine squabbles over what kind of country it should be and which loyalties it should foster. Like nothing else since the fall of the Soviet Union, the war in Georgia has laid bare Ukraine's weaknesses.

When Russia sent warplanes, tank columns and thousands of soldiers into Georgia last month, Yushchenko, long an outspoken critic of Moscow, was outraged. He flew to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to stand in solidarity with the Caucasus nation's president and imposed restrictions on Russia's Black Sea fleet, based in Ukraine under a long-standing agreement.

Tymoshenko, in contrast, drew attention with her silence. The prime minister dispatched an envoy to Tbilisi and sent humanitarian aid. But there was no condemnation of Russia, no feisty rhetoric.

The president's office accused her of "high treason and political corruption" and hinted it would open a criminal case against her.

"I think she struck a deal with the Kremlin. . . ," said Roman Zvarych, a lawmaker from Yushchenko's party. "You can't have a prime minister of a country be silent when your sovereign territory is being used as a base to attack your ally."

Last week, Tymoshenko was abruptly summoned by the prosecutor general for questioning in the near-fatal dioxin poisoning of Yushchenko in 2004.

The inquiry is nothing but a political ploy, her followers say.

For their part, they say the president has gone too far in criticizing Moscow. Not only has he whipped up tensions to a dangerous height, they say, but he also has alienated those Ukrainians who have ethnic and cultural ties to Russia and who are leery of invoking its wrath.

That view seems to be gaining credibility. Yushchenko's approval ratings are in the single digits, analysts from all camps say.

"Support for [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili by Yushchenko angered Russia and woke up that bear that's been sleeping for a long time," said Hanna Herman, a lawmaker with the Moscow-friendly Party of Regions. "Now, Ukraine has the worst relations with Russia in the history of its independence."

Today's Kiev, the capital, is a battle-hardened place long drained of the pro-democracy, anti-Russia fervor of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which swept Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to power. The onetime tent city of Independence Square is a clot of black-clad youth, locked into clinging embraces, drinking cheap beer and bellowing rock songs.

Kiev hums with politics: local politics, politics for their own sake, games for stakes of power and cash. Everybody has a press aide. Even the press aides seem to have press aides. All of them want to talk to the media, unless they are plotting some new, subtle subterfuge, then they stay silent.

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