Vienna, April 22 –Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich stands to gain from “the gas for fleet” agreement under which he agreed to allow Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to remain in Sevastopol until 2042 in exchange for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s reduction of gas prices for Ukrainian customers, even if the Verhovna Rada refuses to ratify it.
That is because, Vladimir Pribylovsky of Moscow’s Panorama Center says, “Yanukovich needs to strengthen the opinion of voters about himself, to build up his image which he offered in the recent presidential elections,” all the more so because there may soon be elections for the Rada “and [he] needs to retain these voters” (svpressa.ru/politic/article/24321/).
“For those who voted for Yanukovich, the presence of the Russian fleet in Crimea is either a good thing or a matter of indifference,” the Russian analyst says. “And the votes of those who consider that the fleet being there is a catastrophe and a loss of independence are ones Yanukovich would not get in any case.”
Holding his supporters is critical for Yanukovich given that a third of Ukrainian voters oppose extending the lease of the Russian Fleet beyond 2017 and another third appear indifferent to the matter. Yanukovich would lose his base by doing anything else, Pribylovsky says, and he would not gain those who now oppose him.
That is all the more so, the Moscow analyst says, because ratification of this agreement by the Ukrainian parliament is very much an open question. Indeed, he points out, Ukrainian leaders have much-practiced strategy: “The Ukrainian president signs something with Russia in order to receive some benefit and then the Verhovna Rada doesn’t ratify the accord.”
Indeed, both Kravchuk and Kuchma used this technique regarding the Black Sea Fleet. When the parliament refused to go along with what they had agreed to, they would “throw up their hands and say, well, our parliament has not confirmed it.” In Pribylovsky’s view, there is no reason that Yanukovich cannot do the same. He may even be planning on that.
While the Ukrainian president would appear to have a formal majority for his agreement in the parliament now, the Moscow analyst says, that majority is far from solid: Many joined it because they were against his opponents rather than for the new president’s program. Consequently, if they or he sees a reason to reject the accord, they may.
Asked whether Russia needs the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Pribylovsky responded that the fleet has “symbolic importance” as an indication that Russia has “gotten off its knees.” Were Russia forced to move it, “nothing terrible would happen but the hit on Russia’s view of itself would be enormous.”
But at the same time, if the fleet stays there, “for Ukrainian nationalists,” the Black Sea Fleet is “also a symbol,” but a symbol of Russia’s dominance of Ukraine or even its denial of the rights Ukraine has as an independent state. The only people who view the presence of the Russian fleet in other than symbolic terms are the people of Crimea.
Another analyst with whom “Svobodnaya pressa” spoke, Yevgeny Minchenko, the director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, said that in his view the accord was likely to be ratified in a “completely calm” way, unless the opposition is able to “block” the parliamentary tribune.
That is because, he said, most Ukrainians see the “gas for fleet” deal as profitable for Ukraine. Ukrainians get a real cut in the price of gas, “and the Black Sea Fleet – I am absolutely certain of this – represents no threat to the national interests of Ukraine.” Thus the trade was worth making from Ukraine’s point of view.
But there is one thing that this agreement may do, Minchenko says. It could “consolidate the opposition in Ukraine.” Up to now, there have been several, “but now they will be united.” That could make politics in Kyiv more interesting and more serious; at the very least, that possibility will be part of Yanukovich’s calculus about how hard he will push for ratification.