Russia-Ukraine: bridge building?

What was the upshot of the recent Kiev meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents? Will the bridge between the two countries be built? Maria Starozhitskaya argues that, in spite of the agreements signed, rapprochement will be slowed down – and the bridge is not such a good idea anyway.
Maria Starozhitskaya
26 May 2010
Medvedev, Yanukovich

The atmosphere of the meeting was not spoiled by the heavy rain. Both presidents joked about it. Yanukovych said rain always brought money. “I hope this rain has washed away everything negative that was done in the previous period – added Medvdev. (Source of the photo: President of Ukraine official web site)

Experts have yet to agree if President Medvedev actually achieved what he wanted from his recent visit to Ukraine. But everyone there is well satisfied. 

The opposition has taken the credit for the fact that, thanks to their timely protest demonstrations and statements by the intelligentsia, Ukraine has not been totally handed over to Russia. Yanukovych and his cronies came to their senses and gave the necessary thumbs-down to the Russian proposal to unite “Naftogaz” and “Gazprom”, which would have meant the disappearance of the Ukrainian company.  This gives hope that the document currently to be found in the internet about “secret” Russian plans for Ukraine is mere provocation and disinformation.   The “plans” include not only a gas transport consortium, but also the unification of the Black Sea fleets, the creation of a single navigation space and the integration of the Russian and Ukrainian aviation industries.

Government representatives are pleased too, though they were somewhat put out by the Russian Head of State’s announcement that the gas pipeline “Southern Stream” would be built, whether Ukraine wanted it or not, and that Russia had no intentions of giving any guarantees on gas volumes to be pumped through Ukrainian pipelines. This is certainly upsetting. The Ukrainian government only stated it was looking for ways to cooperate with Russia exclusively on terms that would be mutually beneficial, but over the five years when the Russian and Ukrainian presidents didn’t meet, the Russian leadership managed to define its own advantages. And now Russia is moving steadily forward on that five-year plan.

So far it’s the students of Shevchenko National University that are hoping for the quickest and most tangible benefit from the Kiev meeting between the two presidents. At that meeting Medvedev drank tea from a white cup with a gold rim.  He left it behind after his lecture and it has already up for sale at auction with a price of $1000.    Apparently there are potential buyers. The party “Brotherhood” set the same starting price for a fir wreath, which a gust of wind blew on to the head of President Yanukovych while the presidents were laying flowers at the grave of the Unknown Soldier. Yanukovych held on to the wreath and struggled with it for several seconds. After the ceremony it was promptly stolen and put up for sale. The management of the presidential administration has described the initiators of the sale as looters, and demanded that they face criminal charges. International experts on freedom of speech are studying whether the administration’s confiscation of videos of the incident from journalists, and their subsequent demands not to show it live on air, constitute censorship.

What actually happened was that the presidents had an official meeting, then said goodbye. Viktor Yanukovych’s words at their joint press conference could serve as an epigraph to the meeting “No work can be done at this speed”. This has already been interpreted to mean that the speed at which Russia proposed to take over Ukrainian national interests was too much for our leaders. Time now to slow down and count one’s losses…. In a word, a typical meeting, as has been before and will be again. But such is the expectation in Ukraine that the new government will do something excitingly different, that almost every one of the documents that were signed has been studied and interpreted.

The political declaration that Russia and Ukraine would work together for a settlement in Transnistria is regarded as Ukraine’s geopolitical loss. This is because Ukraine adopted Russia’s position on “regulating the conflict between Transnistria and Moldova on the basis of territorial integrity and constitutional neutrality”. So Transnistria remains in the Russian zone of influence and under the supervision of a Russian battalion. Unless the whole country comes under Russian influence, any possibility that Moldova’s territorial integrity might be restored goes out of the window. 

Another document concerns completion of the demarcation of Ukrainian borders, without touching on the issue of delimitation. It’s true that this will make the long-awaited Ukrainian integration into Europe easier. But postponing the division of previously undivided maritime territory –  the Azov Sea and the Strait of Kerch – only shows that Russia does not intend to concede its interests in the marine shelf of the Ukrainian-Russian border.

This is of particular importance, given the plans to build the Kerch-Kuban bridge.  This project has inspired both Yanukovich and Medvedev: it involves building a bridge on stilts that is 4.5 kilometres long and 50 metres high to connect the ports “Krym” and “Kavkaz”. So the next meeting between the presidents of the two countries, planned for next autumn, will be likely to involve compromises.

One of them has perhaps already been outlined: during talks in Kiev, the Russian side said that Ukraine’s Soviet property located abroad should be handed over to Russia. That is to say, Ukraine will be forced to return to its big brother property it has hung on to over 20 years, which has in many ways served as the basis for its foreign policy. Why? All because of the supposedly cheap gas, for which payment will increase morally, rather than materially…

What is already clear is that, of the agreements signed, the most costly for the Ukrainian side will be the one that concerns the “humanitarian sphere”. The Ukrainian Minister for Education and Science Tabachnik announced the publication by the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic year of a new Ukrainian-Russian history textbook for secondary school teachers. Which means that there will be a unified approach to the common history of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. But, believe me, teachers can’t change their views as frequently as the education ministry would like. Of course, they will be interested to read this textbook. But Ukrainian pupils will continue to study according to the old system. They will choose their answers to suit the people giving them the marks and form their opinion based on information from various sources.

The new Ukrainian government will actually behave in the same way. Not all the Moscow proposals correspond to Ukrainian interests, and Ukrainian oligarchs also like the national enterprises that Russian business has its eye on. The prospect of Russian business, with its dynamic and aggressive nature, making an appearance in this country, brings no joy to Ukrainian entrepreneurs. One of the participants of the business forum held during the meeting between the two presidents said as much “off the record”.  Ukraine has become the victim of its own hospitality. That is to say, the Ukrainians accepted and supported the Russian proposals, but their own proposals to the Russians were met with either harsh rejections or vague promises for the future.

So the main lesson of the Kiev presidential meeting is that the speed of rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia will be considerably slowed down. And it seems that we will quietly start bickering… This suits the general population, the government, and the opposition.  The present status of Ukraine, which has still not accepted the CIS charter, also suits us, as the Ukrainian foreign minister Konstantin Grishchenko said recently. We are in no hurry to join a union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, especially since these nations have not even been able to reach an agreement on a customs union.

Looking at the map, the Kerch-Kuban bridge is wonderful and convenient. But if the multi-billion construction begins in earnest, then we won’t really want the bridge: the volume of cargo traffic between the two countries is insufficient and the shifting ground will prove an insuperable obstacle for construction.  And, should anything go wrong, the unfinished bridge will be all too symbolic….

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