The good and the bad of the egg-tossing in Ukraine's parliament
Smoke filled the Ukrainian parliament Tuesday, and the speaker needed an umbrella to shield himself from tossed eggs.
From this chaotic scene two conclusions emerged. First: Ukraine is still a democracy, though a sometimes rowdy one. And second: Russia, which has traded freedom for a revived imperialism under Vladimir Putin, will have a chokehold on its most important neighbor for decades to come.
The second judgment results from the fact that the chaos in Kiev did not prevent the assembled deputies from ratifying, by a thin margin of ten votes, a new treaty that will extend Russia’s hold on a Black Sea naval base for 25 years, in exchange for discounted natural gas. Russia’s fleet in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, which was established by Catherine the Great, had been authorized to remain until 2017; now, in theory at least, it will be there until 2042.
In exchange Ukraine’s new president, Viktor Yanukovych, won from Putin a 30 percent discount on the natural gas Russia supplies Ukraine -- a subsidy Yanukovych said would be worth $40 billion. The money will help the cash-starved government meet the terms of a new IMF agreement and boost the energy-hungry heavy industries that are the backbone of Ukraine’s economy -- and also of Yanukovych’s political base.
The smoke bombs and eggs reflect the conviction of Ukraine’s more pro-Western opposition that Yanukovych has sold the country’s sovereignty to Putin, who notoriously hungers to recreate something like the former Soviet Union. And it’s certainly the case that the deal will prevent Ukraine from joining either NATO or the European Union anytime soon. Unless it adjusts its economy to pay a market price for gas, Ukraine will be unfit to join the single European market. Russia will retain the means to blackmail its governments by threatening to revoke the subsidy or shut down the gas -- as it did several times during the tenure of the previous, pro-Western government.
Still, it seems as likely as not that Putin will end up the loser in this deal. In the pointless pursuit of a superpower status that Russia has irretrievably lost, the Kremlin boss has committed his country to tens of billions in costly subsidies in order to keep a base for a rusting fleet it cannot afford to modernize or maintain. True, Putin plans to spend billions more to buy amphibious assault ships from France but the Black Sea fleet will remain a monument to Putin’s imperial fantasies, rather than a source of actual power.
Yanukovych, meanwhile, has already made it clear that he plans to balance Ukraine’s relations between Russia and the West. During a recent visit to Washington he sealed a deal on nuclear security with President Obama and said completing a free trade agreement with the European Union was a top priority. Since Ukraine remains a democracy, its president -- and the base agreement -- will be subject to the decisions of the country’s voters, who demonstrated during the 2004 Orange revolution that they will not tolerate subjugation to Russia.
All this means that if Russia were a democracy, the deal with Ukraine might have prompted some egg tossing in its legislature, the Duma. Instead, its deputies obediently ratified the treaty an hour after Ukraine acted, with 400 out of 450 voting in favor. That may have looked better than the melee in Ukraine, at least to observers such as Putin. But the real losers in the day’s events will be the people of Russia, whose own hopes of joining the 21st century have been sacrificed for an 18th-century base.
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