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Amb. Steven Pifer Comments on Prospect of Early Elections in Ukraine, Their Implications

  • Voice America
  • Ukrainian Service

Interview with Brookings Institute Visiting Fellow and former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer. The interview was conducted by Myroslava Honhadze of VOA’s Ukrainian Service a few hours before President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko dissolved parliament last week.

On Ukraine’s Chances for a NATO Membership Action Plan in December

“It seems to me that the chances for Ukraine getting a Membership Action Plan in December are practically zero. And actually that’s really because of a couple of reasons. One is, for countries like Germany, obviously, there is the Russian reaction. But the other question, and this goes back to April and the Bucharest summit, is – does the government, does the prime minister support the president’s policy on the Membership Action Plan. So right now there seem to be three scenarios, the most likely of which appears to be new elections. If there are new elections in December or January and when NATO foreign ministers meet in December, they won’t know who the next prime minister is going to be, let alone whether he or she will support a Membership Action Plan. And the other two scenarios would be either an alignment between Regions and the Tymoshenko Bloc or a reconstitution of the Orange coalition between Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko Bloc in the next couple of days, but both of those scenarios would be very unlikely. It would seem to me that the Regions-Tymoshenko alignment is not going to produce a government that supports a Membership Action Plan. And even if you put back the Orange Coalition, after the problems and the debates between them and the infighting of the last couple of months, I’m not sure European governments are going to see that as sustainable. The other factor seems to me the U.S. government will continue to want to support Ukraine for a Membership Action Plan, but the problem is that in December it’s going to be the final days of the Bush Administration. That administration is just not going to have the diplomatic clout to make a MAP happen.”

On President Yushchenko’s Agenda and His Visit to Washington, DC

“It seems to me as an outside observer, and bear in mind I’m watching this from four thousand miles away, but I do think President Yushchenko was very clear when he was in Washington that he supports the Membership Action Plan, he thinks it makes sense for Ukraine’s foreign policy course. But he’s also got the domestic political situation and the politics there. Politics are politics. They are very important in Ukraine, they are very important obviously in the United States right now. But in terms of the political course he has chosen, that complicates his desire to achieve a Membership Action Plan. Like I said, I think it’s going to be very hard, almost impossible to see it happen in December.”

More on the President Yushchenko’s Visit to Washington, DC

“Well, I think there are a couple of things here. I mean, you know, first of all, something was different in September from in July, and that is you had the conflict between Russia and Georgia. I’m not sure that represents a threat to Ukraine, but certainly this more assertive Russian foreign policy is a challenge for Ukraine. So it seems to me that a big part of that visit, having President Yushchenko meet with President Bush in the Oval Office, was basically to reaffirm U.S. support, to try to be bolstering of Ukraine. Because there are questions, given what happened in Georgia, does this now mean that Russia is going to behave in a different way towards Ukraine?”

On Whether President Yushchenko was looking for US Support in Ukraine’s Internal Political Squabbles

“I’m not sure. That’s a question you really have to ask President Yushchenko. But I think he probably understands, I mean, American policy’s been pretty consistent on this question. And even Secretary of Defense Gates made the point, I think, even today, is that, you know, deciding who will be the next prime minister for Ukraine, that’s a decision for Ukrainians. The U.S. government’s point of view, as far as I understand it, is we will work with whatever government is in Ukraine. I mean that’s for Ukrainians to decide, whether it’s a government headed by Tymoshenko or somebody else. My sense, though, is that, in talking with some people in the U.S. government, that if they had their choice, they would have liked to see the government continue, as opposed to new elections. And the problem here is, because the sense is that time is being lost and the opportunities are being lost, and the focus in Kiev seems to be on politics, rather than actually governing the country. And here is the scenario that I think worries some people if you want to see Ukraine move forward. If there are elections now, if those elections are held in, say, in December or January, it’s hard to get something done in terms of serious policy during elections. It’s hard in Ukraine. Certainly it’s hard here in the United States right now when we’re just a month out from our elections. But then, based on what we saw in 2006 or 2007, after the election it may take two or three months for Ukraine to form a coalition in the Rada and choose a prime minister. So that takes you maybe to April or early May. At that point you’re only six or seven months from the presidential elections, so everyone focuses on the presidential election. So the concern here is that – it’s my concern, but I also think it’s shared by some in the U.S. government – is that, you know, politics could dominate the next year and a half in Ukraine and it makes it hard for Ukraine to do things in terms of policies that Ukraine needs to push.

On Whether Early Election Will Have a Weakening Effect on Ukraine

“I’ll give you two answers to that. The first answer is -- there’s a lot of confidence, at least I have, that however the politics play out, it’s going to be democratic. I mean it seems all the major political forces -- Yushchenko, Tymoshenko, Yanukovych – understand that you’ve got to play by democratic rules and the Constitution. And that’s a good thing. It means Ukraine, fundamentally, is going to have democratic stability. The other side of the answer, though, is again that while you have the political debate going on, you’re not getting things accomplished, you’re not pursuing policies. I think, again, because I’m a little bit concerned, I wouldn’t call it a threat to Ukraine, but there’s a challenge -- in Moscow. And the question in my mind is – given this more assertive Russian foreign policy that you’re seeing now – is this a time for the Ukrainian leadership to be divided? You know, I think this would be the time really where it would make more sense to come together. Likewise, there are opportunities, the Membership Action Plan, that I think are going to be lost because the political infighting in Ukraine creates a situation where Germany and some of those countries that don’t support a Membership Action Plan could say, well, it’s not just about the Russian concern, it’s about we don’t have confidence in the sustainability of the political line within Kiev.”

On the Stance of John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s Campaigns on Ukraine

“My sense is that when you look at what both campaigns have said, what both candidates have said, I think – and this reflects the fact that support for Ukraine going back to 1993-1994 has really been a bi-partisan issue. I mean both sides support it. And certainly there’s not much difference when you look at what Senator McCain has said and what Senator Obama has said. They both support strong relations with Ukraine. They both support a Membership Action Plan. So, I think they differ on some questions, but I don’t think Ukraine is one of them.”

On Whether John McCain Can Be Perceived As Tougher on Russia

“It may be. But I think in both campaigns there is concern about Russia, I mean, certainly what we saw in August changed the assessment in Washington, and I think elsewhere in Europe about the rules that the Russians are prepared to play by. And it’s caused a greater degree of concern.”

On the Russia-Georgia Conflict and Possible Solutions to It

“I think it’s a difficult way forward. I mean, there’s a situation now where the next big event is – for October 15 the European Union has organized a meeting in Geneva to talk about it. But I think there are going to be some tough questions. One of the questions is – how and if so are South Ossetia and Abkhazia represented. The Russians are saying South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be represented as independent states. That conflicts completely with the American policy and the European Union policy and the policy of every other country in the world, except for Russia and Nicaragua, of non-recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So they are going to have to work that question out. But I think there are also some other issues, I mean, the question of the implementation of the six-point plan that was agreed by [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. And it seems to me that there are two tough points on that. One of those points called for not only the Georgian forces but for Russian forces to withdraw to their positions prior to August 7. Well, the Russians have already announced their intention to deploy an additional 3500 troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. So, that doesn’t square to my mind with the implementation of the Sarkozy plan. The other point was – the sixth point of the Sarkozy plan talked about the commitment of the sides to an international mechanism to resolve the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But a month ago Russia went ahead and recognized them as independent states. So Russia’s created facts on the ground which are inconsistent with that plan. So it’s going to be a very difficult way forward to make this negotiation actually work.”

On the Possibility of Georgia Losing Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

“I think it’s important for the West to maintain the position that a recognition of Georgian territorial integrity and non-recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Because it’s not good for the former Soviet space to have this kind of redrawing of borders. And I think this is one of the reasons why there’s concern about Russia. This is the first time since 1991 where Russia has unilaterally tried to redraw borders in the post-Soviet space. So there’s an importance to stick to that position of principle. On the other hand the reality is that South Ossetia and Abkhazia have Russian forces there. And I think the Georgian position after the conflict has been weakened, just in terms of that it’s going to need time to recover its economic strength and such. So, I’m not sure the game is totally lost. But certainly it’s a more difficult situation now in terms of Georgia’s ability to recover South Ossetia and Abkhazia than it was prior to August.”

On How the Russia-Georgia Conflict Impacts the Prospect of a NATO Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine

“I still think that ultimately a Membership Action Plan makes sense for Georgia and Ukraine. But you’re going to have to look at it in the current political realities. And at this point, when you’re looking at December, again, because of the position of some of the European states, because, I think, of the inability of the Bush administration in literally its last days to persuade the Europeans, given concerns about Russia, but also given the questions about what is going on within Ukraine, it just doesn’t seem it’s going to happen.”

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