Sunday, November 28, 2004

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Today's Ukraine update

Richard Balmforth reports for Reuters that multiparty talks among the parties with a stake in last week's disputed election aren't going well in Kiev:

Talks to end Ukraine's presidential election standoff are going badly, the outgoing president says while the country seethes with street rallies and threatened to break apart over the crisis.

"As I understand, the (working group) talks are going on with considerable difficulty. No one can say what sort of compromise can be found or whether one will be found at all," President Leonid Kuchma said on Sunday.

"But I believe ... that a compromise is very necessary for Ukraine," he said opening the meeting of the National Security and Defence Council.

In the capital Kiev, tens of thousands of supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko rallied again, undaunted by freezing drizzle. Yushchenko told them talk of autonomy in eastern regions loyal to his opponent threatened national unity.

The formal winner of last week's election, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, told a rally of his supporters in the east of the country that the rowdy but so far peaceful protests had brought Ukraine to the edge of disaster.

"As prime minister, I say that today we are on the brink of catastrophe. There is one step to the edge," he told a packed hall in Severodonetsk.

"Do not take any radical steps. I repeat, none ... When the first drop of blood is spilled, we will not be able to stop it."

Yanukovich was in eastern part of the country to rally regions and elites loyal to his cause:

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich on Sunday called for an emergency meeting of local congressmen to safeguard the constitutional system and break the election standoff.

Yanukovich, who was announced to have won the Nov. 21 presidential runoff by the Central Elections Commission on Wednesday, made the appeal in his tour to the eastern town of Lugansk.

According to the Ukraine National News Agency, about 3,500 deputies from councils at various levels, including 30 from the Supreme Council of Ukraine, will attend the meeting in Severodonetsk, another eastern town.

The reports said Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov is also expected to attend the meeting, which will explore ways to handle the election standoff and "safeguard the constitutional system."

In a somewhat ominous development, the AP's Anna Melnichuk reports that Kuchma is calling for an end to the protestors' blockade of government buildings in Kiev, calling it a "gross violation of the law." In Kiev, Post-modern Clog posts that, "Everybody is buzzing right now about martial law." To be fair, he also notes, "at this point it's only a report of discussions and nothing more solid than that." Still, Yushchenko now seems more cognizant of this possibility. UPDATE: SCSU Scholars is keeping track of this thread of scuttlebutt.

Meanwhile, Time has its Ukraine package, which has three interesting tidbits of information. The first suggests the depth of the protest at the vote-rigging:

It was both a symbol and a symptom of the revolution that rippled across Ukraine last week. On Thursday, as the presenter of state-controlled UT-1's main morning news program was updating viewers on the Central Electoral Commission's decision to declare Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the winner of the country's Nov. 21 presidential vote, Natalya Dmitruk, the woman who translates broadcasts into sign language for the deaf, decided to send a very different message. "When the presenter started to read the news," Dmitruk told TIME, "I said: 'I address all deaf viewers. [Challenger Viktor] Yushchenko is our President. Do not believe the Electoral Commission. They are lying.'" In a week filled with extraordinary acts of political protest, Dmitruk's silent rebellion was one of the most defiant.

The second tidbit suggests the extent to which Putin wants to keep Ukraine within its orbit:

Sources well briefed on Kremlin affairs tell TIME that as protests in Kiev gathered momentum, Putin urged the much-discredited outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, eager to secure a safe retirement amid charges of corruption and political violence, to declare Yanukovych the winner. The sources say Putin made it clear that Moscow would not accept a Yushchenko victory. If the Russian President sticks to that hard line, it could provoke serious trouble, abroad and at home. "The Russians have raised the stakes," says Stephen Sestanovich of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. "They've made this a very emotional issue domestically and there will be a lot of people on Putin's nationalist flank saying, 'Are you going to take this lying down?'"

Finally, the Time writers note that should the Ukraine problem fail to resolve itself, the Bush administration would find itself in a pickle:

However the disputed election finally plays out, it has undermined the Bush Administration's cozy relations with Putin, at least behind the scenes. In his first term, Bush was willing to give Putin a free hand in what Russia calls the "near abroad," the states that spun off from the broken Soviet Union. At the same time, Bush has made encouraging democracy around the world a central pillar of his presidency. In Ukraine, those two policies clash mightily. Washington spent much of Ukraine's bitterly fought presidential campaign studiously avoiding confrontation with Putin, and stuck to that line in the early days after the vote. But at midweek, Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear Washington's support for Yushchenko, saying the U.S. was "deeply disturbed by the extensive and credible reports of fraud." The following day, at an E.U.-Russia summit in the Hague, Putin emphasized that the dispute should be settled without outside interference. No other country has a "moral right to push a major European state to mass disorder," he warned. The Kremlin regards countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus as vital buffers between Russia and the West. Like Russian rulers for the past two centuries, Putin "equates security with well-defined 'zones of interest,'" says James Sherr, an Eastern Europe specialist at Oxford University. Those zones have shrunk in recent years as the Baltic states and Georgia turned sharply toward the West. Putin doesn't want to see the same thing happen in Ukraine. But analysts in the U.S. worry that Putin may have overplayed his hand. If he were seen to be encouraging the east in its secessionist plans, the protests could turn violent.

This puts Bush's comments from this Friday in the proper perspective.


UPDATE: This BBC report has a good summary of the developments to date.

ANOTHER UPDATE: There appears to be another problem with the blog which is preventing people from posting comments -- and for that I apologize. Hopefully the problem will be fixed tomorrow. Problem solved!!

posted by Dan on 11.28.04 at 11:08 AM