In Ukraine, A Conflict Over Russian Relations

Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko i i

Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko during a press conference on June 23, 2008, in Lisbon, Portugal. Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images
Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko

Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko during a press conference on June 23, 2008, in Lisbon, Portugal.

Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko i i

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko addresses the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Berlin on Nov. 23, 2006. John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images
Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko addresses the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Berlin on Nov. 23, 2006.

John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's invasion of Georgia sent shudders through other former Soviet countries, especially Ukraine. Vice President Dick Cheney is in the capital Kiev on Friday — the last stop on his tour of some of Russia's closest neighbors to show U.S. support in the wake of last month's invasion.

Cheney will find Ukrainian politicians more focused on Europe and distracted by yet another political crisis.

Ukraine has stumbled through political turmoil since the 2004 Orange Revolution brought to power the pro-Western team of President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. They have fought as bitterly among themselves as with their more pro-Russian opponents. It is basically a fight over the respective powers of the president and the prime minister, and it has paralyzed the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Hryhoriy Nemyria says Yushchenko's withdrawal from the coalition couldn't come at a worse time.

"This is the last thing Ukraine needs: preterm elections amid regional and domestic crises," Nemyria says.

The breaking point came when President Yushchenko's office called Tymoshenko a traitor for not denouncing last month's Russian invasion of Georgia. Tymoshenko shot back that she was not soft in her support for Georgia, but did not want to unnecessarily drag Ukraine into conflicts.

In fact, their positions are not so very different — Yushchenko and Tymoshenko both hope for NATO membership one day, they just differ on how much to push the issue now.

Tymoshenko's go-slower approach reflects the deep divide in Ukraine about how to juggle relations with Russia and the West.

A conversation overhead in a Kiev bar sums it up: An off-duty police officer says Ukraine has nothing with which to protect itself from Russia, except the prospect of NATO. Without NATO, he says Ukraine will cease to exist. His three companions disagree.

"We can't antagonize Russia," one says, "Russians are our brothers."

Ukrainians are more interested in greater ties with the EU than with NATO for now, but the Europeans have yet to give Ukraine any promises on EU membership.

Boris Tarasiuk, the chairman of parliament's committee on European integration, says this is dangerous.

"The European Union still does not have the answer to question whether it sees Ukraine as member of the European Union or not," Tarasiuk says. "And this is a strong geopolitical mistake of the European Union."

Pro-Western analysts like Oleksandr Sushko say Europe must do more to encourage integration.

"The EU recognized Balkan states — Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and others — very problematic states of Balkan area, and didn't do it with regards to Ukraine, and this is feeling of frustration and disappointment and feeling of double standards," Sushko says.

Sushko says the European Union's failure to support Ukraine could undermine public support and encourage a resurgent Kremlin to believe the country is all alone and ripe for a return to the Russian sphere of influence.

At next week's EU summit, Ukrainian officials hope the Europeans will finally agree to some concrete steps, like a free trade zone and more liberal visa regime. Ukrainians can travel freely to Russia, but it is extremely difficult for them to reach the West.

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