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It’s cold...

Will the “gas attack” influence Ukrainians’ political preferences?
20 December, 00:00
Photo by Mykhailo MARKIV

“We’re ready to withstand this cold, so we can live better later.” We remember these words from last year’s Maidan. Their topicality is emphasized by the intensity of the gas crisis in the relations between Ukraine and Russia. Could not it have been foreseen? Why did it take Kyiv by surprise? Why did it have to deal with it as an emergency?

This photo was made by our journalist last year on the cold Maidan filled with hope and belief. People were prepared to withstand the cold of winter and take the risks; they all said they would stand their ground. And they distrusted anyone who asked if they would not be disappointed. The revolutionary days are history, but no revolutionary changes have occurred.

We believe that the problem today is not only overestimated expectations. This is the easiest explanation of the current disappointment in society. Any changes — political as well as economic — are really connected with painful perception, as was the case with Polish “shock therapy” and coal reforms in Great Britain. Both Leszek Balzerowicz and Margaret Thatcher could discuss overstated expectations a year after starting radical changes in their countries, as their reforms took years. Can this be discussed in Ukraine? Where are the initiatives that will yield fruit in five or ten years?

The Russian policy with regard to Ukraine has always been marked by pragmatism and cold-bloodied calculation. Here no illusions could be entertained. Just as the current Ukrainian government could not have expected any exceptional attitude from Moscow. Russia made it perfectly clear by its approach to last year’s elections in Ukraine. Russia’s ranking officials have made their negative attitude to the Orange Revolution clear throughout this year. It is hard to disagree with those saying that Moscow is using its gas lever for political purposes. Did Kyiv take any preventive measures so as to neutralize this influence?

The Day asked its respondents’ opinion to measure the temperature of public moods in Ukraine.

Yuriy USHCHAPOVSKY, docent, candidate of economic science, economic theory chair, Zhytomyr State Technological University:

World prices must certainly be instituted in payments for energy suppliers between Ukraine and Russia. Yet one can only wonder why the previous Ukrainian leadership took no measures to practice such prices previously, thus making the Ukrainian economy vulnerable to that of its northern neighbor. Also why the Ukrainian government was not concerned about lowering the energy intensity of our production as the number one problem for our economy. We know that several times more fuel is being spent on every dollar of the gross domestic product in Ukraine than in the developed European countries. With such an energy-intensive economy one can compete on the world market only by lowering wages and keeping energy resources artificially less expensive. The prices proposed by Russia are not the same as practiced elsewhere in the world; they are not economic but political. Of course, we must adopt the system of monetary settlements for energy supplies existing in the civilized world, but this transfer must be gradual, not instant, just as it must not be procrastinated but geared to enable Ukraine to take urgent measures to introduce energy-saving technologies. First and foremost, in the metallurgical and chemical industries as the key consumers of Russian gas. Second, in the municipal sphere, by making large real budget appropriations. This will allow to substantially reduce domestic gas consumption.

The danger to our country will increase if Russia wins the information war. The alarming public moods in Ukraine can be enhanced by Russian media and this brings forth the need to protect the Ukrainian information space. I believe that Russia’s emphasis on the gas problem is serving primarily political rather than economic purposes, namely to agitate our society and demonstrate that the current government is unable to cope with the situation, thus paving the way for political forces favored by Russia in the coming parliamentary elections. Ukraine, however, has several potentially strong trump cards to play. For example, gas transit prices. And nor should we hesitate to broach the subject of payments for the deployment of the Russian fleet on the Black Sea and for the use of radar stations.

The situation with gas prices is not a tragedy for Ukraine. This may prompt Ukraine to speed up the introduction of energy-saving technologies, as was the case with Japan in the mid-1970s. In turn, this may offer us an additional opportunity to adapt to the requirements of the European community and bring our membership there closer.

Petro HOLOVATY, political scientist, Kharkiv:

What’s happening is a sequel to old trade war, albeit in a worse political format. Everything that’s happening is called gas blackmail well to be expected in the energy sphere. There is little economics and a lot of politics involved. It is important for Russia to force Ukraine into the orbit of its influence and get the gas transportation system under control and eventually deprive Ukraine of its economic and political independence.

Russia’s current behavior reminds one of that during the previous elections. Many of those treating Russia loyally have adopted a more cautious attitude toward its policy after its obvious interference. This does not include people with inveterate pro- Russian views; they cannot be persuaded otherwise. Russia is favored especially in the east of Ukraine, yet its actions make people change their views. It is safe to assume that this society has put up with higher prices. Whether good or bad, they are regarded as inevitable. Also, prices had to go up anyway to bring us closer to European standards. The thing is that we are practically completely dependent on Russia’s energy supplies. There is such a notion as energy safety whereby supplies from the one source must not exceed 25-30 percent. In our case it is practically 100 percent, especially in terms of gas supplies. In almost 15 years practically nothing has been done in Ukraine to change this situation; compared to other countries we are consuming considerably more gas for our production than all European countries put together. No investments have been made in energy-saving technologies. We have grown too used to the situation and now that we are faced with this problem maybe some steps will be taken to change the situation. Yes, we will have to pay more. That’s bad, but in the end this will have a beneficial effect on the citizenry. This is unavoidable. The question is how soon this will happen.

As for political sympathies in society, they are completely dependent on how the government will cope with the energy crisis. On the one hand, public confidence in the government is lower, but on the other hand it has grown even stronger. Everything depends on who will adhere to what principles. The thing is that even the Party of the Regions is not interested in higher gas prices because its basic assets depend on energy-consuming metallurgy. It is possible, however, that some will try to benefit from the problem. At present, the Ukrainian government’s image depends exclusively on its stand in the gas conflict; if it does not measure up public confidence in it will be finally shattered.

Volodymyr FISANOV, D.S. (History), head of the international information chair, history faculty, Chernivtsi National University:

I think that this problem will be settled and even solved to an extent. Russia will lessen its pressure and finally lower the price, but the issue will remain open. There is another alarming factor. In almost 15 years of national independence we ought to have learned to foresee such problems, be more farsighted, and developed a preventive strategy. We need various analytical approaches to prevent crises and be able to find alternative solutions; without these we are losing control over the situation.

As for public response, people in our region are not feeling markedly desperate. If the situation on the gas market results in problems in our daily life we’ll take in the stride, as we have lived through worse periods. Yet this will affect people’s attitude to the central government failing to bear in mind the strategic interests of our society and waging a passive foreign economic policy.

From Russia’s standpoint, it is a possibility to pressure Ukraine, especially before the elections. All these events will have an impact on the election campaign. They are apparently meant to enhance protesting moods in the east, being presented as consequences of Yanukovych’s defeat in the presidential elections and of certain trends in the current government. It is hard to say whether the situation will improve after the [parliamentary] elections. I don’t think that any cardinal changes will be made; if any decisions are made now they are not likely to be reversed, regardless of who wins the elections. Solving economic problems generally depends on the quality, flexibility, and adequacy of the political leadership.

Ihor BALYNSKY, political scientist (Lviv):

I believe that the Russian government and political community have realized that influencing Ukrainian elections and politics using technologies, by politically supporting certain political forces, is ineffective. Economic relations are a considerably more effective means of protecting Russia’s interests in Ukraine. However, Ukraine and Russia’s positions in this situation makes one wonder. I believe that Russia has gone too far in sharply increasing the gas prices. This is more like economic and political blackmail rather than economic relations.

However, the question is why Ukraine has allowed this situation at this most complicated moment, on the eve of winter and parliamentary elections. Was the stand taken by the Ukrainian side in the context of the [gas] talks adequate? I think that we allowed the Russians to behave the way they are doing in the situation.

How will the gas confrontation influence the election campaign? I think that the gas subject cannot be a consolidating factor during the elections in Ukraine. The notion of national energy security does not reach the rank-and-file electorate. People are used to such strategic matters being decided by the state.

I believe that Viktor Yanukovych will continue to exploit the Russian subject. Most likely it will be simply a message to Russia, that he, as an influential and highest-rating Ukrainian politician, is prepared to back certain speculative matters that are important to the Kremlin. Exactly how effectively he will do so is another matter.

Volodymyr FESENKO, chairman of the board, Penta Applied Political Study Center:

Those expecting a political effect from the gas “war” are very wrong. The Ukrainian electorate has mostly determined its political preferences and they cannot be altered by factors such as higher gas prices. Indeed there can be an increase in anti-Russian moods, but only among people who have previously viewed Russia critically, regarding it as a threat to Ukrainian independence.

If the president and the political forces supporting him adopt a rigid and consistent stand aimed at protecting the national interests; if they declare that Ukrainian society is faced with an undisguised political blackmail and that we must be prepared to go through this ordeal, they may be able to rally round themselves a certain part of society, but not all of it. Regrettably, such are political realities.

Current events will have rather serious strategic consequences for the Ukrainian elite that harbored any illusions about Russia. They may continue playing Russian satellites for some time, but this is a losing game.

Talking of the dynamics of this conflict, there is, of course, growing tensing between Ukraine and Russia. However, there is too much uniting our peoples to launch a cold war that no one will win. As for Russia’s strategic defeat, it will mean an increased distance between Ukraine and Russia over the gas issue. After all this will push us closer to the West, so the effect will be the direct opposite.

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