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Natural gas with broader implications

Borys TARASIUK: “There is no tension”
20 December, 00:00

“I would not describe the current state of relations with Russia as tension. I have a lot of experience in developing relations with Moscow. Believe me, this is not tension,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk said in an exclusive interview with The Day, commenting on the current stage of the Russo-Ukrainian dialogue, which is clouded by the natural gas dispute.

IF THIS IS NOT TENSION, WHAT IS IT?

For several weeks now the natural gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia has dominated the informational space of the two countries. “Ukrainians want to continue buying this fuel for next to nothing, but it is so expensive in the whole world,” Russian experts reproach Ukraine. “Moscow is simply using its ‘gas weapon’ for political pressure,” their Ukrainian counterparts contend. Contrary to well-meaning intentions (or because of lack of foresight?) the bilateral relationship has entered a period of further exacerbation. The cooling of relations over natural gas issues is not a first for these two countries. However, because Ukraine is now managed by politicians whose legitimacy was questioned in Moscow at the highest level, the natural gas problem has acquired a new, broader context. Even though the Ukrainian foreign minister is trying hard to contain the fire, there is no disguising the unpleasant tensions in Ukrainian-Russian relations.

In his interview with The Day, which will be published in an upcoming issue, Tarasiuk admitted that “as a rule, periods of harsh exchanges began as winter was approaching, and it was time to conclude new protocols for natural gas shipments.” During the gas talks the Russian side also tried to “resolve other problems of an economic or political nature...I don’t remember a single case in the history of Russo-Ukrainian relations, when negotiations on new contracts for natural gas shipments would end without signing contracts and shipments of natural gas. Therefore, we should not over-dramatize the current situation: a normal process of negotiations is underway, in which each side is trying to secure its own national interests as much as possible. This is not surprising.”

Did Ukrainian diplomats go wrong somewhere? Certainly, the change of leadership in Ukraine made the establishment of new relations between Ukraine and Russia inevitable. Ukrainian diplomats shouldered much of the burden of developing balanced relations. Why not the Russians? Primarily because Russian diplomats would least want to change anything in the bilateral relationship. Moscow was certainly not entirely pleased with Ukrainian diplomacy in the last few years. However, a few years ago the efforts of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs resembled “little islands” of diplomatic activity: our diplomats issued recommendations and did everything else that was outside the province of the country’s top leadership. The situation changed during the last year. The foreign ministry’s steps toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration became more confident, which could not but affect the mood of Russian diplomats. To convince Moscow that Kyiv’s actions in the foreign policy arena will not prejudice bilateral interests is no simple task. But it is still necessary to try and convince Russia. No matter what Ukraine may say about the two countries’ interdependence, Kyiv’s political blackmail is nothing compared to Moscow’s. This was illustrated by Russian politicians’ response to Kyiv’s statement about a possible increase in the lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. As a result, Ukraine’s “eternal strategic partner” became more embittered and seemingly unable to accept any compromises. In return, Russia’s Gazprom began issuing statements about a possible suspension of natural gas shipments to Ukraine as of Jan. 1, 2006, and a new price of 230 dollars per 1,000 cubic meters.

“THIS HAPPENED IN THE PAST”

“It is very difficult to use diplomacy when you are discussing shipments of natural gas, volumes, and prices. These are essentially professional subjects. Only professionals should be involved in it,” Tarasiuk stressed in the interview. In answer to a question concerning the broader implications of the natural gas dispute, Ukraine’s leading diplomat said: “In the past we witnessed how the problem of fuel shipments was used to exert pressure and receive economic or political benefits. This in fact happened in the past.” At the same time, Tarasiuk cautioned against projecting the natural gas dispute onto the “totality of Russo-Ukrainian relations...They are much broader, comprising many levels and spheres. Energy sources represent only one sphere. So, I would not project the negotiations on natural gas shipments onto the relationship between Ukraine and Russia in general,” he emphasized.

True, but was natural gas the only problem in bilateral relations this year? You may recall the spring scandal involving an alleged “oil conspiracy” among Russian oil traders. The same period saw discussions about the future of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Ukraine’s growing regional role (GUAM, Democratic Choice Community, efforts to defuse the Transdnistrian conflict) as well as statements by Ukraine about its possible withdrawal from the CIS (and eventual termination of Ukraine’s participation in election observers’ missions within this post-Soviet association). One gets the impression that Ukrainian diplomats prefer to ignore the multitude of difficulties in our relations with our eastern neighbor. If this is not tension, what is it? The situation that is shaping up is diametrically opposed to the one that has been observed formerly. Whereas until recently Ukraine was inclined to concede many things to Moscow, now it seems prone to nervous responses, unsubstantiated and often unconsidered statements. Today it no longer matters who started the fight and who is to blame. Perhaps no one has any special illusions about Russia’s policy toward Ukraine. Moscow pictures its own interests differently, and many ranking Russian politicians still consider Ukraine to be part of Russia’s sphere of influence. It is up to Kyiv to work out a sage approach and demolish these stereotypes. When defending national interests, it is not always sensible to respond by hurling insults or making counterclaims.

UNCOORDINATED POSITION

How much consideration did Presidential Secretariat head Anatoliy Matviyenko put into his statement in early December about raising the rent on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to world standards? Russia’s response made it clear that his words were inappropriate. The Foreign Ministry of Ukraine made it clear that Matviyenko’s statement was only a manifestation of an uncoordinated position in the foreign policy arena.

“It was a viewpoint, nothing more. Under the presidential order, only three individuals are in a position to express the country’s official position: the president, prime minister, and foreign minister. For other officials to be able to announce their position, they must coordinate it first,” Tarasiuk noted. Why haven’t Ukrainian politicians still learned this golden rule? “I think everything takes time,” he said.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Russia was dismissed during the current period of exacerbated relations. Why has this complex direction in the foreign policy arena been left without an ambassador? Indeed, Mykola Biloblotsky, who has occupied this post since 1999, long ago exceeded all permissible limits of diplomatic practice. His dismissal was discussed immediately after the Orange Revolution. Why didn’t it happen then? And why hasn’t the process of appointing a new ambassador moved beyond the stage of searching for an appropriate candidate? This is directly related to Minister Tarasiuk’s answer. Did they only find out last week that Biloblotsky was about to end his diplomatic career?

“There is no ambassador. How long has there been no ambassador?” Tarasiuk tried to play down the gravity of the problem in his response to our question. “The issue of Biloblotsky’s dismissal has been resolved, based on his notice of resignation and in view of the expired term during which he could occupy the ambassador’s post. There is nothing strange about this,” Tarasiuk said. “In all countries ambassadors serve for a certain period: three or four years. For us this period is four years. It can be extended or reduced if the president so wishes. After all, the president appoints and recalls ambassadors,” he said. When will we learn the name of the new ambassador to Russia? “As soon the approval procedure is completed, and it is quite a lengthy one: selecting a candidate, applying for an agrement, obtaining this agrement, and then issuing an order,” Tarasiuk replied. The Day asked him about the current stage of the process to appoint ambassadors to the US and Russia. “The candidature of the ambassador to the US has been approved completely, and an order will be issued shortly.” What about Russia? “The ambassador has just been dismissed. Now the process is at the stage of considering proposed candidates,” said Ukraine’s foreign minister.

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