Yanukovych’s Election Opens Up Crimean Separatist Threat

By Taras Kuzio

Newly-elected President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych is inaugurated in Kiev.

Viktor Yanukovych’s inauguration as Ukrainian president on February 25 forced him to face the fact that the Party of Regions that he leads, has re-opened the Pandora’s Box of Crimean separatism. National Institute of Strategic Studies analyst Petro Burkovsky asked “Will President Yanukovych open up the path to the separation of the Crimea?” in Ukrayinska Pravda before the second round of voting (Ukrayinska Pravda, January 26).

A similar warning was published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (February 19): “The Crimea could become a major problem for the new Ukrainian president.” The author pointed to the first example of this pending threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The Crimean parliament voted to change its name from Crimean Supreme Rada (Ukrainian for Council) to Soviet (the Russian equivalent). “The Crimean deputies had de facto voted for the move to a Russian name of the parliament of the autonomous (republic) by infringing the Ukrainian constitution” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 19). The central authorities, in the middle of a transfer of power, did not react to this illegal move in Crimea.

The election of Yanukovych is seen in the Crimea as “opening up new possibilities for distancing the peninsula from the center” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 19). Russian nationalists believe Yanukovych’s election campaign rhetoric advocated policies that make him appear more pro-Russian than Leonid Kuchma. These included promoting a gas consortium with Russia and joining the CIS Single Economic Space Customs Union, opposition to close cooperation with, or membership of NATO, and support for an extension of the Black Sea Fleet base beyond 2017.

President Yanukovych may ignore the illegal actions of Crimean deputies and in so doing act very differently to Kuchma, who was first elected on a more moderate “pro-Russian” platform in 1994. Yanukovych and Kuchma are very different. Kuchma was more successful in destroying Russian separatism in the Crimea in a non-violent manner than his predecessor, Leonid Kravchuk. In 1995, Kuchma banned the institution of the Crimean presidency and through economic blockades and intelligence operations undermined the separatist movement. Two other factors also worked in Kuchma’s favor that are now absent: Russian passivity and internal rivalries in the separatist camp.

Russian separatists were marginalized over the following decade. Kuchma supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity and made this a corner stone of his foreign policy. The GUAM regional group, established in 1997 by Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, had among its main aims combating separatism and promoting territorial integrity.

The GUAM members, other than Ukraine, had frozen conflicts on their territories. Since August 2008, Georgia has faced a Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In 2002-2004, Prime Minister Yanukovych did not question the president’s foreign policy on GUAM, arms supplies to Georgia, sending Ukrainian troops to Iraq or seeking a Membership Action Plan from NATO in 2002 and 2004.

Yanukovych’s real persona only became evident after the Orange Revolution and Yushchenko’s election. From 2005-2006, the Party of Regions reversed the marginalization of Russian nationalists and separatists in the Crimea, in effect assisting Russian covert intelligence support for separatists in the peninsula, Trans-Carpathia and Odessa. Yanukovych said during round two that “GUAM has lost its importance” (Ukrayinska Pravda, February 4).

The Party of Regions united with two Russian nationalist parties in the For Yanukovych bloc that won the 2006 Crimean parliamentary elections. New Crimean parliamentary elections will be held this year that will provide an opportunity for Russian nationalists to mobilize. The For Yanukovych bloc included the Party of Regions, Russian bloc and the Russian Community of the Crimea (ROK). The Russian bloc is financed by Moscow’s Mayor, Yury Luzhkov, and has close links to Russian intelligence. ROK, led by the First Deputy Speaker of the Crimean Parliament, Sergei Tsekov, is the most influential Russian nationalist group in the peninsula, and is financed by Luzhkov, Konstantin Zatulin, the Russian foreign ministry and presidential administration.

Yanukovych’s revival of Russian nationalists has had three ramifications. First, joint annual military maneuvers with NATO in the Crimea were disrupted by Party of Regions and Russian nationalist protestors, maneuvers that had been held annually under Kuchma. The Party of Regions blocked votes in parliament to permit the entrance of foreign military units on Ukrainian territory (UNIAN, August 8, 2009).

Second, the Crimean parliament voted in September 2008 to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A similar Party of Regions resolution (no. 3076-1) in the Ukrainian parliament denouncing Georgia and calling upon Ukraine to recognize the independence of both territories failed. Pro-Russian leaders in the CIS refused to follow Yanukovych’s pro-separatist position. Yanukovych’s defense of his pro-separatist position by drawing on an analogy with Kosovo (mimicking Russia) was ridiculed.

Third, the Crimea became emboldened to demand greater rights as an autonomous republic. Yanukovych’s support for the extension of the Black Sea Fleet base will further embolden Crimean Russian nationalists.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) had petitioned the justice ministry to ban three organizations “controlled from abroad” that threatened Ukraine’s territorial integrity: the Donetsk Republic, Peoples Front “Sevastopol-Crimea-Russia” and pro-Russian Rusyn organizations in Trans-Carpathia. The Odessa prosecutor’s office had opened a criminal case against the For Ukraine, Belarus and Russia (ZUBR) organization for inciting ethnic and religious hostility (Interfax-Ukraine, December 2, 2009).

Funding for Russian nationalist-separatists is transferred through Russian covert assistance using grants from the Rusky Mir (Russian World) government-funded foundation. Luzhkov’s influence over the Moscow city council also gave donations of $20 million to Crimean projects and in 2010 will spend $10 million on supporting the Russian “diaspora” in the former Soviet Union.

President Yanukovych has a constitutional right to recognize foreign territories and therefore could follow through in his Party’s support in 2008 for South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence. Before taking this step, Yanukovych should be made aware that Russian parliamentary resolutions adopted in 1992-1993 remain in place. These annulled the 1954 transfer of the Crimea from the Soviet Russian to the Ukrainian republics and questioned the “legality” of Ukrainian sovereignty over Sevastopol (Ukrayinska Pravda, January 26).
Eurasia Daily Monitor