KIEV, Ukraine — The Bush White House has been pressing its European allies to accept Ukraine into NATO — over Russia's bitter opposition — but the continuing political crisis in Kiev raises serious questions about whether this country is ready to join.
Viktor Yushchenko, the U.S.-backed president, was in New York this week, ringing the bell on the New York Stock Exchange and exhorting the U.N. General Assembly to contain Russia. Back home, his ruling coalition remains fractured, raising the prospect of a third parliamentary election in as many years.
Approval ratings for the one-time hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution are consistently below 10 percent. Despite Yushchenko's strong condemnation of Russia's invasion of Georgia last month and his enthusiastic support for NATO, polls show that only some 22 percent of Ukrainians favor joining the alliance.
In the parliament, opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, considered by many to be close to Russia, has more than twice as many seats as Yushchenko's bloc, which is anchored by the Our Ukraine party.
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The political bickering has significant implications for U.S. interests in the area, including the drive to admit Ukraine into NATO.
If Russia can capitalize on the instability and help shape Kiev's foreign policy, it could reassert some of the control it lost on Europe's edge after the collapse of the Soviet Union. That would be a major step forward for the Kremlin in what Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has referred to as "regions where (Russia) has privileged interests."
Yushchenko's supporters accuse Russia of engineering the political crisis by brokering a Faustian deal with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, under which she split with the president and began cooperating with the opposition in return for backing in the 2010 presidential elections.
Earlier this month, Tymoshenko loyalists in parliament voted alongside Yanukovych's Party of Regions to limit the president's powers — a move Yushchenko said amounted to "a political and constitutional coup."
Officials from both Tymoshenko's and Yanukovych's parties say that the country can't afford to alienate Russia and aggressively pursue a divisive course toward NATO membership. They say Ukraine should focus instead on becoming part of the European Union and taking advantage of the country's location between Europe and Russia to raise its economic profile.
"The most positive answer for Ukraine is neutrality — neither joining NATO or any military union with Russia," said Andriy Kozhemyakin, deputy head of the parliamentary contingent in Tymoshenko's eponymous political party. "Our political force is for Ukrainian integration into the EU as soon as possible."
Leonid Kozhara, deputy head of international relations for Yanukovych's party, said he also backs becoming a part of Europe and getting on more solid footing with Russia.
"It's not about Russian spheres or whatever; Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych understand that Ukraine cannot be a successful country without a relationship with Russia," said Kozhara, a former Ukrainian ambassador to Sweden and congressional liaison in its Washington embassy.
Kozhara pointed out that for all of America's insistence about Ukraine's political future, it's a relatively unimportant trading partner.
Last year, the EU was the largest, at about 39 percent of the country's trade, and Russia was second at 24 percent. The U.S., on the other hand, was seventh at just 2.1 percent.
But many pro-western politicians and analysts say that drawing close to Russia risks a slow loss of Ukraine's independence until it became a de facto satellite state for the Kremlin.
"Russia is acting like an empire of gas and oil, it wants to harass Europe, to extend its territory to the post-Soviet region," said Taras Stetskiv, a parliament member from Yushchenko's political bloc, who has criticized the president's track record. "There's no need for war. Moscow has by its propaganda and its agents of influence made Ukrainian politicians fight each other — they are eating each other."
Olexiy Haran, an analyst in Kiev, said he worries that after Russia faced no real sanctions for its war with Georgia — in which it essentially annexed two large territories — the Kremlin is now more willing to deal aggressively with Ukraine. While he said he didn't think the Kremlin would try to take the peninsula of Crimea, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is docked — a frequently discussed scenario — Haran said that it's hard to predict what might happen.
"From the west, we heard a lot of nice words, strong words, brave rhetoric, but in reality nothing was done" following the Georgia war, said Haran, founding director of a school for policy analysis at a leading Kiev university. "The Russians now feel that OK, now we can do what we want."
For all the rancor about Russia, many analysts say the political turmoil in Ukraine mostly is due not to foreign meddling but squabbling politicians.
Both Yushchenko, with his face scarred by a 2004 poisoning that many blame on the Russians, and Tymoshenko, a nail-tough political fighter who wears her blonde hair in a wrap-around braid, have been darlings of the West since they led the ouster of the pro-Communist government during the Orange Revolution.
But after the thrill of that movement faded, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko quarreled often as they vied for support from Ukrainians in the west and center of the country who tend to be more western-leaning.
After Russian invaded Georgia last month, the pair appeared to take different paths to shore up political support, said Oleksandr Sushko, research director at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, a NATO advocacy think tank.
Yushchenko unleashed harsh criticism of Russia both in Kiev and on a trip to Tbilisi, and singled out Tymoshenko for not speaking up more.
Tymoshenko was more pragmatic and argued for dealing with Russia calmly and as a partner, an apparent effort to pick up votes in the eastern and southern reaches of Ukraine where support for Russia is widespread, Sushko said.
"Playing the Russia card is part of the domestic political process," Sushko said. "The president uses the Russia card to accuse Tymoshenko of being a Russian puppet, and Tymoshenko accuses Yushchenko of destroying Ukraine's relationship with Russia."
The question, say many in Kiev, is whether Russia will win at the end of the game.
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