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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Timoshenko Pokes Putin Right in the Eye! You go, girl! Meanwhile, Poland has her back . . .

Stratfor reports that Ukraine has told Russia just where to go on the question of its national pipelines:

The Ukrainian Rada adopted a law Feb. 6 that forever prevents the country's natural gas transport pipelines from falling into foreign hands. The move not only puts the Kremlin on alert that at least in some forms Ukrainian nationalism is alive, well and popular, it also highlights the ongoing oligarchic struggle for Ukraine's assets -- as well as its hearts and minds.

Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, voted by a margin of 430-9 (with 11 members not in attendance) not only to prohibit the sale of the country's natural gas transport system or national energy assets to foreigners, but also to require that any new systems created must be 100 percent owned by the Ukrainian state.

Natural gas-related issues are part and parcel of Ukraine's ongoing West vs. East debate: The western portions of the country often feel estranged from their Russian suppliers and more willing to sign on with the West, while the country's Russofied East instead wants closer political and economic relations with Moscow. The parliamentary effort -- spearheaded by the charismatic Yulia Timoshenko, leader of an eponymous political bloc -- originated in response to comments by both Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and Russian President Vladimir Putin that joint management of the Ukrainian network could lead to greater throughput, something that in theory would help both sides increase their income.

Timoshenko would have none of it. She -- and many other Ukrainian nationalists -- see any Russian involvement in the pipelines as the surrender of one of the few levers Kiev holds over Moscow. So long as more than three-quarters of Russia's natural gas exports to the European Union and Turkey flow through Ukrainian-owned lines, the nationalists argue, Moscow cannot dictate terms to Kiev. Beyond the issue of maintaining Ukrainian sovereignty, however, the vote highlights two critical issues.

First, even parliamentarians from Yanukovich's own Moscow-friendly Party of Regions voted en masse for the restriction on the sale of the network. Ukraine is home to nearly 20 million Russians who, by and large, identify more with people across the border in Russia than with those across the country in the nationalist powerbase of Lviv; however, those Russians' sense of political loyalty and national pride apparently are such that they want to keep control of their country's most valuable physical asset in non-Russian hands. A Russia that has been working steadily to reassert its influence in Kiev cannot ignore that fact.

Second, there is more at work here than the often-wily Timoshenko simply securing a nationalist victory. Back around the turn of the millennium, when Timoshenko was in government as energy minister, she was hardly a diligent bureaucrat beyond corruption. She made her personal fortune by grabbing for herself the rights to sell imported Russian natural gas to Ukraine's various regional distributors (to the point that the Russians had an outstanding warrant for her arrest even when she became Ukraine's prime minister in 2004). So long as the infrastructure that made her fortune possible remains firmly in state hands -- and now it will -- Timoshenko has preserved the possibility of replicating such income in the future.

After all, Timoshenko is not only a former energy minister, but also a former prime minister -- and she has every intention of scrambling back to the top again.

Poland opened another front against Russia, as the People's Daily reports:

Poland will uphold its veto of Russia-EU negotiations toward broader economic cooperation if Russia imposes sanctions against Poland in a meat export row, Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski warned on Tuesday. Poland, which joined the EU in 2004, vetoed the launch of talks on a broader economic cooperation agreement between the EU and Russia in November last year in protest against a year-old Russian ban on imports of meat from Poland. "Under the currently operative Russia-EU agreement, Russia cannot use such methods towards Poland. Poland will in no circumstance withdraw from its veto should Russia use them," Kaczynski told a press conference. Kaczynski said any economic sanctions against Poland would mean sanctions against the EU. Poland will never agree to be treated like a country that is not a EU member, he added.

The prime minister's words followed a report on Tuesday by Russia's Kommersant daily saying that Moscow will impose restrictions on imports of various goods from Poland in retaliation for Poland's blocking of EU-Russia negotiations on the new agreement. The planned restrictions will reduce the value of Poland's exports to Russia by between 1.5 billion and 2 billion U.S. dollars from the present 4 billion, the daily said. Russia, which has been vigilant of its food safety after findings of Poland's falsified veterinary and sanitary certificates, responded with rhetoric. "We believe the ball is in Poland's court. No one other than Poland can solve this problem," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin's special representative on EU relations, said on Tuesday in Moscow. The national elites of some recent EU entrants had "major hang-ups" about their "special relations" in the past with Russia, he said. "(They) try in part to exorcise these hang-ups through their relations with contemporary Russia. These new entrants have to a certain extent influenced the atmosphere of relations between Russia and the EU," said Yastrzhembsky. Russia urged Poland to put aside historical grievances and resolve a dispute over meat imports which is hindering the start of negotiations on the EU-Russia deal. The EU said earlier that the restrictions should be lifted immediately, but agreed that Russia does have a right to send a team of experts into Poland to see for themselves. According to the PAP news agency, Russian veterinary inspectors on Monday visited Poland to inspect selected meat plants accompanied by EU vets.

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