John Besemeres has worked as a translator in Belgrade and Warsaw and served in several Australian government departments. He is currently an Adjunct Fellow in the Centre for European Studies, ANU.
Having declared his intention to formally resume the position of president after elections to take place next March, Vladimir Putin wasted little time in seizing the stage of foreign policy with an article in the Russian press calling for the creation of a Eurasian Union to match the European Union.
Foreign policy is formally the prerogative of the president rather than the prime minister, which is what Putin will remain until the elections. While Putin has to some degree observed protocol in this respect since he installed Medvedev in the presidency in 2008, no one has ever doubted that he was ultimately responsible for all foreign policy decisions. But Medvedev has usually been left to make the big pronouncements.
Putin sees the Eurasian Union as growing out of the Customs Union Moscow has set up with Belarus and Kazakhstan, whose leaders have both been in place longer than he has. But so far the Customs Union has proved a hard sell to the former republics. Many of their leaders have seen the Customs Union as an attempt by Moscow to reconstruct a kind of ersatz Soviet Union. Even the big Slavonic republics to Russia's west, despite their close linguistic and other links, have been resistant.
Belarus has up to now been at best a wayward member, and Ukraine, the country Moscow above all wants to draw into the fold, has resolutely resisted all threats and inducements to sign up. With its 45 million population, a large minority of them Russians by language and identification, and its abundant agricultural resources and big industrial base including much of the former USSR's heavy and arms industries, Ukraine would be the jewel in the crown.
But the Yanukovych administration in Kyiv, the most pro-Russian since Ukraine became independent, has repeatedly declared its preference for seeking integration with the EU. Negotiations towards a free-trade and association agreements with Brussels are very well advanced, and senior EU officials have repeatedly emphasised that the agreements could be reached by the end of this year.
While most Ukrainians, especially in the Russified east and south-east of the country, are opposed to joining NATO, a majority favour joining the EU. And many of the powerful oligarchs who prop up Yanukovych's ruling Party of Regions also strongly back the EU choice.
For well over a year Moscow has been pushing Kyiv to integrate its economy with Russia's, offering much-needed concessions on gas prices, and threatening to impose damaging tariffs on key Ukrainian exports to Russia if it does not join the Customs Union. Ukraine's current economic situation is dire, and to secure further tranches of IMF support it has had to undertake painful domestic reforms which have contributed to a deep slump in President Yanukovych's popularity.
The only serious alternative to the IMF bailout, with its tough economic conditions, would be selling some more sovereignty to Russia for cheaper gas. But so far Yanukovch has stood firm, whilst pushing desperately for gas price concessions by the limited means at his disposal.
Meanwhile, however, he has been complicating his links to the EU by pursuing his domestic political adversaries through Ukraine's corrupted court system, jailing former ministers in the pro-Western government of the braided heroine of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, including Tymoshenko herself. With increasing emphasis, EU officials and politicians have been making clear to Yanukovych that, while the agreements with Ukraine may be concluded very soon, if he persists with Tymoshenko's political prosecution, the agreements would be endangered and would probably not be ratified by member countries.
This week it has been reported that a bill has been introduced into the Ukrainian parliament that would decriminalise the offences with which Tymoshenko has been charged. But it has also recently been reported that Russia and Ukraine have at last started to make progress in their gas negotiations.
In other words, it looks as though Yanukovych is playing both sides of the net and trying desperately to avoid or at least to defer what could be for him and for Europe a vital geo-strategic choice between Moscow and the West. His heart and autocratic political style incline him towards Moscow. But his fear of losing his independence to a much more dominating overlord in the east than in the west, and the sober economic calculation of some of his key colleagues and wealthy supporters, incline him towards Brussels.
Photo by Flickr user Bohan Shen.