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Yushchenko heads for a fall in gas game with Russia

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2009-11-11

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is fighting a desperate battle. His popularity at home has plummeted over his handling of gas disputes with Russia, and Moscow is ratcheting up the pressure ahead of a January presidential poll.

Frosty relations between Ukraine and Russia have surfaced once again over the issue of gas, and this winter the ongoing dispute has an added dimension - Ukraine goes to the polls on January 17 for a presidential election which incumbent Viktor Yushchenko is highly unlikely to win.

Moscow puts the blame for the recurrent gas disputes squarely on Yuschchenko.

In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was explicit: "All problems are related to one person: the current president of Ukraine."

Unpaid bills

In early November, Ukraine and Russia had what has become a highly predictable annual spat over unpaid gas bills.

Faced with having its supply cut off, Kiev paid its October bill of 500 million dollars, which temporarily calmed the situation.

But since the 2004 Orange Revolution and Viktor Yushchenko's election as president of Ukraine, relations between Kiev and Moscow have been in freefall.

Yushchenko has persistently antagonised Moscow, first by declaring a desire to join NATO, and then by positioning himself behind Georgia during its war with Russia in August 2008.

In January 2009, tensions between the two countries reached their nadir.

Shaky popularity

Fresh disagreements over gas prices led Russia to suspend gas supplies to Ukraine.

The fuel cuts in the middle of a particularly harsh winter seriously undermined the Yushchenko's already shaky popularity.

With two months to go before the elections, polls suggest he has less than 5% support.

Russia expert Jacques Sapir, a professor of economics and director of the CEMI Research Center at EHESS (Paris), said Moscow has played a deft hand against Ukraine's president.

"The Russians want anyone but Yushchenko," says Sapir. "But they have been more subtle than in 2004 [during the election that sparked the Orange Revolution]. They knew they did not want to intervene directly in the elections."

The gas dispute has undeniably tipped the scales in Moscow's favour.

Populism in vain

Yuschenko is not taking it lying down. At the end of October he raised the minimum wage by 11%, as well as upping unemployment benefits, much to the annoyance of the International Monetary Fund, which paid $16.4 billion to Ukraine in November, on the promise of a reordering of public finances.

But these manoeuvres seem to be in vain. Yushchenko’s main rival, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, is leading the presidential race with nearly 27% public support.

Yanukovych has called for a free trade agreement with Russia and has promised to make Russian Ukraine's official second language.

Date created : 2009-11-11