An anniversary to mark the Christianisation of the kingdom of Kievan Rus, 1,025 years ago has been stirring tensions in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. It was converted from paganism to Orthodox Christianity in 988 by Vladimir the Great.
Anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists have been gathering outside the Russian embassy in Kiev demonstrating their dissatisfaction with Moscow’s policies toward their country. The visit is, on one level, to celebrate a joint Christian heritage. But Putin is also keen on creating a gas transport consortium and on persuading Ukraine to participate in a Customs Union which currently includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. This is in contrast to Ukraine’s drive to join the European Union.
The position of the ruling Party of Regions is that Ukraine should not refuse to participate in the Customs Union.
MP Volodymyr Oliynyk said: “We believe our interests should be represented everywhere – not only in the European Union, but also within the Customs Union, where we have economic and cultural interests. We shouldn’t refuse to be in it.”
At the heart of the question ‘which way to turn’ lies the challenge – some say insurmountable – of belonging to more than one bloc. Ukraine is dependent on Russian natural gas, and disputes over pricing briefly caused supplies to EU countries to be cut off in 2009, and resulted in a controversial gas deal, signed by then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Energy and trade make powerful arguments, with all the potential to force Ukraine to make political concessions, such as extending the lease on the port of Sevastopol, which is the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet, in exchange for lower gas prices.
This is part of the pressure to join the Customs Union, Ukrainian former foreign minister and now an opposition MP Borys Tarasyuk explained.
He said: “There have always been political attempts to keep Ukraine subordinate to Russia. This is why geopolitical projects have been created, like the Commonwealth of Independent States made up of former Soviet Republics, and the Eurasian Union – now the Customs Union.”
Ukrainian politicians, in keeping a balance between Russia and the West, try to limit their obligations in both directions. Public opinion in Ukraine is currently 42 percent in favour of European integration, with 31 percent believing Ukraine should join the Customs Union, and some 13 percent saying Ukraine should not join either club.