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Russia Profile
June 16, 2009
Russia's Diplomatic Riddle
Will the Sentimentalist Be Replaced With a Nationalist or a Pragmatist?

By Roland Oliphant

Victor Chernomyrdin, Russia’s long-serving ambassador to Ukraine, was relieved of his duties last week on an order from President Dmitry Medvedev. His successor is not yet known, but it is thought that the new man will be briefed to be both tougher and more polite in representing Russia’s interests in Kiev. But whoever fills Chernomyrdin’s shoes, they are unlikely to be any more successful in harnessing Ukraine’s fractious politicians to Russian interests.

The reason for the dismissal is not clear. The Kommersant daily quoted an unnamed source from “diplomatic circles,” who said that Chernomyrdin had asked to leave the post as early as December, citing deteriorating health. But it also seems likely that Chernomyrdin, who has served as an envoy to Kiev for eight years, far longer than usual for Russian ambassadors, is no longer considered the best manager of increasingly fractious relations between the two states.

Chernomyrdin, 71, is a complex character. He has a remarkable capacity for political foot-in-mouth disease that often earned him reprimands. In February he publically aired the view that Ukraine’s current rulers are “impossible to work with,” and expressed the hope that elections would bring in “normal, sensible people.” This is so widespread a sentiment amongst Russian politicians and commentators that it is practically a commonplace, but it earned him a note of protest from the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko, and according to Kommersant caused Moscow to postpone his replacement in case it looked like caving in to the Ukrainian complaints.

Nonetheless, many in the Ukrainian establishment seem to be viewing his departure with some regret. During his long tenure in Kiev he apparently acquired a reputation as someone the Ukrainians could do business with. “Chernomyrdin had sentimental feelings about Ukraine as a Soviet manager. As a person he was a Russian sentimentalist. But a Russian nationalist could come and take his place,” said Vadim Karasyov, the director of the Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev.

This interpretation is partly simply a fear of the unknown, said Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine watcher at the European Council of Foreign Relations. “He was the kind of guy who the old elite got on with. He talked their talk, and their way of doing business was his way of doing business. Which means very pragmatic and rather cynical,” said Wilson. “But given the priority of Russian business interests in Ukraine I wouldn’t expect the new appointee to be too dissimilar. It would be counterproductive to install a nationalist like current NATO Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin.”

While Chernomyrdin did not take a particularly visible role in the high-profile gas-disputes that have dominated relations between Russia and Ukraine in the recent past, he was an active ambassador, with influence in business, the establishment of the Russian NGO network in Ukraine and even energy relations. Karasyov even believes that Chernomyrdin was “practically responsible for the Gas business between Russia and Ukraine.”

Who that will be is yet to be announced, though there has been much talk, apparently originating from the Ukraine rather than Russia, about Grigory Karasin, a career diplomat and deputy head of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Others mentioned in the media include politicians, including two governors (Boris Gromov of the Moscow Region and Valentina Matvienko of St. Petersburg).

Of these, the career diplomat seems the most attractive to both sides, though he is no “sentimentalist.” “Karasin is a serious, tough diplomat,” said Karasyov. “He was responsible for Ukrainian affairs at the Russian Foreign Ministry and he knows Ukraine and Ukrainian issues. He also has a more traditional approach to diplomacy. So if they chose him, he will make a strong ambassador.”

The event on the horizon dominating Ukrainian affairs, including relations with Russia, is the presidential election, expected to take place in January of next year. Although a little blunt, Chernomyrdin’s assertion that it would take a new election before “normal, sensible people” would be in power in Ukraine was a frank articulation of the Russian attitude. “Russia is waiting for the new president, and a lot depends on this,” said Karasyov. “The new ambassador will be expected to help the next president be more loyal to the Russian government.”

It is unclear, however, how this affected the decision to replace Chernomyrdin. Karasyov points out that the 71-year-old’s health is well known to be in decline. And as a go-between with the Ukrainian elite he had a fairly successful tenure. According to Wilson “there was even an argument to leave Chernomyrdin in place to smooth-talk Russia’s preference in advance of January.”

But things have changed. Russia has abandoned the crude influence-peddling it practiced during December 2004 elections that led to the Orange revolution, when it openly backed Victor Yanukovich. The new strategy is the much more cautious one of maintaining friendly relations with all players in the hope of turning that into influence. And internal Ukrainian politics are also changing. President Yushchenko’s position is so weak that he has almost no chance of reelection, leaving Tymoshenko and Yanukovich leading the field. “But we now have Arseniy Yetsanyuk emerging as a third political force, and there is even scope for fourth or fifth candidates,” said Wilson. “The Yushchenko-Yanukovich-Timoshenko ‘troika’ that has dominated Ukrainian politics for so long is losing its monopoly.”

Whether the new man will be able to guide Ukraine’s leaders back to Russia’s fold is yet to be seen. The interests he will be defending will not change ­ Russia wants control of the trans-Ukrainian oil and gas pipelines, and wants to keep Ukraine out of NATO. But bringing in a new man may make some difference in itself. “The thing with being an ambassador for eight years is that you have to take your share of responsibility for the problems,” said Karasyov.