The Sevastopol Lease
The Ukrainian Rada has today ratified President Victor Ianukovich's decision to lease a Crimean naval base to Russia for a further 25 years, in return for lower gas prices.
At first glance it all looks very democratic. Ianukovich was elected democratically and was empowered to sign the deal. The Rada, as representatives of the people, have now approved the deal.
I would, however, argue that both the President and Parliament have overlooked two very important considerations.
The first relates to the term of the deal, which extends way out to 2042, far beyond the end of Ianukovich's term and those of the current crop of Rada deputies. The convention in most democracies is that where political authorities make decisions which relate to the long-term, these should only be made on the basis of broad consensus across the society. It is evident from the egg-throwing in the Parliament today that consensus has not been achieved on the issue of the Sevastopol lease.
The second issue relates to the strategic impact of the deal. So long as Ukraine is hosting the Russian military, it is almost impossible to see the country joining NATO. It is also highly unlikely that the country would receive an invitation to become and EU member. While Ukraine's population currently has little appetite for joining NATO, the desire to integrate in the European Union is strong, and, I would say, an economic imperative.
The Political Situation in Ukraine
49% of Ukraine's voters chose Ianukovich and I guess would be broadly in support of his policies of taking the country back into Russia's orbit. I think that's a bad choice, but, at the end of the day, if those people want to shoot themselves in the foot, that is their democratic right and good luck to them.
It's the 45.5% who voted for the pro-EU Iulia Tymoshenko who concern me. A few years ago they could realistically have expected to be EU citizens within a ten year time horizon. Now they will be lucky if their grandchildren are given that status.
The need for a Referendum
Given the far-reaching nature of the decision taken and the lack of a national consensus, it would appear to me that those who don't agree with the decision need to be given the right to opt out. I'm talking about a referendum which could see the pro-European west of Ukraine and the pro-Russian south-east go their separate ways and form two new states.
It's dramatic and it's radical, but it has happened before (in 1993, when the Czech Republic and Slovakia enacted the 'Velvet Divorce'). In the case quoted the divorce was effected along ethnic lines, while in the case of Ukraine it is more of a cultural split, which would be facilitated by the relatively clear geographical separation of the two 'cultures'.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not proposing the breakup of Ukraine; what I'm saying is that the people of Western Ukraine are sovereign and should be given the choice, given that for decades ahead the policy of Ukraine will run contrary to their interests.
The Impact on Moldova
Were Ukraine to break into two, Moldova would wake up with a Romania-sized pro-European power to the north (not a major headache) and a Romania-sized, strongly pro-Russian power to the east (a migraine). Russia would be able to build up its presence in Transnistria (and even the Bugeac) at will.
On the other hand, the breakup of Ukraine could present the opportunity to engage the great western powers in a 'grand bargain' with Russia which would clarify the geopolitical situation and bring an end to Transnistria. Under this wider deal, a border between West and East Ukraine would run from Soroca eastwards, following the Ianukovich / Tymoshenko electoral boundary.
The Moldova / East Ukraine border would be adjusted in such a way as to bring ethnic Moldovans and Gagauz within the territory of Moldova, while allowing ethnic Ukrainians and Russians to integrate into Russia-friendly East Ukraine. Basically the northern and southern parts of Transnistria would be given to Ukraine in return for the town of Reni and other Moldovan / Gagauz majority areas in Bugeac. The Moldovan-majority Dubasari raion and the ancient Moldovan fortress town of Tighina would be reabsorbed into Moldova.
What we would end up with is a very clear dividing line between Russian and Western spheres of influence. Russia would have to agree not to meddle in West Ukraine and Moldova, while the West would have to consign East Ukraine and Transnistria to their fate.
I have to admit, these aren't ideas I'm necessarily happy with, but maybe they're the best on offer under the circumstances? The alternative for Moldova and Ukraine could be decades of confusion, conflict and lack of progress on economic and political development.