As fists, eggs and insults flew and smoke bombs clouded the chamber, Ukraine’s parliament ratified an agreement on Tuesday to extend Moscow’s lease of a naval base until 2042 in return for cheap Russian gas supplies.
Trouble flared in a vain effort by the opposition to block the far-reaching deal which, they said, gave Moscow a clear diplomatic victory over Kiev.
Thousands of protesters encircled parliament to join opposition lawmakers in condemning the trade-off as unconstitutional, treason and a threat to independence. “With this agreement, Russia’s influence is rising sharply,” said Olexiy Haran, a Kiev-based professor of political science.
Russia’s profile in the former Soviet Union has risen significantly in recent months, starting with the election of Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, in February. Since then, several events have further increased the Kremlin’s influence in its former imperial back yard.
In Kyrgyzstan, a coup this month unseated Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had angered Moscow by breaking a deal to close a US air base there last year.
Russia has been gaining its victories not by force, such as witnessed in 2008 when Russian tanks rumbled into Georgia. Instead Russia has been trying to win with finesse – a gentler approach labelled “soft power” by foreign policy experts.
On Tuesday Dmitry Medvedev, president, put a new face on Moscow’s foreign policy approach. Asked on Danish radio how Russia should present itself to the world, he said: “We should present a smiling face – like mine is right now.”
Fedor Lukyanov, chief editor of Russia in Global Affairs, the Moscow-published journal, said of Mr Medvedev’s quirky remark: “It’s the first time I have ever heard a Russian leader speak in those terms.”
In Ukraine, Russia is pushing its new smiley-face doctrine aggressively, offering to invest in the port of Sevastopol, where its Black Sea Fleet is based, and has mooted a merger of Russia and Ukrainian nuclear power industries to create a European energy giant.
Mr Lukyanov said much of Moscow’s success with Kiev was due to the latter’s economic desperation. Ukraine, hard hit by the global financial crisis, had little alternative but to give in to Russia in exchange for cheap gas. “But Russia has been turning on the charm as well,” he added.
Also in the past month Russia has made overtures to Poland, with whom relations have been historically strained. Russia’s state television channel broadcast the Polish film Katyn about the massacre of Polish officers by the Soviet secret police in 1940. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, all but apologised to Donald Tusk, his Polish counterpart, on behalf of Moscow in a public show of angst.
In Kyrgyzstan, Russian influence played a key role in toppling Mr Bakiyev’s government, and bringing to power the more Russia-friendly regime of Roza Otunbayeva.
Diplomats in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, said there was no evidence of direct Russian involvement. But Russian television stations harshly criticised Mr Bakiyev in the month leading up to his ousting, and this may have emboldened the opposition.
On April 16 Mr Medvedev startled neighbouring states when he said obliquely – in what some saw as a reference to Georgia, where Mikheil Saakashvili remains in power after the 2008 conflict – that he “did not exclude” Kyrgyzstan-style revolts elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
He said: “Anything is possible, if people are not happy with their government, if the government is not making efforts to support the people and solve their most important problems, that type of scenario might repeat anywhere.”
Oleh Rybachuk, a former Ukrainian presidential aide turned civic society activist, said: “Russia’s foreign policy is clear – Ukraine and other countries in the region fall into its sphere of influence.”
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