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Yeltsin Cancels Visit To Ukraine

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, April 2 (RFE/RL) - Russia's President Boris Yeltsin has again canceled a visit to Ukraine. The decision was announced yesterday in Moscow by Yeltsin's press spokesman Sergei Medvedev. This was the sixth consecutive cancellation.

The official reason for the cancellation was that the two countries had failed to reach agreement on the status of the naval base in the Ukrainian Black Sea port-city of Sebastopol. Medvedev said that this has precluded signing of other bi-lateral accords. "The president of Russia deems it impossible to sign accords which do not fully meet Russia's interest," he explained.

Each country has long insisted on controlling the base, which served for many decades as the home port for the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

Last year, Yeltsin and Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma reached an accord in principle on dividing the fleet. Russia got about 80 percent of the vessels, with the rest going to Ukraine. Kyiv also agreed to rent Russia some of the Sebastopol facilities. But, Russia wants all Ukrainian vessels removed from the base, putting it effectively under exclusive Russian control. Ukraine has rejected these demands and insists on keeping its navy there.

Negotiations on the issue have been difficult. Only last week Russian and Ukrainian defense ministers, Pavel Grachev and Valery Shmarov, decided, after a futile session, that the issue should be taken up by prime ministers.

Yeltsin has certainly been aware for a long time that Kyiv had no intention of yielding to Russian demands. But he consistently confirmed the visit. Until now.

Yesterday's abrupt cancellation appears to be prompted by domestic Russian political considerations rather than disagreements over the Sebastopol base. It seems that Yeltsin may have felt that to be seen visiting and fraternizing with Ukraine's independently-minded Kuchma would antagonize Russian nationalist groups and weaken his position with respect to the populist communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov.

Many Russians still regard Ukraine as a part of their own country. They resent Ukrainian efforts to assert full independence. The communists have based their campaign on these Soviet resentiments. Yeltsin is clearly sensitive to those feelings. He has increasingly focused on nationalistic themes as guiding principles for his campaign. The presidential elections are scheduled for June.

The Kyiv authorities profess understanding of Yeltsin's problems. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry yesterday said that Kuchma is prepared to host Yeltsin at a mutually convenient time. But it also insisted that Kyiv stands by its position on the Sebastopol base issue. "The issue of where Ukraine places its navy on its own territory is a purely internal matter for Ukraine," the statement said.

And the sense of unease about future relations with Russia remains very much alive. Many a Ukrainian politician looks with obvious concern at the growing nationalistic fervor that permeates the Russian presidential campaign. And many show apprehension about recent moves by Moscow to "integrate" other formerly Soviet republics into its area of influence.

Last week, Moscow signed an integration treaty with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Today, Yeltsin signed an agreement on a vaguely-defined "union" treaty with Belarus.

Speaking recently with reporters for the American magazine "Newsweek," Ukraine's Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk emphasized that the Russia-Belarus agreement "is not a model for Ukraine."

But Yeltsin's repeated snubbing of Ukraine does not necessarily attest to Moscow's respect for, and recognition of, Ukraine's independence. This is unlikely to be easily dismissed by the Kyiv authorities.