Presov, Slovakia; 5 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Last week's signing in Kyiv of a Russia-Ukraine friendship treaty is likely also to help stabilize Ukraine's relations with Slovakia.
The treaty pledges Russia's respect for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and says that neither side may reach an agreement with a third party to threaten the other.
This is a marked change from just two years ago, when at a conference in Moscow on Russia's relations with Central Europe the former chairman of the State Duma's CIS committee Konstantin Zatulin said that unless Ukraine integrates fully into the CIS, Russia "would not oppose" Ukraine's disintegration. Zatulin went on to say that in that case the eastern Ukraine, with its large ethnic Russian population, might join the Russian Federation and that Moscow might even support the establishment of a sovereign Transcarpathian state based on the principle of Ruthenian ethnicity in Ukraine's small Transcarpathian oblast on the border with Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.
The Kyiv treaty appears to have put an end to those threats and speculations. Ukraine is assured of its sovereignty, a political fact that should influence Kyiv's relations with other countries.
But leading Slovak authority on relations with Ukraine and Russia, Alexander Duleba of the Slovak Society for Foreign Policy's Presov-based Research Center, recently told RFE/RL that Russia still dominates Slovakia's "Ostpolitik".
Duleba said that the current Slovak foreign policy is marked by, what he termed, "enormous disharmony and imbalance," owing to excessive emphasis on ties with Moscow to the detriment of those with Kyiv.
Duleba noted that in the four and a half years since Slovakia gained independence Bratislava and Kyiv have signed some 40 bilateral treaties and agreements, considerably less than the 130 accords Bratislava has signed with Moscow. He said the Slovak-Russian accords deal with more important matters. Russians and Slovaks do not need visas to enter each other's country. But Ukrainians require an official invitation to visit Slovakia as do the Slovaks when they want to go to Ukraine.
"In Slovak-Ukrainian relations there are two main problems," Duleba told RFE/RL, "and Russia is at the root of both of them."
"The first problem is that Slovakia and Ukraine are unable to find common ground when it comes to the transit of Russian raw materials," Duleba said, adding that common interests should exist where the same pipelines transit both countries.
Kyiv responded sharply when the Slovak government repeatedly in (1993, 1994 and 1995) talked with Russia about the construction of a southern branch of the Yamal gas pipeline to western Europe that would enter Slovakia from Poland, bypassing Ukraine.
Duleba said that the apparent inability or unwillingness of Slovak and Ukrainian officials to coordinate their steps on something as basic to their interests as Russian energy supplies reflects an "absolute mistake of Slovak diplomacy."
The other problem between Bratislava and Kyiv is the nationality issue, basically the recognition of the Ruthenians as a minority by Bratislava but not by Kyiv.
Slovakia's Ruthenians formally declared their tongue to be a "normative, codified language" in early 1995. This was done with the blessing of the Slovak parliament. Since then, local school authorities in some east Slovak districts have been offering to add a few class hours a week of instruction in Ruthenian language and culture at the elementary school level. But communities and even families remain divided on the wisdom of giving up Ukrainian instruction for what many argue is just a dialect of Ukrainian
Kyiv has tacitly criticized the Slovak government for having given Ruthenians greater visibility and at least indirectly fostering Ruthenian separatism in Ukraine's Transcarpathian oblast.
Since gaining independence, Ukraine has sought to suppress Ruthenian national aspirations in its Transcarpathian oblast, seeing in them a potential threat to Ukraine's territorial integrity.
For example, the Ukrainian government saw signs of irredentism in Transcarpathia's moves to set up a Carpathian Euroregion -- a loose association supporting regional cooperation between Ukraine's Transcarpathian oblast, eastern Slovak districts, southeastern Polish districts, northeastern Hungarian counties, and northwestern Romanian districts -- until three more Ukrainian districts (Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopol) were added in late 1993. Some district authorities in Trancarpathia viewed this enlargement as yet another attempt by Kyiv to absorb their ethnically distinct and historically and strategically important region under Kyiv's centralized control.
Slovakia has also taken an even harder line against the Carpathian Euroregion, barring the city of Kosice from joining and limiting regional cooperative activities to the country's sparsely populated easternmost districts.
Duleba said Ruthenians on both sides of the Slovak-Ukrainian border have always had problems with developing a distinct national identity. In addition to eastern Slovakia, Duleba noted, indigenous Ruthenians can be found in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Serbia's Vojvodina province.
"Some people call them the Kurds of Central Europe," he says.
Duleba said efforts should be made by both Ukraine and Slovakia to study the Ruthenians history and their sociological and ethnic characteristics. He said that "the pragmatists in the Slovak government do not view this is as a problem." But he also said that the Ukrainian government apparently "does not want" to finance research into the ways the Slavs of Transcarpathia identify themselves ethnically.
"Precisely so that this does not become the new Kurdistan of Central Europe," Duleba said. "This issue needs to be resolved in a civilized, normal way."