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Ukraine: As The West Slams Doors On Kyiv, Moscow Opens Others

  • Askold Krushelnycky

A Commonwealth of Independent States summit began today in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, amid speculation that the country's president, Leonid Kuchma, could become, with Russian help, the next head of the organization. RFE/RL reports on the state of Ukrainian relations with Russia.

Prague, 28 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A two-day Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit started in Kyiv today, a summit that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma hopes will help transform the organization into an instrument to stimulate economic growth for its members.

Mykhaylo Pohrebynskyy is an adviser to Kuchma's presidential administration and is also the head of Kyiv's Institute of Political Research and Conflict. He said the CIS conference may also produce a dramatic outcome for Kuchma himself. "Another important thing that could happen is the election of a new CIS head, who could be the president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma," Pohrebynskyy said.

That is in line with similar speculation appearing in the Ukrainian and Russian media. In recent weeks, Kuchma has been a visible presence in preparations for the summit and has spoken about the importance of the CIS. All of which has increased the belief that he does, indeed, want to be CIS head, something he also has not publicly refuted.

Kuchma's relations with the West have deteriorated dramatically over the past two years. He has been accused of presiding over widespread corruption, has been implicated in the killing of an opposition journalist, and has been accused of rigging elections and of authorizing the sale of a sophisticated radar system to Iraq.

Earlier this month, the United States, Canada, and Britain said they would impose sanctions against Ukraine because it has not done enough to combat money laundering. The United States also accuses Ukraine of being a nuclear-proliferation threat.

When snubbed by the West in the past, Kuchma's response has been to step up relations with Russia. Russia is the power propping up the CIS's limp body, and its president, Vladimir Putin, will have the most important say in selecting the new head of the rotating CIS leadership.

Putin is the only one of the world's top leaders to continue to meet with Kuchma on a regular basis. He invited Kuchma to Moscow eight times last year and visited Ukraine three times. As the West seemingly slams doors on Ukraine, Putin appears to open others. Offering the beleaguered Ukrainian president the prestige -- albeit limited -- of serving as CIS head would be another way of deepening the bilateral relationship.

Putin arrived in Kyiv yesterday. He and Kuchma inaugurated a series of concerts and cultural and scientific programs called "The Year of Russia in Ukraine." Putin told Kuchma today that he hopes the events, a follow-up to a similar program in Russia in 2002 called "The Year of Ukraine in Russia," would contribute to increasing the friendly ties between the two countries. "I think all of the participants [of the previous night's inauguration] were highly satisfied with the way you organized the beginning of 'The Year of Russia in Ukraine.' I hope all the events of the year will be at the same high level," Putin said.

Pohrebynskyy said that the accusations leveled by the West against Kuchma and Ukraine were felt by many analysts and by officials within the administration as being misguided and may have resulted in pushing Ukraine closer to Russia. "Ukraine is treated as a threat, as a launderer of terrorist money, when any thinking person understands that this is not the kind of country where billions of dollars of drug or terrorist money is laundered. If you look at the matter honestly, then a U.S. partner like Saudi Arabia doesn't surprise anyone when it emerges that it provides a lot of financial aid to terrorist organizations. But it remains a favored friend of the United States," Pohrebynskyy said.

Pohrebynskyy said that efforts have been made to repair damaged relations between Ukraine and Russia. He said that Russia was offended at Ukraine's eagerness to court the West and neglect its relations with Russia and that there had been something of a trade war between the two countries, which led to a big fall in business between them. "There was a certain level of distrust, first, between Ukraine and Russia. The main reason for this was because Ukraine demonstrated its desire to integrate as quickly as possible into the [Western] European landscape. It was unprepared to do this in practice, and eventually that [desire] was expressed essentially in political terms, and this caused a degree of distrust that limited possibilities for relations with Russia. At the moment, as with other CIS countries, Ukraine is shedding some of its illusions and will simply be forced to search elsewhere, but also in the West. But we'd like to see [the West] treat Ukraine more or less fairly," Pohrebynskyy said.

Ivan Lozowyy is the director of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, an independent think tank. He said that Russia is keen to exploit Kuchma's discomfort with the West and has taken a lead in restoring relations with Ukraine. "The initiative for closer ties between Ukraine and Russia has come almost entirely from the Russian side. It was because of Russia's initiative and that of its leader, Vladimir Putin, that 'The Year of Ukraine in Russia' events happened, as was also the idea of the gas consortium, which was supposed to involve also West European companies but, as we see today, involves only Russian and Ukrainian businesses. All these initiatives, in my opinion, reflect the tendencies, or a certain consensus, among Russia's leading elites to move into Ukraine," Lozowyy said.

Pohrebynskyy said Ukraine's attempts to improve relations with Russia are motivated by the country's need to find ways of repairing its crippled economy. That, he said, is also the dominating factor in Ukraine's new enthusiasm for the CIS. He said Ukraine wants structural changes within the CIS to make it more effective in tackling economic issues.

He called Ukraine's interest pragmatic, because Kyiv believes it has much to gain from the establishment of a free-trade zone. "The most pragmatic motive for Ukraine would be to resolve issues connected with the [creation of] a free-trade zone. That would really be, not just for Ukraine, but primarily for Ukraine, a fundamental step to resolving many economic problems," Pohrebynskyy said.

Today, Putin and Kuchma signed a treaty delimiting the 2,063-kilometer border between their countries. A range of economic deals are also being worked out. One of the most important is Ukraine giving Russia joint control of the gas pipelines across Ukrainian territory in a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Putin talked about the deal today: "I hope that this penetration of our two economies into each other continues while the level of cooperation between the economies of Ukraine and Russia remains very high. And if we help develop a mutual penetration of capital into our two countries, it will be even better."

Ukraine has flirted with Russia many times before, only to seemingly tilt toward the West again once the West took the initiative to improve the political climate. Pohrebynskyy said that Ukraine has not abandoned its hope of improved relations with the West and is not pinning all its hopes on Russia. "These are absolutely understandable declarations of mutual support, especially at a time when there are complications in the relationship with the U.S. and other Western countries. But as far as concrete changes in policies, especially economic policies, nothing essentially new in terms of economic policies or deepening relations between Russia and Ukraine is happening," Pohrebynskyy said.

But Lozowyy said that the range of Western complaints and accusations against Ukraine means it will be difficult to resolve these issues and improve relations before Kuchma's presidency ends next year.