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Russia/Ukraine: Putin, Kuchma Meeting To Focus On Forging Closer Ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Ukraine tomorrow for talks with counterpart Leonid Kuchma. The official reason for the visit is cultural, but as RFE/RL reports, the agenda is bound to hold some difficult issues for the two neighbors.

Prague, 22 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has been largely isolated by Western leaders, who -- despite his denials -- suspect the Ukrainian leader of corruption and election rigging, among other things.

About the only leader of world importance who meets with Kuchma on a regular basis is Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two will meet again tomorrow when Putin arrives in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, for a two-day visit.
Relations between Russia and Ukraine seem to be forged by the two country's presidents in personal discussions -- without the contribution of experts and relevant ministers

The official reason for the trip is to preside over the closing of a cultural event -- last year's "Year of Russia in Ukraine." The event brought Russian artists, entertainers, and academics to Ukraine to organize a series of performances and exhibitions. The year before, Ukraine had provided similar events for Russia.

The relationship has been a turbulent one since Ukrainian independence in 1991. Some in Russia have never reconciled themselves fully to the loss of Ukraine, which they regarded rightfully as a province of Moscow rather than an independent country.

Ukraine for its part has trod a delicate foreign policy path between courting the West while attempting not to anger Russia.

Both leaders will be trying to promote greater economic interaction. Trade between the two rose by 30 percent in 2003 from the previous year to reach about $15 billion. Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych says Russia accounts for over 30 percent of the total volume of Ukraine's foreign trade.

Last year, the two countries pledged to create a "Single Economic Space," together with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Russia is a major supplier of oil and gas to Ukraine and is eager to gain control over pipelines that transport its energy across Ukraine to Western markets. Kuchma and Putin have agreed to a consortium, to include a third country, possibly Germany, to upgrade and share control over the pipelines.

The two may also discuss military cooperation. Ukraine enjoys a good relationship with NATO and also has a large contingent among the coalition forces in Iraq. But over the last year it has signed agreements for joint maneuvers with Russia and to develop and sell weapons with Moscow.

Russia has its main Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. This week Russia's Black Sea Fleet commander, Admiral Vladimir Masorin, said Russia will remain there until at least 2017 as allowed to under an agreement signed by Kuchma's predecessor, Leonid Kravchuk.

Valeriy Chaliy of the Rozumkov Center think tank in Kyiv says many of the agreements between the two have not been finalized. He says Putin wants to wrap up most of the important agreements to present them as successes to help in his re-election bid this spring.

"I think that this visit could be the completion of those processes that were happening the whole of last year in Ukrainian-Russian relations," Chaliy says.

But he says Ukraine wants further discussions on issues such as the single economic space and the energy pipelines.

"I don't think we'll dot all the i's. The Ukrainian side will attempt to prolong many questions, whereas the Russian side will press today for some beneficial, for it, results from the 'Year of Russia in Ukraine,'" Chaliy says.

Both leaders will also be trying to patch up relations after a dramatic dispute last year over international frontiers in the Azov Sea. Ukraine sent troops to the area after Russia started building a dam across the Kerch Strait toward the Ukrainian island of Tuzla.

Ukraine said the dam infringed on its sovereignty. Russia said it was merely protecting its coastline from erosion. The incident exposed raw nerves on both sides, but the two eventually agreed to a peaceful resolution.

The deputy director of the Ukrainian National Institute for International Security, Anatoliy Hutsal, sees the outcome as positive.

"Despite all the criticism that we see today about the agreement about the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait, I see in it a strong impetus for future development. Principally, fundamental to this agreement is that we are beginning serious joint work in the region. This is in fact to work the same way as the European Union works within the framework of regional projects in the EU. In a similar way, we are starting to work within the Azov Sea region and this is truly the new Ukrainian-Russian impulse in which we are not dividing and pulling things apart, but we are thinking about how to work in cooperation with one another," Hutsal said.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko yesterday said the incident showed that Russia and Ukraine had strengthened cooperation over the last year.

Hutsal said that since independence, many Ukrainian politicians have been afraid to use the word "integration" in connection with building relations with Russia.

There are many within Ukraine who believe that Russia still gains the most from bilateral ties. The director of the Kyiv-based Institute for Statehood and Democracy, Ivan Lozowy, believes the Ukrainian leadership routinely submits to Russia's will.

"Let's just recall everything that in his time then President [Leonid] Kravchuk gave away that is the Sevastopol port, most of the Black Sea fleet, military bases in Crimea, and currently the government of prime minister Yanukovych, through his vice premier for the economy, Mykola Azarov, is preparing to give away Ukraine's entire economy through the Single Economic Space. What's happening in Ukraine is a tragedy the bad harvest of which we will reap in the future," Lozowy says.

Chaliy is concerned that relations between Russia and Ukraine seem to be forged by the two country's presidents in personal discussions -- without the contribution of experts and relevant ministers. He says he believes a healthy relationship will only be built when decisions are made through a more transparent process, with the involvement of broader sections of society.

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