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Russia/Ukraine: Moscow, Kyiv Set Up Commission To Examine Relations

The presidents of Russia and Ukraine have set up a joint commission to examine sensitive issues between the two countries. The new Russia-Ukraine commission will look at security, economic cooperation, international relations, and humanitarian issues. Relations between Moscow and Kyiv have soured over last year's bitterly contested presidential election in Ukraine, in which President Viktor Yushchenko defeated a Kremlin-backed candidate.

Prague, 10 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian and Ukrainian presidents signed a joint declaration on the establishment of a Russian-Ukrainian Interstate Commission on 8 May that will negotiate the two countries' most sensitive issues.

Oleksandr Sushko directs a Kyiv-based nongovernmental think tank called the Center for Peace, Conversion, and Foreign Policy of Ukraine. He says the commission will focus more on some 15 sets of problems between the two neighbors. "There are some 15 sets of problems if I am not mistaken. I do not remember all of them. To begin with the main problems are these -- creating a free-trade regime, delimitation of sea borders, and demarcation of land borders," he said. "It [the commission] will also discuss cooperation in advanced technologies, such as aircraft construction."

The commission will be chaired by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. It will incorporate a committee on economic cooperation that will be headed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and his Ukrainian counterpart Yuliya Tymoshenko. In addition, subcommittees subordinate to the two presidents will be set up. One, focusing on security, is to be headed by the countries' defense ministers. Another on international cooperation will be headed by the foreign ministers. The commission also set up a subcommittee on humanitarian cooperation to be led by Ukraine's and Russia's education and science ministers.

The new body will meet twice a year, and will likely find it difficult to reach agreements on contentious issues such as the future of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, stationed in Ukraine, and border issues.
"Putin understands that either with Belarus or with Ukraine he should have very friendly relations because through these two countries all Russian gas and oil goes to Europe." - Russian analyst

Sushko says the delimitation of the border in the Azov Sea will require tough negotiations to complete. He says the two sides are not close to an agreement on the sea border even after three years of negotiations. He adds that land borders are demarcated but haven't been delimited due to reluctance on the part of Russia. However, the analyst says Russia now seems to be changing its stance.

Sushko says a discussion on the future of Russia's naval base on Ukrainian territory on the Black Sea is in Ukraine's interest even though the lease does not expire until 2017. "The purpose of negotiations is not withdrawal of Russian forces [now] as a lot of time is still left," he said. "However, negotiations on the withdrawal should start earlier because the experience of Moldova and Georgia indicate that Russia never fulfills the agreed terms on the withdrawal of its troops."

However, the most contentious issues -- such as Ukraine's efforts to join NATO and the situation of Russian speakers in the country -- are unlikely to be discussed by the commission. Sushko says Ukraine will not discuss its Western political orientation with Russia because it is Kyiv's right to choose the direction of its own foreign policy.

Will the commission work efficiently? Sushko says it is a step forward in the relations between the two countries.

But others, like Kirill Koktysh, an analyst with the Moscow Institute of International Relations, say problems of economic and political reality are more pressing than the creation of new interstate bodies. He says the new Ukrainian government's efforts to investigate some of the country's privatization deals might pose one of the biggest problems in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Many Russian businessmen own property and businesses in Ukraine and are afraid to lose their property. Koktysh says the commission should discuss this issue.

Koktysh says, however, that the establishment of the commission reflects the economic realities in both countries and their mutual interdependence. "Putin understands that either with Belarus or with Ukraine he should have very friendly relations because through these two countries all Russian gas and oil goes to Europe," he told RFE/RL. "From this point of view, problems in the relations between Russia and Ukraine or Belarus means substantial problems for the European economy as well as for the Russian economy."

The analyst also says it is in the domestic political interests of both presidents to establish such a commission, as they both seek to show their respective peoples that they are doing everything they can to improve mutual relations. Many Ukrainians sympathize with Russia -- especially in the east of the country -- and winning over these voters is in President Yushchenko's interest.

On the other hand, President Putin could use some foreign-policy victories to showcase, especially after the recent revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan that unfolded against Russia's wishes.