Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ukraine Threads Path Between Russia And The West

Prague, June 27 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine is torn between the desire to join the West and the burden of political and economic realities that still bind it to the East. And there is no easy way out of this dilemma.

The events of the last few days alone confirm this impression.

Speaking yesterday in the Polish parliament, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said that his country's "main foreign policy goal is to gain full recognition as a Central European country." He added that such a recognition would imply eventual acceptance into the major European institutions, such as the European Union and the West European Union -- a West European defense organization allied with NATO.

Kuchma emphasized that Ukraine has already made major steps toward the West -- it has joined the NATO Partnership for Peace program and has sought and gained acceptance to the Council of Europe. But he also reminded his audience that Kyiv feels a pressing need to consider in its policies interests of Russia, Ukraine's powerful eastern neighbor.

Seen from Moscow, Ukraine is still "near abroad" and many influential Russian politicians seem to continue having mixed feelings about Kyiv's separateness and sovereignty.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin has recently urged in a formal report on Russia's national security the establishment of a close-knit union between Russia Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. It was to be rooted in the existing structure of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But to many Ukrainians, such a proposal brings back memories of the old Moscow-centered international unity.

Responding to Yeltsin's report, Kuchma's chief of staff Dmytro Tabachnyk said yesterday at a press conference in Kyiv that "Ukraine is satisfied" with the existing set-up at the CIS and does not see any need to change it. Tabachnyk implied that Yeltsin's suggestion might have been prompted by electoral rather than strategic considerations.

Kyiv has consistently refused all attempts to strengthen links between Moscow and other CIS members. Ukraine has regarded the CIS as a relatively ineffective body.

Two days ago (June 25) the parliament in Kyiv voted a ban on foreign military bases on Ukraine's territory. The ban is to be included into a new constitution, which may be adopted by a nationwide referendum scheduled for the end of September. The measure will affect the future of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is headquartered in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol.

This is certain to fuel the long simmering tension between Ukraine and Russia. This tension has recurrently surfaced, whether on the occasion of ethnic conflicts in the Crimean Republic or during protracted negotiations on economic relations.

Ukraine continues to depend heavily on Russian supplies of energy resources and is still linked with Russia through a multitude of other economic and trade links. And these links will certainly continue in the years to come, not withstanding massive influx of aid from the West -- Ukraine is the fourth largest recipient of U.S. aid and receives help from other Western countries as well -- these links with Russia may indeed even expand.

That fact alone makes long-term policy making difficult for Kyiv, considerably narrowing its field of maneuver.

In many ways, this situation has been a constant factor in Ukrainian politics. The country has for many centuries been caught between other states. And this meant that it has been unable to develop its own political and economic base, and its own firm cultural identity.

Kuchma appears determined to throw away that burden of the past. Speaking in Warsaw about Ukraine's drive to join the West, Kuchma told the Polish parliamentarians that Kyiv's "choice is well considered and final."

But this, in itself, does not make maneuvering to reach the goal any easier.