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Russia/Ukraine: Leaders Move To Calm Tension On Black Sea Fleet

By Stephanie Baker and Jan de Weydenthal

Moscow, 25 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma are said to have reached an agreement on "all questions" related to the fate of the disputed the Black Sea Fleet. But they refused to provide details of the deal.

The meeting signaled an effort by both presidents to ease tension between their countries on the issue of the fleet, particularly in view of recent nationalistic statements by various Russian politicians. But their failure to give specifics about the "agreement" makes it uncertain whether it will lead to a resolution of the problem.

The two leaders held talks yesterday at the Barvikha sanatorium near Moscow, where Yeltsin is preparing for heart surgery scheduled for next month.

Yeltsin's spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said after the meeting that the two had agreed on all the questions related to the fleet. He also said that Yeltsin's would go to Kyiv after his surgery to sign of a long-awaited basic friendship treaty between Russia and Ukraine.

Kuchma subsequently told reporters that Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin will visit Kyiv in mid-November to sign several agreements on the fleet.

But neither Yastrzhembsky nor Kuchma gave details on the deal reached during the meeting with, raising fears that the dispute could well linger on for some time.

Numerous agreements on the division of the Black Sea Fleet have been announced in the past, only to get bogged down in the details.

Last year (June 1995) Yeltsin and Kuchma agreed on how the fleet should be divided: it was to be split along an approximate four-to-one ratio in favor of Russia. This division has already been partially implemented.

But the main stumbling bloc in all earlier and subsequent negotiations has been the status of the huge naval base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Moscow wants to have an unrestricted and sole possession of the base, while Ukraine insists on its control and says that the base and a string of near-by harbors give enough space for both Ukrainian and Russian fleets.

The Sevastopol issue was apparently removed from the Yeltsin-Kuchma talks. That much was hinted by Yastrzhembsky and confirmed indirectly by Kuchma, who said that the Russian fleet should remain temporarily based at Sevastopol for the "period long enough for Russia to able to decide on the site where it will have its principal base."

Kuchma said that until then, a joint working commission, composed of Ukraine's First Deputy Prime Minister Vasily Durdinets and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Valery Serov, would try to work out the details.

Andrei Piontowski, an analyst with the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL that Ukraine had consistently argued that Russia could lease a part of the port of Sevastopol for its naval base but also insisted that the port itself is on Ukrainian territory and will always remain under Ukrainian control, while Russia had claimed the entire port of Sevastopol for "a Russian base."

Just two days before Kuchma's visit to Moscow, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and a group of prominent Russian politicians published an open letter in the daily "Moskovskaya Pravda," calling on the Russian government to claim sovereignty over Sevastopol. Earlier this month, former national security chief Aleksandr Lebed caused a stir by saying that Sevastopol is a Russian city.

Two days ago, shortly before Kuchma's arrival in Moscow, overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution warning that Russia will never cede control of Sevastopol. The resolution said that Sevastopol "was, is and will be the main base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet." It also said that the government should halt division of the fleet.

Kuchma condemned the resolution, which, he said, could lead to a deterioration of relations between Russia and Ukraine. He also had harsh words for Russian reformers who failed to vote against the resolution, singling out Yegor Gaidar, leader of Russia's Choice, and deputies of the pro-government faction Our Home is Russia.

Only the liberal Yabloko faction, led by Grigory Yavlinsky, issued a statement yesterday saying it did not support the Duma resolution. But Yabloko was virtually alone in its criticism.