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Ukraine: President Notes Worsening Ties With Russia

Gomel, Belarus; 17 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma sealed stronger economic links with Belarus today but meanwhile warned of worsening relations between Kyiv and Moscow.

Kuchma said he had noticed what he called "a systematic deterioration" in relations between his country and Russia.

Although he did not offer specifics, correspondents note that Ukraine's relations with Moscow have long been strained over the division of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet.

Kuchma was speaking in the southern Belarus city of Gomel where he and Lukashenka signed a communique aimed at simplifying customs rules and containing other measures aimed at improving relations.

Interfax said the two leaders also agreed to set up a joint committee to address problems involving the 953 km border shared by the two nations.

Commenting on today's talks, Lukashenka was upbeat saying if all of today's agreements come into affect, Belarus' relations with Ukraine, "will overtake all relations Belarus has with other states."

The unscheduled meeting was called at short notice. Kuchma had told reporters the talks were expected to focus on industrial relations, customs disputes and border issues. However observers say Belarus's possible future integration with Russia had prompted the calling of the meeting.

On Monday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed referendums in Russia and Belarus on a possible union between the two former Soviet republics. Many in Ukraine, which shares a border and ethnic and religious ties with both countries, fear such a move could weaken Ukrainian independence.