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Ukraine/Russia: Two Presidents Plan A Long Delayed Visit

Prague, 9 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian news media yesterday reported that President Boris Yeltsin was considering making a long-delayed visit to Ukraine later this month to sign a bilateral friendship treaty.

The media quoted Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, as saying that Yeltsin had discussed the visit yesterday with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma at a meeting in Moscow and that the two agreed on May 30 as a possible date for the trip. Kuchma was in the Russian capital to witness the signing of a peace protocol between Moldova and the Trans-Dnestr separatist region.

Subsequently, Kuchma held a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the village of Novoselitsy, near the city of Novgorod, where the two attended a commemorative ceremony for Soviet soldiers killed during the World War Two.

Following the meeting Chernomyrdin said that he would go to Kyiv on May 28 to prepare Yeltsin's visit.

Russia and Ukraine have so far failed to conclude the basic friendship treaty which would seal Moscow's formal recognition of the former Soviet republic as a sovereign country. Ukraine declared its independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yeltsin has postponed a visit to Ukraine, and the signing of the treaty, at least six times in the past two years.

These postponements have been blamed on continuing disputes over the base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, recurring commotions by pro-Russian separatist groups in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and disagreements on economic issues.

Russia and Ukraine have long and bitterly disagreed on 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 for its fleet, while Ukraine insists that the base is on its national territory and could only be leased to Russia for a specific time. Continuing negotiations on the issue have so far produced no solution to the dispute.

Bilateral relations have also been strained by recent forays of some Russian politicians, particularly Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov, into Crimean politics. Their nationalist agitation to claim Russian sovereignty over Sevastopol has encouraged new drives by die-hard pro-Russian groups in the peninsula to unify with Russia. The Crimean peninsula has a mostly ethnic Russian population. The republic was part of Russia for more than two centuries until former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine four decades ago.

Once heavily dependent on the Soviet economy as a whole, Ukraine continues now to rely on Russian supplies of energy resources and is still linked to Russia through a multitude of economic and trade ties. These links are certain to continue in the future, although friction has emerged in several areas, particularly as a result of Ukraine's ventures onto the international arms market and its attempts to develop links to Central Asian oil producers by-passing Russia.

Yeltsin's planned visit to Ukraine could help to mollify persistent tension in those areas. But its essential feature will be Moscow's acceptance of Ukraine as a separate national and political entity.

It is a belated acceptance, perhaps owing to the lingering hope in the influential sectors of the Russian political establishment that Ukraine will reunify Russia. But reality has clashed with that hope.

Ukraine has been very successful in asserting its independence. A member of the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Ukraine has nonetheless refrained from taking part in joint military structures of that alliance, and based its policy on firm, and developing, ties to Western institutions.

Ukraine has joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program and is preparing to reach an agreement regulating lasting relations with the Western alliance. Two days ago NATO's Secretary General Javier Solana opened in Kyiv a NATO information center to disseminate news about the alliance among the Ukrainian population. Ukraine has hinted repeatedly that it may be willing to join the alliance in the years to come.

In August Ukraine plans to stage military exercises on its territory with units of U.S. forces and troops from other NATO countries.

Russia has openly and repeatedly voiced its disapproval of those Ukrainian moves. But to no avail. Indeed, Russia growling might have only reinforced Kyiv's determination to seek greater and closer cooperation with the West to counterbalance possible threats from Moscow.

Yeltsin may have realized that further postponements of visits, reluctance to recognize political realities and shows of displeasure are essentially counterproductive. And this may be the main reason for his visit to Kyiv.

In the meantime, Ukraine's consolidation of statehood has already reinforced broader changes in Eastern Europe. Its emergence as a fully independent state on Russia's western border has reduced somewhat Moscow's influence in both the region and Europe as a whole.