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Russia/Ukraine: Fleet Dispute To End This Week?

Moscow, 28 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin today is in Kyiv to prepare President Boris Yeltsin's visit to Ukraine at the end of the week. The latest comments by Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma and Russian officials indicate the two countries are close to ending their long-running dispute over the Black Sea Fleet and signing a friendship treaty aimed at soothing tensions.

Chernomyrdin will meet Kuchma and other top Ukrainian officials in Kyiv today. Yeltsin is scheduled to visit Ukraine's capital Friday and Saturday. During the last two years, Yeltsin has postponed the visit to Kyiv and the signing of the treaty at least six times. Outstanding differences between Moscow and Kyiv over the division of the Fleet were cited as one of the key reasons for the postponements.

Kuchma yesterday told journalists in Estonia's capital, Tallinn, that he is "extremely optimistic" he and Yeltsin this time will meet and sign a "wide-range friendship treaty. "

The document is to seal Russia's formal recognition of Ukraine as a sovereign state. Ukraine and Russia have wrestled over the Black Sea Fleet, since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the aging fleet -- based in the Crimean peninsula port of Sevastopol -- on Ukrainian territory populated mainly by ethnic Russians.

Kuchma cautioned last week that "some forces" in Russia and Ukraine were still trying to derail Yeltsin's visit. In Tallinn, Kuchma said that the signing of a wide-range agreement will "deprive those in Russia and Ukraine, who are building their political careers on the lack of such a document, of the possibility to do so."

Kuchma did not elaborate further, but said he and Yeltsin "must solve all existing problems" between the two countries. And Kuchma added that "if Yeltsin will not sign the agreement - then nobody else will sign it."

Last week, Kuchma said he and Yeltsin should not sign a friendship agreement, until a final agreement on the Black Sea Fleet and its basing was reached.

Interfax news agency quoted him as saying yesterday that all disagreements concerning the fleet have been "solved, in principle" during recent negotiations. He added that only what he called "details" remain to be solved, including the lease of the huge naval base at Sevastopol.

Kuchma's words were echoed by Russian officials. A Russian negotiating team lead by Deputy Prime Minister Valery Serov left Kyiv Monday evening, after several days of talks with Ukrainian officials.

The head of the Russian Government's Information Department, Igor Shabdurasulov, said that during the talks Russian and Ukrainian officials had reached a preliminary agreement for the solution of the Black Sea Fleet dispute. Shabdurasulov said Russia believes the issue should be solved, "in the frame of a comprehensive friendship agreement." He added that Russia "has reasons to believe that such an agreement will be reached." Kuchma, in Tallinn, characterized the talks as "difficult," and said all "problematic issues" should be solved in talks at Prime Ministers' level, before his meeting with Yeltsin.

Russia and Ukraine agreed on the division of the Fleet in 1995, but there has been tension over where it should be based. Russia initially had insisted on having the unrestricted and sole possession of the base, while Ukraine had said that the base, being on its territory, could only be leased to Russia for a limited amount of time. Previous negotiations had so far produced no solution on the dispute, but Ukraine's Security and Defense Council Secretary Volodymir Horbulin said commanders of each the Ukrainian and the Russian part of the divided fleet had met behind closed doors last week, to discuss the joint use of the Sevastopol port facilities.

Interfax quoted unnamed participants in the recent Ukraine-Russia talks as saying that, under the preliminary agreements, two of Sevastopol's bays will be used by Ukraine's fleet. And a big chunk of the port facilities, including two others bays will be leased by Russia for its ships for a period of 10-to-20 years.

The mayor of Sevastopol, Viktor Semyonov, participated in some of the latest negotiations. He was quoted recently as saying "never before have Ukraine and Russia been so close to solving the problem as they are now." Semyonov said he is sure that "Prime Ministers and Presidents will put the final period to this question."

The Upper House of Russia's Parliament, the Federation Council, affirmed last December that Sevastopol should be regarded as being under Russian jurisdiction. That statement and subsequential territorial claims by a number of Russian politicians -- in particular Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov -- fueled tensions in relations between the two countries, and encouraged new separatist claims by hard-line, pro-Russian groups in Crimea.

Observers in Moscow say the Kremlin is coming to the conclusion that further postponements of Yeltsin's visit to Kyiv could prove counterproductive for the development of further bi-lateral relations. Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Yevgeny Primakov said last week that Moscow "is not satisfied with the level of development of relations with Ukraine" which, he said could be "much more advanced."

Last week, Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said plans for Yeltsin's visit were going full-speed ahead, but that it was unclear what documents would be ready for signing. A RFE/RL correspondent in Kyiv today described the situation in Ukraine's capital as one of "growing nervousism," ahead of Yeltsin's visit.

But, today's talks between Chernomyrdin and Ukrainian officials is seen as a step further towards a clarification of the issue.