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Russia/Ukraine: Yeltsin Visit Expected To Broaden Influence

Prague, 29 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - When Russian President Boris Yeltsin arrives tomorrow in Kyiv for a first visit ever of a Russian leader to an independent Ukrainian state, his presence there will seal Moscow's formal recognition of the former Soviet republic as a sovereign country. But it will also signal a rapprochement between the two sides that, some analysts say, may strengthen Russia's influence in the new bilateral relationship.

For Kyiv, Yeltsin's visit signifies above all Moscow's acceptance of Ukraine as a separate national and political entity. It is a belated acceptance, largely owing to the lingering hope in the influential sectors of the Russian political establishment that Ukraine will reunify with Russia.

Ukraine declared its independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. But Yeltsin has postponed visits to the nascent state at least six times in the last two years.

In the meantime, Ukraine has been quite successful in asserting its independence. A member of the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, Ukraine has nonetheless refrained from taking part in the joint military structure of that alliance. It has based its policy on firm, and developing, ties to Western institutions.

Ukraine has joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program and has repeatedly hinted that it may be willing to join the alliance itself in the years to come. NATO and Ukraine today finalized the terms of a charter outlining their future relations and establishing a joint commission to facilitate consultations on security and other issues. The charter is to be formally signed at a NATO summit in July.

Russia has openly and repeatedly voiced its disapproval of the Ukrainian efforts to develop close terms with the Western alliance. But to no avail. Russia's growling may have even reinforced Kyiv's determination to seek greater cooperation with the West to counterbalance possible threats from Moscow.

Yeltsin and his aides might have realized that further postponements of visits, reluctance to recognize political realities and shows of displeasure are essentially counterproductive. And this my be the main factor in his deciding to make the current trip.

This decision could also reflect the conviction that a new political move is needed to reinforce the strong, and growing, economic ties between the two countries in the assumption that their further development would provide Moscow with new opportunities to recoup the lost ground.

Once heavily dependent on the Soviet economy as a whole, Ukraine continues in effect to rely on Russian supplies of energy resources and is still linked to Russia through a multitude of economic and trade ties. Some 48 percent of Ukrainian exports go to Russia and Moscow is one of the leading, if not the leading, investors in Ukraine.

According to Western reports, the Russian economic presence is rapidly expanding, with Russian banks and industrial groups setting up offices and making investments throughout the country.

This Russian economic expansion follows on the heel of a decreasing Western interest in the Ukrainian economy. Within the last two three months alone, several Western companies have either left or drastically curtailed their operations owing to rampant official corruption, restrictive taxation and pervasive bureaucracy.

With the decline of Western involvement, the field is increasingly open to Russian penetration. Yeltsin's visit can only strengthen this trend.

Yeltsin is scheduled to sign a basic treaty of friendship and cooperation with Ukraine. The treaty has been held up for years, in part because of continuing disputes over the base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The division of the fleet itself between the two countries was decided several years earlier with about 20 percent of ships going to Ukraine and the rest staying in Russian hands.

The issue is reported to have been solved when Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Lazarenko yesterday signed a deal in which Ukraine will lease the base in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol to Russia for 20 years.

Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov today said that Russia would pay an annual rent to Ukraine in the amount of about $100 million worth for the lease. But the payment would be taken out of Ukraine's outstanding debts to Russia. At the beginning of the current month, Ukraine's debt to Russia amounted to about $2.3 billion.