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Georgia/Ukraine: Seeds Of Strategic Partnership Planted

Moscow, 30 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma yesterday returned to Kyiv after two days of talks with Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze. The talks were to give a new impetus to economic cooperation between the two countries.

But they acquired a special political significance as well, since the two leaders have recently showed themselves to be particularly critical of Russia's dominance over the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and demanded a greater voice for their countries in that organization.

Speaking yesterday at a joint press conference in Tbilisi the two leaders agreed that their countries intend to build a "strategic partnership."

During Kuchma's visit Ukraine and Georgia signed a number of agreements on military, economic and cultural cooperation.

Ukraine's Defense Minister Aleksandr Kuzmuk said after talking to his Georgian colleague Vardiko Nadibaidze that the two countries have decided to create a joint Ukrainian-Georgian battalion to be presumably used in peace-keeping operations.

Kuzmuk was also reported to have said that Ukraine is "carefully examining" the possibility of having its SU-25 and Mig-21 fighter planes modernized at Tbilisi's aviation plant. He added that Kyiv could be interested in purchasing several modernized SU-25 fighter planes produced in the Tbilisi plant.

It has been reported in the Russian media that Kyiv may be ready to help Georgia to develop navy and maritime border guard forces.

These moves are seen in Moscow as suggesting Ukraine's efforts to strengthen its standing in the Black Sea dispute with Russia. Following five years of negotiations, Kyiv and Moscow signed in May a key agreement on the sharing of naval military base in Sebastopol.

Ukraine also has supported Georgia's efforts to increase its influence in the Black Sea area and has already given Tbilisi several of its vessels. Moscow has repeatedly refused to accept Georgia's aspirations.

The Kuchma-Shevardnadze talks were held just one week after a summit of CIS leaders in Chisinau, Moldova, that showed serious disagreements among the 12 member-states. Russian President Boris Yeltsin described the Chisinau Summit as a "rather tense" one. The Russian media reported that Yeltsin appeared to have been "clearly stunned" by strong criticism of his performance and Russia's role within the organization expressed by CIS leaders.

According to numerous Russian media reports, all CIS heads of state in attendance agreed that the organization has been of little value blamed Russia for its ineffectiveness. Shevardnadze and Kuchma were said to have been particularly outspoken.

At the press conference concluding Kuchma's visit, Shevardnadze said that Ukraine "defended Georgia's interests at all levels and tried to provide real assistance."

Kuchma said in Tbilisi that the Russia-led CIS peacekeeping operation in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia was "unproductive." The Ukraine-Georgia joint declaration issued after the talks said that Ukraine was ready to send Ukrainian peacekeeping troops to the region under the aegis of the United Nations.

Earlier this year Kuchma had said that Ukraine was prepared to replace Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia with its own troops in case the Russian soldiers would leave.

Russian commentators noted today that, compared to past offers, this time Ukraine's pledge on Abkhazia was included in an official document and is likely to have an impact in Moscow. Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry has not yet reacted.

Kuchma and other Ukrainian officials used the occasion of the visit to express interest in purchasing Caspian oil from Azerbaijan and in the development of the Traseca transport project linking Central Asia, the Transcaucasus and Europe.

Kuchma said that Ukraine is willing to transport both Azerbaijani and Kazakh oil through its "Druzhba" pipeline. He also said he had already discussed this with both Shevardnadze and Azerbaijan's president Heydar Aliyev and complained about existing Moscow's high tariffs for oil exported to Ukraine.

Speaking about the CIS, Kuchma said in Tbilisi that the organization could have a future "only if interests of each of its members-states are equally taken into account." He went on to say that Moscow has adversely affected relations between Ukraine and Georgia. Kuchma specifically noted that during his meetings with Shevardnadze he always "felt the unseen presence of a third person -- Yeltsin."

But Kuchma also emphasized that the development of friendly relations with Russia is among Ukraine's "most strategically important directions" and declared himself to be "positive" about future prospects.

Tomorrow Ukraine and Russia will start their first joint naval maneuvers since the break-up of the Black-Sea Soviet Fleet in May. The naval exercises are part of the NATO- sponsored Partnership for Peace program. Kuchma is to meet Yeltsin in mid November.