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Ukraine: Kyiv Tries To Balance Eastern And Western Influences

Prague, 3 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Germany's President Roman Herzog today arrives in Kyiv for a three-day state visit designed to emphasize Germany's close and friendly relations with Ukraine.

Indeed, Germany is one of Ukraine's most important economic partners. Their trade turnover, worth close to $2 billion last year, puts Germany behind only Russia and the U.S.. Germany is also the second-largest aid provider to Ukraine, after the U.S.

But Herzog is not expected to conclude any new economic deals during the visit, although Kyiv officials clearly hope the trip could lead to progress in protracted talks on joint Western Europe-Ukraine production of the newly designed Antonov An-70 transport plane.

Rather, the accent behind Herzog's talks with Ukrainian leaders -- he is to meet both President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko, among others -- seems to be fundamentally political. It is to emphasize that Germany regards independent and sovereign Ukraine, as an important actor in Europe's game of politics.

"We understand the extremely important role which Ukraine plays in Eastern Europe," Herzog told a Ukrainian news agency last weekend, adding that "that's why we pay so much attention to developing relations with it."

Coincidentally, Herzog's visit comes only five days after Kuchma's working trip to Moscow, where he conferred for two days (Jan. 29-30) with Russia's President Boris Yeltsin.

A joint Yeltsin-Kuchma communiqu said that the two had been "satisfied with the process of positive change" in bilateral relations during recent months.

Kuchma said afterwards that they had "no differences on any issue," although he complained about apparent delays in the implementation of earlier agreements, including the lack of progress in formally setting the Ukrainian-Russian border.

Kuchma and Yeltsin were reported by the Russian media to have also talked about expanding economic cooperation. No decisions were taken, but the two leaders said that they plan to sign a formal accord during Kuchma's forthcoming state visit to Moscow at the end of February. This accord, which is currently being finalized by a specialized joint commission, is said to cover ten years until 2007.

The accord is designed to lead to more than doubling the bilateral trade turnover, which is currently estimated at about $18 billion worth last year. If fully implemented, this expansion of the bilateral trade will inevitably further strengthen the already existing economic bonds between the two countries. Russia is Ukraine's main supplier of oil and gas, and it is the leading investor in Ukraine.

These economic ties have an important political significance, particularly as the Russian expansion comes on the heels of a decreasing Western interest in the Ukrainian economy. They may increase Moscow's influence in Ukrainian politics and the economy.

For the time being, however, two countries differ on several important issues, including military and security policies.

Many important Russian politicians still think about relations with neighboring countries in terms of some sort of "spheres of influence." They tend to regard major Western institutions, such as NATO, as political instruments designed to weaken Russia's position as a major world power. Many of these officials look at the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as both political and military counterweight to the Western Alliance.

Ukraine has consistently opposed those views, repeatedly arguing that NATO does not threaten anyone, accepting NATO's expansion in the East and professing themselves eager to cooperate with it. Kyiv has also openly demanded major changes within CIS, pushing for democratization of decision-making, and emphasis on economic, rather than military problems. During last year alone, Ukraine hosted several military exercises with NATO troops, in spite of openly expressed Moscow's displeasure.

Herzog's visit reflects a traditional Western policy designed to bolster Ukraine's sovereignty. This policy aims to strengthen Kyiv's position and independence, to enhance its standing in Europe. But by doing this, this policy is also predicated on the fear of the re-emergence of a Moscow-dominated eastern empire in the future.

It is viewed as such by many Russian politicians as well, as witnessed by repeated protests against "Western interferences" in the region voiced by numerous Communist and nationalist deputies in Russia's State Duma.

Ukraine has consistently rejected those protests. But it is clear that Ukraine is still mired in a deep economic crisis, and the expansion of economic ties with Russia corresponds to its vital national interests. That alone is certain to affect Kyiv's economic policies. It may influence other aspects of policy-making as well.