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Ukraine/Russia: Agreements Seal Uncertain Economic Cooperation

Prague, 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is back in Kyiv today, having yesterday concluded his four-day controversial trip to Russia with a brief visit to the western Siberian region of Kemerovo. He attended the signing of a regional trade protocol there, and went to see his sister's grave.

During the earlier stay in Moscow, Kuchma and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed last week (Feb. 27) several documents designed to increase bilateral cooperation and stimulate integration within Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), although the long-term political import of these acts remain clouded in uncertainty.

The most important of those documents was an agreement on economic cooperation extending for ten year until 2007. It lists specific measures to develop trade and expand cooperation, particularly in energy, aviation, chemical and metallurgical industries, as well as in space exploration.

Yeltsin was reported by Russian media to have declared the agreement as the basis for a long-term "strategic partnership" between the two countries. Kuchma was reported to have added that the agreement provides "a concrete outline" to that partnership.

The two presidents also recognized in a joint statement the need to ensure a rapid ratification of the earlier agreements on the Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine has already ratified these agreements, but the Russian State Duma has failed to do so.

Finally, Kuchma and Yeltsin agreed jointly to adopt, at the next CIS summit, documents which will specify common approaches to the further development of the alliance. Moreover, the Russian media quoted Kuchma as telling Yeltsin that Ukraine does not intend to join NATO at this time.

Both presidents hailed their talks and agreements as "having solved all questions" in bilateral relations (Yeltsin) and eliminating "problems and issued that could cast any shadow on the Russian-Ukrainian relations" (Kuchma).

But doubts remain. While the letter of the trade agreement seems to support the view that the two countries might have indeed made a major step toward rapprochement, with Russia gaining an upper hand in areas of significant economic importance, much will depend on its actual implementation. Both countries have a tradition of unfulfilled agreements -- for example, with regard to the Baltic Sea Fleet -- reflecting hopes for cooperation rather than realities of action.

There is no compelling reason to assume that the current long-term trade agreement constitutes a departure from the established practice, particularly that its full implementation would involve extended and continuing effort at cooperation and coordination. And each country displays now very different economic policies, with Russia pressing for expansion and reform, and Ukraine increasingly reluctant to initiate any program of change.

There are also considerable differences between the political perception between the political establishments in the two countries. Many Russian politicians still regard Ukraine as rightfully belonging to Russia rather than an independent political entity. Most Ukrainians resent that. Nationalist groups in Kyiv want to investigate Kuchma, arguing that his policies could result in the loss of Ukraine's sovereignty. There is little prospect that those feelings or suspicions will disappear or abate in any foreseeable future.

Similar uncertainty continues to surround Kyiv's intentions with regard to NATO. Kuchma might have promised not to join the Western Alliance during the talks in Moscow. Indeed, there has never been any indication that Ukraine intended to apply for membership any time soon. But it has already reached a cooperative agreement with NATO, and held military exercises with Western forces on its territory. At the same time, however, Ukrainian National Security Council Secretary Vladimir Gorbulin has recently declared, during a visit to Britain, that Kyiv could be interested in becoming an "associate" member of the Western Alliance. There has been Kyiv denial of that statement.

Finally, there is one fundamentally important issue to be yet resolved in bilateral Russian-Ukrainian relations. It concerns Ukraine's debt for Russian gas deliveries. As of last month, Ukraine owed Russia's Gazprom close to $ 1 billion.

This week, Ukraine's Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko is to travel to Moscow to talk about the debt payment. It is unlikely, however, that the talks will solve the problem. Indeed, it is very unlikely that Ukraine will be able to satisfy Russia's demands at all in the near future. And this, in itself, creates doubt about the true character of "strategic partnership" between the two countries.