Prague, 12 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Next week, Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, will again take up the issue of the Russian-Ukrainian treaty of friendship. The debate promises to be sharp, as the treaty has become increasingly controversial since its passage in the State Duma last December and in Ukraine's Supreme Council in January 1998.
The treaty, which guarantees the inviolability of the current border between Russia and Ukraine, was first signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, on 31 May 1997.
The Federation Council seems likely to approve the treaty, fearing its rejection could drive Ukraine into NATO's embrace. But the issues of Crimea's status and Slavic integration are likely to remain hot topics in Russian politics, gaining in intensity as presidential elections near.
After all, likely presidential contender Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his adviser, Konstantin Zatulin, director of Russia's Institute for CIS Countries, have been the most outspoken recently in condemning the treaty. Similarly, the presidential contenders from among the Communists, party leader Gennadi Zyuganov and Duma Chairman Gennadi Seleznev, have been equally impassioned in the treaty's defense.
In his speech to the Federal Council on 27 January, Luzhkov reportedly managed to persuade some senators in the Council to change their plans and vote to postpone consideration of the treaty. In his remarks, Luzhkov stressed that ratification of the treaty would in effect separate Crimea and Sevastopol from Russia forever, thus undermining the goal of brotherly relations between Russia and Ukraine. He also charged Ukraine with discriminating against ethnic Russians.
Prior to that speech, Luzhkov's adviser, Zatulin launched his own attack on the treaty in a lengthy article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Anticipating Luzhkov's remarks, Zatulin argued that Crimea and Sevastopol belong "indisputably" to Russia and that an official endorsement of the Russian-Ukrainian treaty would legally seal their secession from Russia.
According to Zatulin, CPSU General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev moved to transfer Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 to "enlist support of comrades from the Ukrainian Communist Party" in his struggle "to expose the cult of personality [of Joseph Stalin]" in the then CPSU Politburo.
The formal decision to transfer Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR -- following a joint motion by the Supreme Soviet Presidiums of the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR -- was made by the USSR Supreme Soviet on 26 February 1954.
That decision, according to Zatulin, contravened the USSR and RSFSR Constitutions, both of which pledged to guarantee the territorial integrity of the RSFSR.
Regardless of its legal validity, Zatulin continues, the 1954 decision to incorporate Crimean Oblast into Ukraine did in no way embrace Sevastopol, which had been declared an independent administrative and economic center -- subordinated directly to the RSFSR authorities in Moscow -- by a USSR Supreme Soviet decree in 1948. Thus, Zatulin concludes, Ukraine has no legal rights whatsoever to the "city of Russia's military glory," as Russian media often refer to Sevastopol -- the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Zatulin also addressed the issue of what he called the "ethnic genocide" of the 10 million Russians in Ukraine. These Russians, according to Zatulin, are currently subjected to a policy of forced Ukrainization and denied the right to develop their own independent ethnic identity. Zatulin concludes that the adoption of the Russian-Ukrainian treaty will result in Russia's "strategic defeat."
Among those in favor of ratifying the treaty, rhetoric is equally inflamed. Duma Chairman Seleznev suggested that those who oppose the treaty "want to tear Ukraine away" from Russia and foil plans to form a Slavic Union of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. In what may be wishful thinking on his part, Seleznev concludes that Luzhkov is "committing political suicide" by opposing the treaty.
Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov is more nonchalant, blaming Luzhkov's opposition to the treaty on Zatulin, who, according to Zyuganov, spawns "scandals and discord wherever he appears." Zyuganov argues that the treaty is key to the revival of a Slavic union composed of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
While the bulk of the Russian electorate purportedly regrets the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it is unclear what financial or political costs -- if any -- they are willing to bear for some kind of smaller reconstituted Union or bigger and better Russia. Nevertheless, that sentiment can and will be exploited by both the Russian nationalists and Pan-Slavists, as Luzhkov, Zyuganov, and Seleznev have already so ably demonstrated.