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East/West: Baltic-Black Sea Conference Revealed Divisions

The Livadia palace was the site of the 1945 Yalta conference, at which the victors of World War Two divided Europe into spheres of Eastern and Western influence. On September 10 and 11, 1999, it was the site of an international conference called "Towards an Integrated Europe of the 21st Century Without Dividing Lines." But the old divisions are still in evidence, as RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde reports from Kiev.

Yalta, 13 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At the opening of the Baltic-Black Sea cooperation summit on Friday (Sept. 10), Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma asked prospective members of the European Union not to set up new barriers to Ukrainian citizens. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have recently announced they are considering a visa requirement for visitors from Ukraine.

Kuchma said: "There is a real fear that the old Iron Curtain can be replaced with a different, more humane but no less dangerous Paper Curtain. Ukraine is disturbed about this."

His speech marked the start of the two-day conference. About 200 delegates attended, some of them heads of state, from 22 countries of Europe, the Baltic and Black Sea regions, and from international organizations including NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Kuchma said Ukraine would take the initiative in a dialogue between Europe, Asia and Africa on the question of illegal immigrants who use Ukraine as a transit country on their way to the West. He said the main purpose of the conference is to prevent law-abiding Ukrainian citizens being penalized for the infractions of illegal immigrants.

Kuchma also said the conference seeks to establish trade, communications and energy transport routes from Asia and the Baltics to Europe.

Kuchma said one important project is the restoration of the historic silk road that connected Central Asia and China with Europe. In Kuchma's words, "Ukraine will actively participate because of its geographical position on the crossroads of the route between North and South, East and West."

Later on Friday and Saturday the presidents and other representatives were engaged in various bilateral meetings. Some of those took place aboard the cruise ship Taras Shevchenko out on the Black Sea. Kuchma met Maarti Ahtisaari, president of Finland and current head of the EU, later on Friday. The two discussed EU's decision to demand a visa regime for Ukrainians entering the countries that are applying for EU membership.

Kuchma met on Thursday with Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev to discuss oil transport corridors across Ukraine to Europe, a very important issue for Ukraine. On Saturday Aliyev met President Robert Kocharian of Armenia on the Black Sea cruise ship.

The conference ended with the signing of a joint communique. It pertained to integration of East European countries with Western Europe and to transport and communication corridors. Kuchma also said on Friday the participants would sign a joint statement of sympathy and support for Turkey and Greece after the devastating earthquakes in those countries.

The conference and summit was a major publicity coup for Ukraine and for Kuchma, who is running for another presidential term in the upcoming October elections. His opening speech was broadcast live on Ukrainian television.

Ukraine has spent around $2 million in preparation for the summit, including renovations to the Hotel Yalta, the cruise ship Taras Shevchenko, and the Livadia Palace.

By choosing to associate with Black Sea, Baltic, and European leaders so close to the election, Kuchma seems to be trying to portray himself as a strong international leader. In his opening speech, he repeatedly referred to Ukraine's uniquely important European position between the Black Sea and the Baltic. Less than a month ago, Kuchma announced that he rejected as pointless the idea of an economic and political "Slavic union" with Russian and Belarus, which many of his leftist presidential rivals support.

Russia was represented at the conference only by first Vice President Viktor Khristenko. And Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka received a snub when his invitation was revoked. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry told Interfax news agency the cancellation was an unfriendly gesture inconsistent with the conference's purpose to abolish division in Europe. The ministry said the Ukrainian side made the decision because of Belarus' strained relations with the European Union and OSCE. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, however, said Belarus was excluded because it was not a member of either the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation, the Baltic States Council, or the Vysehrad grouping of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary.