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Ukraine: Kyiv Caught In Balancing Act Between East And West

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's joint attendance at a naval display Sunday (29 July) is the latest sign of growing warmth between the two countries. Ukraine is increasingly under Russia's influence, but according to two London-based Ukraine watchers, this should not be a cause for concern in the West. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports.

Prague, 31 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma took part in a joint review of both countries' fleets in the Crimean port of Sevastopol on 29 July.

The review was part of celebrations marking Russia's Navy Day. The presidents also found time for private talks at a dinner on the Russian flagship "Moskva."

The meeting is a further sign of the return to cozier relations that cooled after the Soviet Union collapsed and the two countries bickered over the future of Crimea and the ownership of the Black Sea fleet. Sevastopol today is the base for Russia's part of the Black Sea fleet, which the sides agreed to divide in 1997.

The fleet review is the second time Putin and Kuchma have met this month. And the leaders will meet for a third time tomorrow (1 August) in the Russian resort of Sochi, at an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Steven Everts is senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London. He says the growing closeness between Russia and Ukraine is in part thanks to Putin's more robust foreign policy:

"We see -- at least, I think -- a desire on the part of Putin to reinvigorate Russian foreign policy after the drift of the Yeltsin years and stamp a strong mercantilist strand on Russian foreign policy. And I think that this attempt at a stronger influence on [Ukraine] or a rapprochement with [Ukraine] should be put in that context. I don't think there's anything particularly sinister about the restoration of the empire."

Everts says the Kremlin's motives should be no real cause for concern for the West, as Russia is still too weak economically and politically to force its influence on Ukraine.

He differentiates Ukraine from countries further to the West, which see their futures more naturally allied to the European Union and NATO. He says he detects an effort by Ukraine to perform a foreign-policy balancing act -- similar to Russia's -- that hovers between East and West. He cites as a recent example Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit last week to Moscow and Kyiv.

"The accession countries (countries hoping to join the EU), the sense of direction is clear, they have made the strategic decision that their future lies with Western institutional structures, with the EU and NATO and so on. There's a wider and open debate in Ukraine and Russia about their position in the global game and I think that overtures vis-a-vis China should be seen in that context. I think that is right and proper. It is about a sense of balance and the key question for the months ahead is what sort of balance will emerge in Ukraine's foreign policy."

That balancing act was in further evidence yesterday (30 July) with the arrival in Ukraine of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Solana praised Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh for what he called a "commitment to respect human rights," but also urged Kinakh to "follow that line." He is due to meet Kuchma and other top officials today.

Robert Wareing is a British member of parliament who sits on two all-party groups on Russia and Ukraine. He says the issue is one of mutual dependence, as Russia needs the Sevastopol port and Ukraine is in debt to Russia.

"I'm not sure if warmer is quite the word, but [relations are] certainly closer. Ukraine depends on Russia for many of its energy supplies and in fact it is in debt to Russia, so that Russia can always use its influence to pressurize Ukraine."

But Wareing says the rapprochement need not make it harder for the West to press for change in areas of concern in the Ukraine, such as slow political reform and the recent unexplained deaths of two journalists. He says improving relations between the West and Russia may make it easier for the West to increase its clout in Ukraine as well.

"I think if Russia's influence on Ukraine is increasing, then of course it may well be possible for the West, in improving relations with Russia, to put some pressure on Ukraine to be more democratic. I think that there is certainly a lack of democratic vigor in Ukraine, which is not missing to the same extent as Russia."

Political reforms dominated talks last week between Kuchma and U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Rice also urged the Ukrainian leader to carry out a full probe into the killings of critical journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and regional TV station director Ihor Alexandrov.

Gongadze's murder last year prompted large protests against Kuchma. Protesters have accused Kuchma of playing a role in the murder, a charge Kuchma vehemently denies.

Though this uncomfortable message may push Ukraine even further toward Russia, Everts says it is right for Rice and other Western policy-makers to emphasize that forging ties is dependent on Ukraine's progress toward reforms.

"This is the right approach to take. Recent events in Ukraine over the last few months have pointed in the wrong direction, and I think it's right for the West to make this clear, that yes, we are very interested in closer cooperative ties, economic ties, financial systems, you name it, but this is conditional on Ukraine and other countries behaving in a way that we consider conducive to closer cooperation and good relations."

He says it's key that the EU think carefully about how to bolster reforms, and about the consequences of EU enlargement for Ukraine, which could be penalized, for example, by a stricter visa regime with Poland.