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Ukraine: Isolated From the West, Kyiv Renews Ties With Russia

Over the past two weeks, a series of top-level meetings between Ukrainian and Russian leaders has called for closer relations between the two countries. RFE/RL looks at whether Ukraine is shifting closer to Russia.

Prague, 18 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and the country's new prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, visited Moscow amid calls from both sides for closer ties between their countries.

This week, the sentiment was echoed when State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev visited Ukraine. The mutual warm wishes come amid Kuchma's growing isolation from the West, as criticism over human rights abuses and the alleged sale of an Ukrainian radar system to Iraq has risen steadily in recent months.

Ivan Lozowy is the director of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, a Ukrainian think tank. Lozowy said Kuchma is turning toward Moscow because he has little real hope of winning back Western support. "As long as Kuchma is in power -- and even the most optimistic possibilities, for him, means only another couple of years -- there can be no discussion about serious steps toward European integration. I would say that the main reason for this is not even Kuchma's unwillingness for it but because he can't achieve it," Lozowy said.

During his Moscow visit last week -- during which he attended the closing ceremony of "A Year of Ukraine in Russia," a series of Ukrainian cultural programs that will be repeated in 2003 with a year of Russian culture in Ukraine -- Kuchma told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that he could not visualize the future of his country without the warmest of relations with Russia.

On the same trip, Yanukovych and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov discussed Ukraine's possible entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community. Kasyanov said he was eager to promote Ukraine's integration with Russia, a statement Lozowy said is an indication that Russia is the driving force behind the push for closer relations between the two countries. "The initiative for closer ties between Ukraine and Russia has come almost entirely from the Russian side. The 'Year of Ukraine in Russia' was an initiative of Russia and Vladimir Putin, as was the idea of the gas consortium that was supposed to involve West European companies but, as we see, so far involves only Russian and Ukrainian businesses. All these initiatives, in my opinion, reflect the tendency, or a certain consensus, among Russia's leading elites to move into Ukraine," Lozowy said.

Kyiv's relations with Moscow have repeatedly cooled and warmed since Ukraine's independence in 1991. Kuchma has spent his years in power appearing to ricochet between the West and Russia -- at one moment vowing closer ties with the European Union, NATO, and the United States, then leaning back toward Russia when ties with the West take a turn for the worse.

This is one of those times. Western leaders and organizations are increasingly shunning Kuchma for his alleged role in everything from corruption to vote tampering to the murder of an opposition journalist. The scandal that broke out this fall over the Ukrainian president's alleged approval of a sale of a sophisticated radar system to Iraq represented a violation of United Nations sanctions and resulted in the United States slashing aid to Ukraine and Kuchma's invitation to attend last month's NATO summit being rescinded. When the Ukrainian president arrived in Prague nonetheless, he was roundly snubbed by Western leaders.

Carlos Pascual, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said this week there was little chance of a meeting between Kuchma and U.S. President George W. Bush, and the European Union recently said Ukraine's chances of entry are remote. By contrast, Putin has made Kuchma feel welcome, extending eight invitations this year for the beleaguered Ukrainian leader to visit Moscow.

A political adviser to the Ukrainian presidential administration, Mykhaylo Pohrebynskyy, said it is the sting of the Western snubs that has driven Kuchma to seek solace in warmer ties with Russia. "These are absolutely understandable declarations of mutual support, especially at a time when there are complications in the relationship with the U.S. and other Western countries. But as far as concrete changes in policies, especially economic policies, nothing essentially new is happening [with Russia]. Closer ties are not being forged," Pohrebynskyy said.

Pohrebynskyy said, moreover, that the current chill in relations between the Kuchma government and Western leaders will not permanently deter Ukraine's ambition for Western integration. "I never seriously expected a swift pace as far as European integration goes, for example, entry into the European Union. I knew about all the problems that arise when applying for membership in the European Union. I was easily reconciled to the idea that EU entry will take at least another five years -- that was understood by specialists in the field. Therefore, to say that the atmosphere or the chances for European integration have worsened recently with attention being placed on the conduct of the Ukrainian government is, I believe, not the important point here. There are many other things that currently distance us from Europe, and these do not concern the attitude toward Ukraine's leadership but are connected to our economic, social, and political problems," Pohrebynskyy said.

Lozowy also thinks Ukraine will continue to focus on European goals regardless of Kuchma. "Ukraine's attempt to break through to Europe is in many ways unconnected to Kuchma's position. Ukrainians of all political convictions realize that Western Europe represents what they are fond of calling 'normal, civilized life.' Even though Ukrainians haven't experienced such a life during their existence on this earth, they realize it would be better than what they have today," Lozowy said.

Western leaders have made clear their differences are with Kuchma and that they do not want to isolate Ukraine. The presidents of Lithuania and Poland, set to join the European Union in 2004, have offered their services to deepen Ukraine's European integration.