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Ukraine: What Are The Motives Behind Kuchma's Tour Of Central Asia?

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is in Kyrgyzstan today on the second leg of a tour of Central Asia. His first stop was Tajikistan. Later today, he'll head to Uzbekistan. It is Kuchma's first visit to these countries in his role as leader of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). RFE/RL reports on what Kuchma hopes to achieve on his trip.

Prague, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was elected head of the CIS last January and promised to breathe new life into an organization generally viewed as a failure since its inception following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The CIS incorporates many of the former Soviet republics, but it has been looked at with suspicion by many of its members as an attempt by its most powerful and enthusiastic member, Russia, to re-create a neo-U.S.S.R. led by Moscow.

Ukraine has never formally become a CIS member. Nevertheless, Kuchma was eager to head the organization, and his election as leader was arranged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the past two years, Kuchma has largely been snubbed by Western leaders because of accusations of corruption, abuse of human rights, election fraud, and the alleged sale of banned weapons systems to Iraq.

Many Ukrainian political observers, like Valeriy Chaliy of the independent Rozumkov Center think tank, believe Kuchma's tour of Central Asia, which began on 8 April in Tajikistan, is primarily driven by his desire to portray himself as an important political player. "To sum it up, I think that the president of Ukraine is going where he's allowed to go and not where Ukraine's national interests would gain maximum benefit," Chaliy said.

Chaliy said Kuchma would rather be visiting a Western European country or the U.S., whose leaders have largely ostracized him, than destinations in Central Asia. "Of course for Ukraine, developing relations with these [Central Asian] countries is important, and there are economic interests involved. But I think that one has to look at this visit in the context that at the moment it's convenient for the president to travel to the East rather than the West," he said.

Kuchma's press spokesperson, Oksana Kosyarev, explained that Kuchma has embarked on the tour in a dual role as CIS chief and leader of Ukraine. "There are two positions. First, talks in his position as head of the CIS about forming a free-trade zone. And the second for bilateral talks between him as president of Ukraine with the Tajik president, with him as president of Ukraine with the president of Kyrgyzstan and the same with Uzbekistan," Kosyarev said.

Kuchma has previously said that his priority as CIS head is to try to create a free-trade zone among its members. He repeated that message in his talks with Tajik President Immomali Rakhmonov.

Kuchma says the CIS had been important as a transitional body that helped to ensure the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union. But in what appeared to be a veiled criticism of Russia, Kuchma said that for the CIS to survive it should be a political organization that benefits all of its members.

"Referring to the experience of the European Union, which works for the benefit of all its members and not just one country, Leonid Kuchma, as the head of the CIS, said that the aim was to make the CIS a union which gives opportunity for all its members, above all in economic terms," Kosyarev said.

Kosyarev said any discussions between Kuchma and the other presidents about CIS matters and a free-trade zone would not be binding but will serve as preliminary agreements to be adopted later this year at a CIS summit.

However, she said Kuchma hopes to conclude a range of bilateral agreements with his three presidential hosts. "The most interest [from Ukraine] is in cooperation in the economic, finance, banking, security, and humanitarian spheres," she said.

She said Kuchma's visit to Tajikistan, the first by a Ukrainian head of state, yielded a number of agreements. "An agreement has been made between Ukraine's cabinet of ministers and the Tajik government about cooperation to fight the illegal trade in drugs, psychotropic substances and their components."

Kosyarev told RFE/RL that Kuchma and Rakhmonov, meeting in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, yesterday signed an agreement on long-term economic cooperation from 2003 to 2012, including cooperation between the two countries' national banks. They also signed an agreement to make it easier for nationals of the two countries who permanently reside on the territories of Ukraine and Tajikistan to obtain citizenship.

However, Chaliy, director of the international relations unit at the Rozumkov think tank, believes Kuchma, who is facing heavy political pressure at home with constant calls for his resignation, may also be seeking advice from the Central Asian presidents about their often-authoritarian methods of dealing with the opposition. "I'd like to be mistaken, but I think that the talks are more likely to be about not just economic cooperation but about the Asian [leaders'] experience of handling internal issues," he said.

Kuchma, who is not allowed to run again for the presidency after his second term ends next year, is trying to persuade the Ukrainian parliament to adopt constitutional changes that would extend his term until 2006.

Kuchma is facing stiff opposition to his plans, and Chaliy thinks he may try to go over parliament's head by putting the issue to a referendum. "The president and the presidential administration want to advance their own interests through a referendum or other means. Those are methods which have been adopted by some of the countries that he is currently visiting," Chaliy said.

Today, Kuchma is in Kyrgyzstan for talks with President Askar Akaev at his residence near the capital, Bishkek. A Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry official said they would discuss bilateral relations and cooperation within the framework of the CIS.

While Kuchma is advocating a CIS free-trade zone, he is also due to attend a summit in September in Moscow about the formation of a Russian-led Euro-Asian economic zone consisting of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and possibly Ukraine. However, Ukraine's foreign policy has as one of its top priorities the country's entry into the World trade Organization (WTO).

Chaliy fears that Kuchma's CIS projects could deflect the country from concentrating on WTO entry. "Ukraine should, of course, aim in a focused way to enter the World Trade Organization and to achieve criteria for European Union entry. In my opinion, these attempts to create some sort of economic cooperation in the East on the territory of the CIS do not advance such aims and sometimes hamper them," he said.

Chaliy said that almost all previous CIS agreements have been ignored by its members, and he does not expect current plans for a CIS free-trade zone to become a reality. "I think that nothing much will come from this project, but I'm afraid it will deflect from the vital strategic aims on which [Ukraine's] resources, both organizational and financial, should be focused."

Kuchma is due to arrive later today in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, for talks with President Islam Karimov. A Ukrainian Embassy official in Tashkent said the two leaders would discuss international issues, in particular the events in Iraq and Afghanistan, and cooperation to combat terrorism and drug trafficking.

Kuchma is due to return to Ukraine tomorrow.