Ukraine Turns to Russia

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma intended the four-day summit that ended Sunday and the signing of an economic agreement to signal a breakthrough in Russian-Ukrainian relations. But this is not how the political establishment and media of both countries saw it. Whereas Yeltsin was reproached in Moscow by the leading, nonopposition media, including the liberal press, Kuchma was taken to task in Kiev by a few opposition papers. What are the underlying causes for the dissatisfaction on both sides?

The Russian political and business elite is categorically against Russia being pulled into its neighbor's economic troubles. This sentiment was summed up in the headline of the liberal daily Segodnya: "Moscow Is Ready to Pay for Ukraine's Independence." The article concerned the protocol that had been reached between Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to cooperate on finishing construction of two nuclear reactors in the towns of Khmelnitsky and Rovno. These stations would supply 40 percent of Ukraine's energy needs and sharply reduce its dependence on Russia.

Does this mean that the Russian political elite is speaking out against Ukraine's independence? Not in the least. On the contrary, one of the accusations against Yeltsin is that he allows for informal relations with Kuchma. The time for "meetings without ties" has passed, said another headline. Kuchma should be dealt with like the head of a foreign state. It is time to forget concessions. A divorce is a divorce, and there should be no sentimentality. Gas has to be paid for. If Ukraine wants Russia to ratify the so-called big agreement, then the Russian parliament will consider this when the Ukrainian parliament ratifies the treaty on the Black Sea Fleet. What need is there for an economic agreement -- which Deputy Prime Minister Yakov Urinson called a "framework" agreement -- if it won't be carried out, as has occurred more than once in the past? So goes the reasoning of much of the Moscow political elite. Others have put forward another argument that refutes any claims on Ukrainian independence: Russia is self-sufficient and does not need any markets, especially the Ukrainian one.

The Ukrainian press, for its part, evaluated the meeting and agreement in almost exactly the opposite way. The newspaper Den, which is controlled by the former Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate Yevgeny Marchuk, ran an article by him called, "Russia is very competently using the weakness of the Ukrainian leadership." These words, which Yeltsin pronounced during the summit with his characteristic Cheshire-cat smile, were taken very seriously in Kiev and gave journalists an excuse to attack Kuchma. Just as Yeltsin was told he needed to wear a tie, Kuchma and the Ukrainian prime minister were accused of having behaved in a manner unworthy of their posts, as if Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin were their bosses.

Kuchma had three basic motives for his urgent efforts to sign the agreement. First, Ukraine is preparing for parliamentary elections, and the presidential elections will depend much on their results. As previous elections have shown, good relations with Moscow is a sine qua non for victory. Kuchma needs normalization of relations with Russia -- from lifting customs barriers to guarantees of advantageous tariffs for the delivery and transit of gas. The agreement improves the chances of his party at the elections. It is therefore understandable that Marchuk criticized the president and the agreement, but underlined the need for good relations with Russia.

The second motive is economic. Ukraine is undergoing a difficult financial crisis. The hopes for Western aid and investment -- Ukraine is the third largest recipient, after Israel and Egypt, of U.S. aid -- as a guarantee of economic growth turned out to be unwarranted. The lack of economic reforms and the widespread corruption make the prospects of joining European economic structures unlikely. No matter how much you say "sugar," it doesn't make your mouth taste any sweeter.

The third motive concerns the direction of Ukrainian foreign policy. Just as hopes for economic integration into Europe have proved illusory, steps toward political integration have not brought any dividends. After the North Atlantic Treaty Organization signed a charter with Russia and then Ukraine and officially invited three East European countries to join the alliance, the West seemed to cease paying any heightened attention to Ukraine. The last "propitious" presidential elections in Russia and political stabilization in the country also played a crucial role in this. Ukraine lost the possibility of using the tensions in its relations with Russia as a means of attracting additional help from the West and receiving security guarantees from NATO and the United States. Ukraine lost the ability to play the "Russian card."

As for Russia, whether the questions of energy supply and transit will be settled to Gazprom's satisfaction will depend more on the company's president, Rem Vyakhirev, than Yeltsin. But there can be no doubt that cooperation in the military-technical sphere will help both states avoid the kinds of international scandals that have already erupted. Moreover, by signing the agreement, Russia, where a great-power mood is truly spreading, nonetheless affirmed its lack of imperial ambitions. At the same time, such an agreement becomes an obstacle to those with dangerous autarkic conceptions about a self-sufficient Russia. We have all been for a long time closely interconnected in this world.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a senior scholar at the USA/Canada Institute and a consultant in RTR Television's analytical department. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.