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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fresh Challenge for Russia: Closer Slavic Ties

As the dust and rhetoric settles from the two election campaigns in Russia's Slavic neighbors, Moscow is now faced with the paradoxical challenge of two presidents who have said they want to steer their countries closer into its orbit.

Commentators on Wednesday said that the implications for Russia of the election of Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus were mixed.

Of the two, Kuchma, who served as Ukrainian prime minister and is regarded as pro-Russian, appears a more natural partner for President Boris Yeltsin than Lukashenko, a maverick populist with no top-level political experience.

Yeltsin seemed to reveal a bias toward Kuchma in two congratulatory telegrams to the two new victors. His message to the new Ukrainian president was noticeably warmer in tone and concluded: "I wish you, esteemed Leonid Danilovich, great success in your work as head of the Ukrainian state." The one to Lukashenko used exactly the same closing formula, but substituted "success" for "great success."

Yeltsin's adviser on CIS affairs, Andranik Migranian, said in an interview Wednesday that although he welcomed Kuchma's election as an augur for better relations between Ukraine and Russia it also carried certain "threats."

"This orientation of Ukraine and Belarus toward Russia demands certain economic concessions to these states. Taking into account the difficult situation in Russia, it is an additional strain for the Russian economy," Migranian said.

The economies of both Belarus and Ukraine are in virtual freefall, crippled by high inflation and almost worthless local currencies. When Belarus and Russia agreed on monetary union in April, market reformers said it would fuel inflation in Russia. The agreement still has to be implemented.

Migranian said the task the Russian authorities faced was to find ways of encouraging integration without endangering the reform in Russia itself.

Kuchma, who won last Sunday's polls on the back of huge support from the Russian-speaking East Ukraine and Crimea, has pledged closer ties with Russia. One of his campaign slogans was "Ukraine and Russia -- fewer walls, more bridges."

But some observers pointed out that Kuchma's pro-Russian reputation might be a handicap now that he has been elected.

"We cannot expect too much," said Alexander Konovalov, who is a specialist at the U.S.A.-Canada Institute. He said Kuchma's first priority would be to prevent a split in the country between the nationalist West and the industrial East.

The west of the country strongly backed Kuchma's rival, former President Leonid Kravchuk at last Sunday's polls, giving Kuchma less than 10 percent support in some areas.

Russia's relations with Kuchma will be "more difficult in a way," said Dmitry Trenin, a fellow at the Institute of Europe "because he will have to establish himself as a national figure. In relations with Russia he will have the stigma of being thought of as pro-Russian."

In initial comments since being elected, Kuchma has already played down the suggestion that he is Moscow's man.

Asked how he would work to build Ukraine's relations with Russia Kuchma told Izvestia: "I want us to have equally good relations with Russia and Germany and Taiwan."

Migranian said that the key change was probably psychological. "Both sides are suspicious of each other. I think that with Kuchma it will be possible to remove this suspicion," he said.

Trenin said that Kuchma's election should also help stabilize the situation over the disputed issues of the Black Sea Fleet and Crimea.

Kuchma has pledged to lease the Black Sea Fleet naval base at Sevastopol to Russia, which could signal an end to the long-running dispute.

In Crimea, almost 90 percent voted for the new Ukrainian president, giving him a mandate to work for a settlement there.

Lukashenko's position is less clear. He won notoriety in the Belarussian parliament for being the only deputy to vote against the 1991 Belovezhskaya Pushcha agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union.

But at his first press conference since being voted in, Lukashenko phrased his support for Russia in purely economic terms. "We won't get by without Russia's help," he said, according to Reuters.