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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Breakthrough to Kiev

Conflict has been the hallmark of relations between Russia and Ukraine since the countries gained their independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, these conflicts have left an extremely strange impression since a number of the most difficult objects of contention have, it seems, simply faded away with the passage of time, without any particular effort on the part of Kiev or Moscow. This was the case, for instance, with Ukraine's nuclear arsenal. The process seems to be occurring now with the problems surrounding the signing of the bilateral Russian-Ukrainian agreement and, it appears, with the once seemingly insoluble problem of the division of the Black Sea Fleet.

In the last months of 1994, the most difficult controversy between Russia and Ukraine was the issue of dual citizenship and Russia's recognition of Ukraine's territorial integrity within its current borders. Round after round of negotiations was held and diplomats on both sides announced that progress was being made, but no results were forthcoming. Ukraine continued to insist that there was no need for an agreement on dual citizenship; Russia, for its part, was ready to acknowledge Ukrainian sovereignty, but not its present borders. This remains Russia's position even though it signed a memorandum on Ukrainian territorial integrity on Dec. 5 at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Budapest.

The deadlock was so firm and relations between the delegations deteriorated so badly that the Ukrainian side even formally requested that the Russians replace the head of their team, Leonid Smolyakov, using the pretext that the two delegations were not of equal status since the Ukrainian side is headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Yevgeny Marchuk. Moscow responded by promoting Smolyakov to deputy foreign minister, which was take as an affront by Kiev.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's hurried visit to Moscow on Jan. 24 came as a surprise to observers both in Moscow and Kiev. It seemed to augur that some breakthrough had finally been achieved and that Kuchma had persuaded Yeltsin to accept the Ukrainian version of the agreement. At the same time, the prime ministers of both countries signed an agreement on trade and economic cooperation which was of crucial importance to Ukraine since Russia accounts for half of all Ukraine's foreign trade.

However, only a day after Kuchma returned to Kiev, Yeltsin issued his infamous tirade reiterating that Russia would never sign an agreement that did not include a dual citizenship provision. The Ukrainian press was soon full of articles saying that Yeltsin had lost touch with reality and that Yeltsin was taking a tough line with Ukraine because of Russia's military failures in Chechnya. The response from Kuchma and Foreign Minister Gennady Udovenko was clear and unambiguous: Yeltsin was reminded that there was no going back and that Ukraine had no intention of signing any agreement that even mentioned dual citizenship. Apparently, Moscow did not expect Kuchma to be so obstinate.

Ukraine's fear of the dual citizenship issue is understandable. In reality, it would mean the creation of a "fifth column" in Ukraine made up of elements unhappy with the current economic and political situation there. Moreover, public opinion surveys in Ukraine show that not that many people there desire to acquire dual citizenship -- certainly not enough to justify Moscow's stubborn insistence on the issue.

Hopes that Moscow would back down have been high in recent weeks. In Kiev on Feb. 7, the new head of the Russian delegation, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, together with Marchuk, initialled a draft agreement that did not mention the citizenship issue.

Simultaneously, pacts were signed on free trade, double taxation and space cooperation. Business interests, especially those of the military-industrial complex, which is of particular interest to Soskovets, apparently outweighed both countries' geo-political ambitions.

The matter of the Black Sea Fleet is more complex. The two presidents have accepted yet another declaration on the principles for dividing the fleet. Although the details of the declaration have not been released, officials say that it proceeds from previous agreements (none of which, it should be noted, were ever realized). What is known is that individual sailors will have the right to choose under which country's flag to serve out their terms and that Sevastopol and other ports will work out their own basing arrangements with both countries.

At the same time, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry and parliament have been making claims that fleet commanders have been disposing of property that properly belongs to Ukraine. Russia also, it would seem, has not benefited from many of these deals. The commanders of the fleet have not yet responded to any of the charges.

It is only fair to note that Ukraine, considering its current economic woes, has absolutely no need for this fleet. Kuchma himself recently revived an old proposal according to which Ukraine would lease its share of the fleet to Russia.

Finally, experts in Kiev are certain that Ukraine will eventually join the customs union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. However, the process will be long and slow since Ukrainian officials will want to scrutinize every aspect of the agreement. Ukraine is in no hurry "to catch up" with these countries in the race for Russian patronage.

Ukrainian diplomats, though, are encouraging when asked about relations between the two countries. While there is always the danger that some high-level crisis or political maneuvering could, once again, put the dialogue on hold, the mechanisms for steady, low-level progress are in place and gaining momentum.

Viktor Zamyatin is a correspondent in Kiev for Commersant Daily. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.