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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Envoy To Ukraine Calls for Strong Ties

On the eve of parliamentary confirmation hearings for a Ukrainian prime minister, Russia's new high-profile ambassador to Ukraine called for speedy resolution to the country's political crisis and stronger economic ties between Russia and Ukraine.

"We want the decision on prime minister to be made as soon as possible," Viktor Chernomyrdin said Monday at a news conference in Moscow.

The Ukrainian parliament is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's candidate for prime minister, business lobbyist and free market advocate Anatoly Kinakh. The parliament ousted the previous prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, last month in a no-confidence vote over his government's attempts to better the deteriorating economy.

As an economic partner and neighbor, Russia has a huge stake in the outcome of Tuesday's conformation hearings, said Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who joined Chernomyrdin at the news conference.

"We are sure that Ukraine will overcome the current crisis," Ivanov said.

Once a measure of stability is achieved, Russia needs to plow ahead with encouraging trade and fostering the growth of Ukrainian businesses in Russia, he said.

Trade between the two countries has halved since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chernomyrdin said without giving any figures. He said one of his main goals as ambassador will be to restore trade to its former levels.

President Vladimir Putin has also named Chernomyrdin as his special envoy to Ukraine.

Energy is a pivotal aspect of Russia-Ukraine trade relations. Ukraine is the biggest importer of Russian natural gas, and both countries have been trying to fully unify their power grids. While gas and electricity were non-issues during Soviet times, they took the spotlight after 1991 when Russia demanded prompt payment in dollars for energy delivered.

Chernomyrdin sidestepped questions Monday about gluing the two countries' energy systems back together.

Jonathan Stern, a natural gas expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said integration of the energy systems for political ends isn't bad in itself, but it would be a huge step back in market reforms.

"I don't object to reintegration, per se," he said by telephone from London. "But let's talk about what economic reform should mean. [The Ukrainian and Russian governments] should make progress toward paying cost-related prices for energy. Moving away from this would be an admission of failure.

"If they're saying, 'Let's forget all about economics and the market,' then that's just crazy."

Such a move on Russia's part would be inconsistent with its current policy. In past months, the two countries have struck an agreement that would restructure Ukraine's gas debts to Russia, estimated at $2 billion. Plans for synchronizing the electricity utilities have been repeatedly put off because the two sides haven't come to an agreement on the price for the electricity that Russia would supply.

Chernomyrdin remained upbeat Monday about trade with Ukraine.

"Today, the downward trend is turning around," Chernomyrdin said. "The possibilities are endless, much bigger than those with more developed countries."