By Tatiana Silina Zerkalo Nedeli On The Web, Mirror-Weekly

International Social Political Weekly Kyiv, Ukraine

The Russian President's Friday visit to Ukraine was anything but "the beginning of a new stage" or a "breakthrough" in Russo-Ukrainian relations, as official reports characterized it.

Yet, Vladimir Putin can hardly call 2006 "a year of missed opportunities in relations with Ukraine", which is what they said about 2005. The victory of the Russian "gas weapon" alone is worth a dozen!

The establishment of the Yushchenko-Putin Interstate Commission was a rare case in Russo-Ukrainian relations where one side's achievement was not the other side's loss. It took more than eighteen months to build this "mechanism of bilateral cooperation" that is supposed to benefit both nations.

Hopefully, it will, although skeptics remind us that many such "mechanisms" and "instruments" of cooperation with other countries, which Ukraine has built over 15 years of independence, have worked effectively or at all.

One of the examples is the mixed Ukrainian-Russian commission for cooperation: it was established in 1996 as pompously as the Yushchenko-Putin commission, and was liquidated very quietly a few weeks ago.

Optimists are sure that the new interstate commission will facilitate and systematize bilateral contacts and discipline the negotiators at all levels. The commission has a secretariat, committees, and subcommittees.

During the three months prior to Putin's visit, they held numerous meetings, preparing the ground for the Yushchenko-Putin Commission's maiden session.

Although the new mechanism might be short-lived (because the term of Putin's presidency is running out and so is Yushchenko's power), there is a hope that it can "clean up the heaps of problems", as the Ukrainian President has put it.

Yushchenko and his chancellery definitely wanted to leave out Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who had seen Putin more often in five months of his premiership than Yushchenko had in twenty-three months of his presidency.

The Foreign Ministry exerted a maximum effort to keep Yanukovych as far from the meeting as possible.

First Vice Premier Nikolai Azarov complained on Thursday that the Cabinet of Ministers didn't even know the program of Putin's visit to Kyiv.

It may look strange that the Prime Minister, who co-chairs the subcommittee on economic cooperation, was not invited to the session of the interstate commission.

The reason is quite simple: the presidential camp seized this opportunity to win back at least one plot in the field of foreign policy in its continual rivalry with Yanukovych.

It was a kind of reciprocal step: departing for Moscow in late November, the Premier didn't bother to inform the President about the program of his visit.

Besides, Yushchenko needed to "balance off" Yanukovych's successful visits to Moscow, Brussels, and the USA. His own visits to Estonia and South Korea were rather bleak, and he obviously lost in the competition for the honor to play the first fiddle at Davos.

Yushchenko wanted to demonstrate the fact of Putin's visit as his exclusive victory. Thirty-six hours before Putin's arrival, there was no mention of Yanukovych in the program of the visit, but his team broke their backs to arrange for his meeting with the Russian President.

Yanukovych has given Moscow quite a few pretexts for discontent: it was under his premiership that

[1] Ukraine's accession to the WTO became feasible;

[2] he stated definitely and publicly that Ukraine's participation in the [Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan] Common Economic Area would not go further than a free trade area;

[3] he paid a visit to Uncle Sam; he didn't say a point-blank "no" to NATO;

[4] he didn't grant Russian the status of the second state language in Ukraine;

[5] he let the parliament recognize the 1932-1933 Famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation.

Yet, Moscow met Yanukovych halfway. His protocol meeting with the Russian President was to last just thirty minutes, but it ended up lasting as long as Putin wished.

It is unknown exactly what the two presidents agreed upon during their tete-a-tete meeting and how much their agreements differed from those reached during Putin's meeting with Yanukovych.

According to informed sources, Yushchenko was going to persuade Putin to exclude the intermediary company RosUkrEnergo from the gas supply scheme and to found a joint venture of Naftogaz and Gazprom, registering it in some neutral country like Switzerland. Putin's decision on that score depends on which of two lobbyist groupings in his entourage takes the upper hand.

One week before Putin arrived in Kyiv, Yushchenko announced that they would sign "key documents" - a declaration on strategic partnership and a joint action plan for 2007-2008. A couple of days later, informed sources reported that the Russian side refused to sign them.

The formal pretext was the adoption of the National Security Strategy by the National Security and Defense Council, which mentioned full membership in NATO among Ukraine's priorities. Moscow's position looks rather strange, at least because it was Moscow's initiative to sign this declaration during Putin's visit.

The declaration, which was drafted back in the late 1990s, got preliminary approval by Anatoliy Zlenko and Igor Ivanov - the then foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia.

All it needed was some updating. Yet, the Kremlin didn't include it in the Kyiv agenda, explaining that it had too little time for such an exercise. Nevertheless, Ukraine and Russia may just as well do without this document.

Those who have read it say that it is "general enough to be signed with a dozen other countries". Besides, the term "strategic partnership" is already present in the Big Treaty [of 1997], so the declaration wouldn't bring anything new in Russo-Ukrainian relations. The question of why the Russians first wanted and then refused to sign it is just another question of the secret, enigmatic "Russian soul".

The action plan for 2007-2008, which Yushchenko likes to call a "road map", is a practical document embracing all areas of bilateral cooperation.

The Ukrainian side tried to fill it with concrete contents and complement it with implementation schedules. The Russian side wanted to make the document more general.

Two days before Putin arrived, Ukrainian representatives said it was 95 percent ready and a couple of hours would be enough to polish it. Two hours before Putin departed for Kyiv, his aide Sergey Prikhodko said that there were still some controversies and that Moscow and Kyiv were still "approximating their positions on some problems".

Even though the two presidents didn't sign this road map, Kyiv and Moscow are sure to continue exchanging delegations and talks at all levels are sure to go on.

The agreement on re-admission looks far more important in terms of benefits for Ukraine. It took Kyiv and Moscow years to prepare this document for signing and a lot of effort to overcome strong resistance within the Russian government.

Having signed a re-admission agreement with the EU recently, Ukraine was confronted with the threat of becoming a kind of sewage pond for illegal immigrants deported from the EU.

Now, having signed a re-admission agreement with Russia, Ukraine can send illegal migrants from Russia or third countries back to Russia. It is no secret that almost all illegal migrants enter Ukraine's territory through the Russian border.

Ukraine and Russia signed other important documents:

[1] a protocol on amendments to the intergovernmental agreement on border-crossing points,

[2] an intergovernmental agreement on reciprocal copyright protection in bilateral military-technical cooperation,

[3] amendments to the agreement on visa-free travels,

[4] cooperation agreement between Ukraine's Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Russia's Ministry of Culture and Mass Media.

The interstate commission heard extensive reports from the co-secretaries Vitaliy Haiduk and Igor Ivanov and discussed a wide spectrum of issues - from natural gas supplies to humanitarian problems.

On the eve of Putin's visit, Yushchenko accentuated the issues that the commission had to consider in the first place: natural gas supplies; the question of "what Ukraine must do not to harm Russia's interests" while moving toward NATO and the EU; delimitation and demarcation of the Ukraine-Russia state border; the stationing terms for the Russian naval base in Crimea.

None of these problems is new. According to experts, most of them are quite solvable technically, provided there is the political will to solve them.

For example, the two countries could have started demarcating the terrain section of the border back in January, when the two presidents agreed in Astana, Kazakhstan to set up a special mixed commission. However, the Russian side has not appointed its co-chairperson to this day.

Yushchenko stated optimistically in Astana that Ukraine and Russia "could make substantial progress in delimitating the borderline in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait within six moths". Now his expectations are more reserved: it would be good to have the borderline delimitated at least by late 2007.

The Russian naval base in Crimea remains the main "irritator" in Russo-Ukrainian relations. Kyiv keeps demanding that the Russian side abide by the terms of leasing contracts.

Kyiv keeps pressing for an inclusive inventory of the land plots and facilities used by the BSF. Kyiv keeps insisting that the BSF hand over the beacons and other navigation facilities that belong to Ukraine.

Kyiv wants to sign a supplementary agreement that would regulate the two sides' behavior in critical situations. These issues were also on the agenda of the Kyiv talks.

While discussing them, President Yushchenko reconfirmed Ukraine's obligations and made it clear that 2017 would be the last year of the Russian Navy's presence in Ukraine.

The results of Putin's talks with Yushchenko and Yanukovych will show up later, but it is already clear that he has had talks with two leaders of one state.

It is clear that these two leaders should stand the same ground instead of competing for "signs of attention". And Putin must have scored a point or two in Kyiv.     


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