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Russia, Ukraine Sign Treaty on Long-Running Disputes

Diplomacy: Touchy issues of sovereignty, ownership of Black Sea Fleet had split nations since Soviet breakup.

June 01, 1997|MARY MYCIO and CAROL J. WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Ukraine — Ending one of history's oldest fraternal feuds, Russia and Ukraine signed away a millennium of rivalry and resentment Saturday with a friendship treaty destined to shape a new era of relations between Europe's biggest states.

With his signature on the accord pledging respect for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin gave up Moscow's long-running claims on Crimea. An accompanying agreement resolved years of dispute over who will inherit the Soviet-era Black Sea Fleet.

The agreements declared as settled all sources of acrimony between the Slavic giants and demonstrated a strengthening maturity in Kremlin foreign policy as a militarily weakened Russia seeks to mend fences with its closest and most powerful neighbors.

"This is the first time that Ukraine and Russia have signed a treaty as democratic and equal states," Yeltsin, on his first visit to the Ukrainian capital in more than five years, declared after the signing ceremony. "There are no more problems in Ukrainian-Russian relations."

Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma alluded to the broader goal of union with Western Europe in hailing the accords with Russia as a demonstration that the two former Soviet republics can live peacefully together in a common European home.

"Europe wants to accept those who can live in peace and cooperation into its community," Kuchma told the dignitaries assembled at Kiev's 18th century Mariinsky Palace. "Ukrainian-Russian relations in the near future will be a model of bilateral relations. Today, Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] and I made serious progress toward this end."

By laying to rest residual frictions from centuries of subjugation by Russia, Ukraine wins Moscow's recognition of its post-Soviet status as an independent country with sovereignty over all territory within its current borders.

The sudden thaw in relations between Moscow and Kiev was apparently prompted by plans of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to expand into countries that were once part of the Kremlin's political orbit. Russia had steadfastly opposed NATO expansion--expected to incorporate Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary over the next three years--but had to settle for a symbolic role in European security affairs in a charter signed with the alliance last week.

Ukraine entered into its own pact with NATO on Friday, and officials here say they will continue seeking closer relations with the alliance even as security issues with Moscow are defused.

Division of the Black Sea Fleet had been largely worked out to both states' satisfaction in talks spanning 1993-95, but a treaty hung up on the contentious issue of control of its current home port, Sevastopol. The city, largely populated by Russians, along with the rest of the Crimean peninsula, had been coveted by the Kremlin since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Crimea was part of the Russian Federation until 1954, when then-Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev gave the territory to Ukraine. Control of the strategic peninsula only became an issue when Ukraine became a separate state.

The fleet agreement allows Russia's share of 338 service vessels and 50 warships to remain harbored at Sevastopol under a 20-year leasing deal. Ukraine will receive its $98-million annual rent in the form of reductions in its massive energy debt to Russia.

Other elements of the rapprochement include trade incentives and plans for joint research and production in aerospace.

Yeltsin said he will immediately decree a 50% cut in import tariffs on Ukrainian goods--a move likely to further solidify Kiev's role as Russia's most important trade partner.

Yeltsin last visited Kiev in March 1992 for a meeting of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States. At that gathering, Russia's desire to preserve a union of the former Soviet states clashed with Kiev's view of the Commonwealth as a "forum for a civilized divorce." By the time the meeting ended, Yeltsin and Ukraine's then-president, Leonid M. Kravchuk, were barely speaking, setting the tone for troubled relations for the next five years.

Special correspondent Mycio reported from Kiev and Times Staff Writer Williams from Moscow.

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