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Disputes Strain Ukrainian-Russian Ties

The deterioration of relations between Ukraine and Russia accelerated after Kyiv sided with Georgia during last month's conflict in South Ossetia. Worsening ties coincide with next year's expiration of the bilateral Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, which both sides ratified in April 1999. The strategic 10-year agreement will be automatically extended, unless Ukraine or Russia declares its intention not to do so within six months of the expiration. The deadline for signaling such intent is October 1. While observers say it is likely to be renewed, the treaty is being reviewed by politicians, experts, and military officials on both sides. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has this report from a review conference in Moscow.

The Friendship Treaty has been tested in recent months as Moscow protested Ukrainian overtures to NATO and Kyiv accused Russia of seeking to destabilize Crimea by issuing passports to Russian residents of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.

Speaking at an experts' conference in Moscow, the former commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Igor Kasatonov, noted the Friendship Treaty guarantees the inviolability of Ukrainian borders. At the same time, he expressed concern that a new generation of Ukrainian soldiers - well-trained in military and legal affairs and also the Ukrainian language - feels comfortable and welcome in NATO circles. Kasatonov added that Ukraine is an indispensible and necessary partner that stands at geostrategic crossroads of important Russian economic and transportation interests. For this reason, he says Russia must wage a struggle for Ukraine.

The admiral says Russia needs to fight in specific and concrete terms, first of all using Russian institutions to address any necessary issues in Ukraine. Clearly, he says, Russia must maintain a firm position and not give the slightest ground regarding its interests.

Admiral Kasatonov says the continued presence of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol depends on the Friendship Treaty, which he recommends renewing.

Many conference participants expressed concern that the Ukrainian language is slowly squeezing out Russian, although moderator Konstantyn Zatulin recently said the use of Russian is increasing in Ukraine and is not threatened over the long term.

Russian Orthodox priest Georgiy Riabykh reiterated perceptions that Ukraine is promoting its language, culture, and history at the expense of Russian. While condemning Ukrainian politicians for allegedly interfering in church matters, he called on the Russian state to help develop what he called a single Orthodox civilization in Russia, Ukraine and other countries. Konstantyn Zatulin, a member of the Russian parliament, rejected that suggestion as a violation of church-state separation. Apart from a desire for common religious ties, Georgiy Riabykh said the well-being of modern Russia depends on its continued ties to Rus, a state that existed one-thousand years ago and whose rulers in Kyiv founded many Russian cities.

The priest says the interest Russians have in Ukraine and Belarus has nothing to do with any renewed imperial interests, or desire to avoid the loss of large territories that have great agricultural, geostrategic, geopolitical and economic value. The true reason, he says is a necessity to protect the civilizational unity of Ukraine and Russia, so that the national awareness of the Russian people may continue to be channeled in a healthy direction.

A member of the Ukrainian parliament, Dmytro Tabachnyk, noted public opinion polls, which show that Ukrainians took a dim view of Russian actions during last month's conflict with Georgia.

Tabachnyk says surveys indicate every fourth resident of Kyiv had a more negative opinion of Russia following the Georgian conflict and only every tenth had a better view. The Ukrainian lawmaker adds that failure to extend the Friendship Treaty will undermine the position of Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians who favor neutrality on the NATO issue.

Ruslan Greenberg, an economist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said a NATO veto on Ukrainian military cooperation with Russia would be an economic catastrophe for his country. He noted, however, that neither country has met hopes of developing a First World economy, and in some regards have approached Third World standards. Greenberg added that whatever their position on NATO, most influential Ukrainian politicians will never stop moving in the direction of the European Union.

The economist says Russia should seek associate EU membership, or to have relations with the trading bloc similar to those of Switzerland or Norway, who have no representation in Brussels, but participate in a single European economic space. He says the only realistic and pragmatic approach for Ukraine and Russia is to both find a place in that European space.

The Foreign Ministry of Russia recently issued a statement saying Ukraine's desire for speedy NATO entry violates the spirit of the bilateral Friendship Treaty and Russian interests. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry response said Moscow can contribute to positive development of their ties, if it realizes the fact that Ukraine's decision to acquire EU and NATO membership is irreversible.