Black Sea Fleet Dispute Clouds Other Issues

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TENSION is flaring within the disputed Black Sea Fleet, threatening to blow off course efforts by Russian and Ukrainian leaders to deal with pressing issues at home.

Control of the 380-vessel fleet has been hotly contested since the Soviet breakup in 1991. The latest trouble began in mid-May when support ships began raising the Russian naval banner in place of the neutral naval ensign of the former Soviet Union.

Ukrainian officials denounced the action as a violation of a fleet-sharing pact reached last year that called for the ensign to be flown until the fleet was formally divided in 1995. Russians blame Ukraine for the tension, saying Kiev is not properly maintaining the fleet.

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After President Leonid Kravchuk called for immediate talks with his Russian counterpart on the issue, an aide to President Boris Yeltsin said the Russian leader was willing to meet.

Interfax news agency reported that Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Kravchuk would meet in mid-June. Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev will visit Kiev June 7 to organize the summit.

The flare-up comes at an inopportune time for both leaders, who are facing difficult domestic reform issues.

Ukraine's economic crisis has worsened since parliament's refusal in mid-May to renew Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma's special powers on economic issues. In Moscow, Mr. Yeltsin is preoccupied with efforts to break conservative and nationalist opposition to his economic reforms through the promulgation of a new Russian Constitution.

Nationalists in Moscow already have stirred things up by laying claim to the Crimean Peninsula city of Sevastopol, the Black Sea Fleet headquarters. They cite an obscure 1948 Soviet government resolution that subordinated Sevastopol directly to Moscow. Some Russian parliament leaders are also calling for revisions of the Black Sea Fleet pact. Ukraine is adamantly opposed to sharing Sevastopol's facilities.

Alexander Konovalov of Moscow's USA-Canada Institute suggests that the renewed wrangling could have international reverberations, providing Ukraine with a pretext for not following through on nuclear disarmament plans on the grounds the weapons are needed to protect against a perceived security threat from Moscow.

The Ukrainian parliament is now debating ratification of the START nuclear disarmament treaty.

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