RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kravchuk agreed yesterday to divide the disputed former Soviet Black Sea Fleet into two separate navies.
The agreement, reached at a summit meeting outside of Moscow, follows weeks of rising tensions between the two most populous former Soviet republics over the fleet and a wide range of other issues including the future of the nuclear weapons that Ukraine inherited from the former Soviet Union and Russian supplies of oil and gas to Ukraine.
The fleet deal effectively scraps an agreement reached last year to maintain joint control over the fleet until 1995. The precise division of the approximately 300-ship fleet remains to be worked out. But the key to this latest pact is a Ukrainian agreement to allow the Russians to base their portion of the fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol and other bases in Ukraine. Before the meeting, Russia was reported to be seeking a long-term lease for the base.
According to the joint communique, as reported by the official Russian Itar-Tass news agency, the two leaders agreed "to implement accelerated creation of the Russian and Ukrainian navies on the basis of the Black Sea Fleet of the former USSR and to base the Russian navy in Sevastopol and other parts of Ukraine." The agreement must still be ratified by both parliaments.
President Yeltsin also confirmed Russia's readiness to provide Ukraine with nuclear security guarantees as a condition for its ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Ukraine has sought such guarantees from Russia and the other nuclear powers before it would go ahead with its official pledge to rid itself of the approximately 1,600 nuclear warheads, and 147 missiles on its territory. The Russian guarantees would come into force after Ukraine ratifies the treaties, the communique said.
Ukrainian President Kravchuk arrived at the meeting under severe political pressure at home resulting from economic collapse.
A week of strikes by miners and industrial workers in eastern Ukraine, an industrial center populated mainly by Russian speakers, has left the country on the brink of economic paralysis. The miners' demand for new elections for parliament and a referendum on the president's rule triggered three days of fierce debate in the Ukrainian parliament. Twice, the parliament balked, despite President Kravchuk's backing for the demands as the only way to end the crippling strikes.
Clearly desperate to regain control, especially before the summit with Russia, Kravchuk on Wednesday declared an economic state of emergency, placing himself at the head of the government. He gave Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma a free hand to push through economic reforms long stalled by a conservative parliament dominated by former Communists. The Premier will head a special committee with authority to halt the labor unrest, tackle Ukraine's soaring inflation and try to stabilize the economy.
Finally after Kravchuk had left for Moscow yesterday, the Ukrainian parliament voted to hold a twin referendum of confidence in both the President and the parliament on September 26 similar to that held in Russia last April.
A "no" vote in either case will prompt new elections, the parliament decided. The vote however triggered confusion in the Ukrainian parliament with many deputies reportedly calling the decision illegal. Miners demonstrating in Donetsk, the regional center of the Donbas coal fields, reportedly cheered the parliament's decision. But some strike committee officials vowed to continue striking until new parliamentary elections were called, Reuters news agency reported.
Despite this limited political breakthrough, there is little question that Kravchuk was operating at a severe disadvantage in the tough talks with Russia. The Russians are adding to Ukraine's economic woes by demanding a huge increase in the prices of oil and gas it supplies. Those prices are currently well under world market levels. According to Ukrainian press reports, Ukraine already owes 572.2 billion rubles (about $572 million) for oil, gas, and oil products already supplied.
The slowdown in supplies of oil and other raw materials has directly fed the strike wave in eastern Ukraine whose large heavy industry is tightly tied into the Russian economy. The strikers demand economic autonomy from Kiev, accusing it of ruining ties with Russia.
The Russian government was by its own admission not loath to use these economic pressures to its advantage. In an undiplomatic, if not arrogant, statement, Russian President Yeltsin openly admitted that the oil price hikes and threat to cut off energy were being used to gain concessions on the military issues. "We have closed the [oil] tap a little, and some progress appeared in the fleet dispute," Yeltsin bluntly told reporters last Saturday.
The statement triggered outrage in Kiev. Prime Minister Kuchma described it as "absolutely clear blackmail," in a meeting with visiting Israeli parliament speaker Shevan Weiss. "Today the policy of Russia toward Ukraine cannot be called either friendly or normal," he later told parliament. "They strip us naked on the prices of energy."
In separate talks in Moscow yesterday, senior Russian and Ukrainian economic officials failed to reach agreement on energy prices and delivery. Russian deputy premier Alexander Shokhin said Ukraine had to offer additional goods and services to offset the shipments of Russian gas, according to Itar-Tass.
The two sides did agree to a free trade pact which will halt any move by either country to impose import duties.