Russian President Vladimir Putin begins a working visit to Ukraine on January 23.
The visit will take place against the backdrop of yet another political crisis, as it is unclear who will come to power in Ukraine in the near future. Nevertheless, in Kiev Putin will talk about prospects for long-term co-operation, thereby letting it be understood that the dialogue will go on, whatever the political situation in this country.
It goes without saying that the point at issue is contacts with legitimately elected authorities.
It should be recalled that Ukraine's political crisis has become a chronic one in recent years. If Russian leaders had not systematically held talks with the Ukrainian side at various levels, co-operation between Kiev and Moscow would have stalled.
At present, the most topical issues for both countries are those relating to the creation of a single economic space and, in particular, discussions about the further development of the gas consortium.
Moscow and Kiev are potential partners in issues related to laying pipelines and organising the transit of energy resources, but they cannot come to terms. Issues related to the joint exploitation of the pipeline have not yet been settled, while terms to attract a third party to participate in the consortium have not been specified.
The negotiating process may become protracted because the sides play different roles. Russia is the main owner, producer and supplier of energy resources, whereas Ukraine is the main transit route for them. However, the sides will inevitably come to an agreement. In some cases, by force of certain political calculations and ambitions, they want to find new partners and cope without each other. But each time Russia and Ukraine realise that economically, large-scale bilateral co-operation is more advantageous for them. Although alternative routes for the transit of energy resources are not ruled out.
In Kiev, an idea is widespread that it is Russia that is insistently urging Ukraine to join the single economic environment and imposing partnership within the framework of the gas consortium on it. The logic follows that should a pro-western politician come to power in Kiev, all these programmes will be curtailed or abandoned altogether. This is not true.
In Ukraine, there is considerable potential for maintaining the strategy of co-operation with Russia. The business groups interested in this are usually linked with the united Social-Democratic Party of Ukraine, the Party of Regions, and the Working Ukraine Party. However, in reality, the pro-Russian political and economic base is wider. The groups whose business, production and economic interests are largely connected with Russian territory and Russian partners favour dialogue with Moscow. First of all, this concerns businessmen in eastern Ukraine, as well as those working in the steel, chemicals, food and aerospace industries. They will lobby their interests regardless of who is in power.
Ukraine is interested in Russia as a market even more than the other CIS member-states. While other states propose that Russian businessmen act on their territory as the main investors and economic agents, Ukraine would like to conquer Russian sales markets, because western markets, considering the current state of the Ukrainian economy, its technical equipment and non-conformity to European standards, will remain inaccessible to it for a long time to come.
However, it is a paradox that the Ukrainian business groups interested in economic integration with Russia cannot provide, as a rule, a public explanation for the need to draw closer with their eastern neighbour that would be understandable to the masses and convincing for the elite. They co-operate silently, so to speak. The interests of "pro-Russian" business groups are expressed mainly by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. This produces the false impression that he alone advocates large-scale co-operation with Russia and only in cases where he comes up against certain political difficulties in his struggle with the opposition.
At the same time, the political groups orientated to integration with the West quite often make bold public statements, explaining, for example, why the idea of a single economic environment with Russia or co-ordinated accession to the WTO is disadvantageous to Ukraine.
It is hard to predict what the political results of the year 2004 will be for Russia. However, objectively, the situation is developing in a way that any, even the most pro-Russian Ukrainian politician, if he or she comes to power, will become more pro-Western then he/she declared during the election campaign. The experience of Kuchma's presidency is proof of this. And vice versa, the most pro-western politician, in the event of electoral victory, will have to take account of the Russian factor, because it is impossible to considerably limit political and economic contacts between the two countries, to say nothing of breaking them off.
If the political situation changes in Ukraine, relations with Russia may be in for change at the initial stage, but the existing projects will be continued in one way or another regardless.
Accordingly, it is not worthwhile making Russo-Ukrainian relations, and especially the strategy of Russo-Ukrainian economic co-operation, completely dependent on the forthcoming elections and political changes in Ukraine.
However, for the dialogue to be a success, the sides should not confine themselves to summits. Broad sections of the Russian and Ukrainian population should be interested in co-operation. Otherwise, political agreements will only remain on paper.