In late January, President Vladimir Putin made his last working visit to Ukraine before the March 14 presidential elections in Russia. For the final foreign trip of his term, Mr. Putin spent two days in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. This was symbolic, as Russia's relations with Ukraine are an unconditional priority for political analysts and ordinary people in both countries. Visits like the one Mr. Putin took to Kiev can make an impression on Russian voters.
Officially, Mr. Putin visited Kiev to attend the closing ceremony of the "Year of Russia in Ukraine." The visit appeared to be more friendly than businesslike, as the focus seemed to be on the festivities, receptions and shows. However, discussions of urgent political problems, of which there are many, were not pushed into the background.
The 350th anniversary of the Pereyaslavl Rada (council), which united Russia and Ukraine, was observed during the visit. In the Soviet-era this anniversary was widely celebrated, but today Ukrainian and Russian politicians downplay the anniversary. The political situation in Ukraine is not favorable to Russian attempts to promote friendship. The nationalist opposition in Ukraine is nervous and responds to any attempt as an "imperial relapse" in Moscow's policy.
Recently, Russian and Ukrainian leadership have discussed a common economic area. The opposition strongly opposes the creation of a common economic area because they view it as an attempt to undermine Ukraine's independence and hinder its relations with the West. Therefore, Moscow tries not to remind the Ukrainian politicians about the Pereyaslavl Rada time and again.
"For Ukraine the way to Europe lies through Russia, and Russian-Ukrainian rapprochement is a key issue in the development of the two countries," said Vyacheslav Igrunov, head of the Russia-Ukraine Council. Russia and Ukraine are being pushed toward cooperation and dialogue by the economic processes that bound their economies during the Soviet-era. In 2003, trade between the two countries increased by 30% and the recent trade wars over sugar, pipelines and cars died down. Ukraine and Russia have begun to consult each other about joining the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Two acute economic problems between Russia and Ukraine persisted in 2003: transit of Russian hydrocarbons across Ukraine and the terms of using the Sea of Azov's resources.
The problem connected with the transportation of Russian gas to Europe and Ukraine's huge debt for gas to Russia has for a long time caused many difficulties in Russian-Ukrainian relations. Kiev owed Moscow a large amount of money for Russian gas. Also, gas from Russian pipelines was being stolen in Ukraine. Ultimately, Kiev and Moscow reached an agreement and established a joint Russian-Ukrainian-German consortium that would manage Ukraine's gas transportation system.
In the agreement, Russia was guaranteed an unhindered gas supply to Europe, and Ukraine would be offered large investments in its energy industry such as repair, development and new technology for its pipelines. An understanding has been reached in principle, but carrying out the agreement has been delayed. Both sides claim that the difficulties are technical, but observers believe the consortium has stalled because the political situation in Ukraine, where presidential elections are to be held in fall, is uncertain.
There is a similar situation in oil transportation. Moscow is prepared to sign a 15-year agreement on transporting Russian oil across Ukraine and is waiting for Kiev's consent to use the Ukrainian Odessa-Brody pipeline, which is currently idle. Such an agreement would be lucrative for Ukraine, but the local opposition was alarmed that the Russian electrical monopoly Unified Energy Systems bought big portions of ten Ukrainian regional electrical companies. The opposition to President Kuchma may not support the deal.
Last year, Russia and Ukraine agreed in principle to regard the Sea of Azov as an internal sea and jointly use its resources. However, according to experts, this decision will take more than a year to go into effect.
After his visit to Ukraine, President Putin instructed the government to "speed up the work to bring about a ratification of the accords on the Azov-Kerch zone in the two houses of the Russian parliament and on establishing a common economic area." Russian business and capital will inevitably invest in Ukraine, and this will not be harmful for either Russia or Ukraine.