Two conflicting visions on Ukraine’s future are regaining sway in Moscow-Kyiv official relations in the wake of Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. Partly released from the constraints of the electoral campaign, which required constant deference to Russia-oriented voters in the east of the country, the Ukrainian government is reasserting national interests and the European choice. These are largely synonymous, in the view of most Ukrainian policymakers, and of course more firmly so among national-democratic forces. For its part, Moscow defines Ukraine’s interests as entwined with Russia’s, requiring that “Russia and Ukraine enter Europe together”–that is, placing Kyiv in Moscow’s tow for the long term.
Ukraine’s European choice constitutes the ultimate bone of contention between the Kremlin and Kyiv. During the electoral campaign, an enfeebled President Leonid Kuchma paid some lip service to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC). He professed an intention to seek observer status in the EAEC for Ukraine and, at one point, even to consider the possibility of accession, if it were found to correspond with Ukraine’s interests. That statement played well in eastern and southern Ukraine–for the consumption of which it was made in Odessa on March 17–and it certainly resonated with Moscow. Few, however, could take it seriously in Kyiv, where it was widely seen as a “political bluff,” a vintage Kuchma feint in the Kremlin’s direction at election time.
On April 22, State Secretary Oleksandr Chalyi–who has overall responsibility for European affairs in Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry–ruled out the notion of Ukraine joining the EAEC in any capacity. In a statement carried by Kyiv media, Chalyi asserted that Ukrainian policy focuses on integration with the European Union. The EU and the EAEC represent mutually exclusive options, he observed, underscoring that Ukraine has opted for the EU.
The Russian ambassador in Kyiv, Viktor Chernomyrdin, reacted offensively. Terming Chalyi a “dense man,” Chernomyrdin insisted that “only together with Russia is Ukraine of any use to Europe.” He quoted Kuchma’s Odessa statement, and wondered aloud why the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s second-highest official is allowed to publicize his “personal views” on such a vital topic. This part of Chernomyrdin’s response appeared designed to pressure Kuchma and Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoly Zlenko into disavowing Chalyi or the policy that he represented.
With Kuchma on a visit abroad, and probably content to disengage from the fray, it was left to Zlenko to defend both Chalyi and the policy. At a press conference on April 25, Zlenko asserted that “Ukraine is following the path of integration with the European Union, and cannot be a party to another union. Ukraine has chosen its union, and it is the EU.” Zlenko went on to remark on the “emotionalism of Chernomyrdin’s response” and to surmise that the ambassador had “not fully understood Chalyi’s comments.” In fact, Chernomyrdin’s position was the one that he had taken during Ukraine’s electoral campaign, attacking the pro-European parties and insisting that the country’s place is alongside Russia because Ukraine is “not wanted in the West.”
Among the many hurdles to Ukraine-EU relations, the security of Ukraine’s land border with Russia poses a special problem, requiring Russian cooperation. Moscow, however, seems averse to the idea of having a European-style border between Russia and Ukraine. As stated by Russia’s First Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Valery Loshchinin on April 24 at a bilateral ministerial conference in Moscow, “Russia takes a consistent stand against demarcating the border with Ukraine.” According to Loshchinin–who coordinates Russia’s relations with CIS member countries–demarcating the border would go against the grain of “traditional” Russian-Ukrainian relations, and would interfere with economic, cultural and human contacts between the two countries, their border regions and their residents. “Only hotheads would want to erect border obstacles, fences and ditches along our mutual border,” Loshchinin admonished the Ukrainian officials at the conference. He appeared to construe Kyiv’s wish for a demarcated border as a nationalist idea (“hotheads”) and to equate a demarcated contemporary border with a Soviet-type border.
The following day, at his press conference in Kyiv, Zlenko responded that “one should not fear a demarcated border, this is normal international practice. European countries have borders that are clearly demarcated, without creating any problems for their citizens crossing those borders.” Deputy State Secretary Volodymyr Yelchenko, expressing “surprise” over Moscow’s position, observed that demarcated borders are legally indispensable between sovereign countries, and brushed aside Loshchinin’s imagery of a demarcated border as “out of date.” Yelchenko underscored that demarcating Ukraine’s eastern borders, and securing them against illegal traffic of all types, constitutes a prerequisite to Ukraine’s integration with the EU.
On April 25, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), in a session chaired by Kuchma, approved a program to strengthen the security of Ukraine’s borders with a view to countering terrorism, organized crime, illegal migration and narcotics trafficking. The NSDC’s communique stated that the effectiveness of this program would “to a significant extent determine Ukraine’s place in tomorrow’s Europe.” It underscored that the program seeks not to restrict legal circulation, but to create “civilized border-crossing conditions.”
It was not until 1998 that Russia consented to begin negotiations with Ukraine on border delimitation–that is, drawing the border on topographic maps. Four years later, the exercise is almost complete for the land border, but far from complete for the maritime border in the Black and Azov Seas. Moscow, however, remains loath to proceed to demarcation–that is, installing border markings and border crossing facilities. As other neighboring countries can also attest, Moscow tends to view normal borders as symbolic of the final separation of its former dependencies, and seems often unprepared psychologically to draw such borders. It also calculates–as shown by its policy toward the Baltic states–that it can gain political leverage over neighbors by dragging out the signing of border treaties and the demarcation of borders.