What seemed to be a beginning may have been an end. In May 1997, after several years of arduous negotiations, President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a treaty in which Russia accepted Ukraine’s sovereignty in its post-Soviet borders. The treaty placed relations between the two largest post-Soviet states (Russia with 150 million people, Ukraine with 50 million) on a mature and equal basis. But Russia has not ratified the agreement, and may not do so.
Russian opposition to the treaty was always strong. Many Russians opposed the treaty’s central bargain: Russian acceptance of Ukrainian control over Sevastopol and the Crimea in exchange for extensive and exclusive basing rights for the Black Sea fleet. Russian opponents of ratification span the political spectrum, from radical communists like Viktor Ilyukhin to centrists like Yuri Luzhkov and right wingers like Boris Nemtsov. With Russia’s economic decline and the waning of Boris Yeltsin’s health and authority, resistance to nationalist sentiment is fading. When the Federation Council took up ratification last week, defeat seemed likely, and treaty supporters had to scramble to arrange a one-month postponement of the debate.
The additional time is not likely to change the probable outcome. The treaty seems headed either for rejection, or for approval with amendments which will make it unacceptable in Ukraine. Loss of the treaty will be a major setback for Ukrainian diplomacy and a real blow to the country’s long-term security.
It will be a blow as well to President Leonid Kuchma, who faces an election later this year. Ukraine’s economic performance mirrors Russia’s, and the president is so vulnerable that he may choose not to run again. Nevertheless, the quality of political competition seems to be sinking with the currency. A congress of the Hromada party, by a vote of 258-1, nominated for president former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, recently released on bail from arrest in Switzerland on charges of fraud and money-laundering. As a member of parliament Lazarenko enjoys immunity from prosecution in Ukraine. The parliament could vote to strip away that protection, but once his presidential nomination is formally registered with the Central Electoral Commission, Lazarenko could gain at least three months’ immunity as a presidential candidate. A bill to that effect awaits only Kuchma’s signature to become law.