Russians have few pastimes in these bleak days, but kicking Ukraine around is one of them. The Federation Council, where chief executives of Russia’s sub-federal regions sit as the upper house of parliament, took time last week to kick around the Russia-Ukraine treaty, signed in 1997 but still unratified. Moscow’s Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, running hard for president, came out against the treaty. The communists who back it, he said, “betray” the country by yielding up “territory we gained with our blood.” He was referring to Sevastopol, the great naval base on the Crimean peninsula, which Nikita Khrushchev transferred from Russian to Ukrainian administration in 1954. Luzhkov picked up support from far-right nationalists whom on other occasions he has attacked as extremists. The treaty now faces tough going. If the nationalists attach reservations affecting Ukraine’s claims to Crimea, Kyiv may have to repudiate the deal.
Rem Vyakhirev, the chairman of Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom, also took a turn. Ukraine, he said, is “destabilizing the European gas market” by “stealing gas in transit to Europe.” The Ukrainian state-owned gas company acknowledged that some gas passing through Ukrainian pipelines is diverted to the domestic market, but as a transit fee, not as theft. Vyakhirev, whose company reported a 1998 loss of 45 billion rubles ($2 billion at current exchange rates), says that Ukrainian arrears to Gazprom now total $1.6 billion. Ukraine insists the correct figure as of January 1 was only $735 million, with private companies owing another $348 million for which the government bears no responsibility. Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine tried soothe frayed tempers, saying “a biased and embittered analysis will produce no positive results.” It’s safe to say that the deal negotiated late last year to resolve the gas dispute has broken down.