Friday, Dec 26, 2003
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By Vladimir Radyuhin
At a hastily arranged meeting in the Ukrainian peninsular, Crimea, on Wednesday the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, and Leonid Kuchma, signed a framework agreement paving the way to a settlement of a row over the status of a strategic shipping channel between the Black Sea and the Azov Sea.
The agreement was the product of mutual compromises, with Ukraine agreeing to joint use of the Kerch strait and Russia accepting Kiev's demand for delimitation of sea borders in the Azov Sea. Under the accord, the Azov Sea is an internal body of water shared by Russia and Ukraine and military ships from third parties can only enter it on mutual agreement between the two states.
Until now, Ukraine unilaterally controlled the straits, taking fees from Russian ships passing through. Moscow also feared that Kiev, which is keen to join European structures, could allow NATO warships to enter the Azov Sea.
Ukraine was forced to expedite talks on the status of the Azov Sea after Russia moved to build a 4-km causeway across the Kerch Strait in October. Ukraine accused Russia of encroaching on its territory, even as Russia said it merely restored the spit washed away by storm in 1925 in order to prevent coastal erosion.
In another breakthrough, the leaders of Russia and Ukraine issued instructions to their Governments to start implementation of a Single Economic Zone pact signed by Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus in September.
The agreement provides for a customs union, free movement of goods, capital and labour, and a common tax, monetary and foreign trade policy. Ukraine has come under strong U.S. pressure and the European Union to pull out of the pact that would allegedly set back Kiev's plans to become a member of the E.U. and the World Trade Organisation. Moscow has kept Kiev on board by agreeing to gradually lift an 18 per cent VAT on its energy supplies to Ukraine and other members of the free-trade pact.
The agreements reached in Crimea should strengthen the domestic positions of Mr. Kuchma who is trying to prevent the pro-Western Opposition from coming to power after he steps down next year.
Mr. Kuchma's supporters, who enjoy a majority in Parliament, on Wednesday rammed a constitutional reform bill which would replace universal suffrage for the election of Ukraine's President by Parliament.
If the Constitutional Court clears the bill it will come for final parliamentary approval next spring.
This could block the way to presidency for Ukraine's most popular politician, Viktor Yushchenko, who is supported by the U.S. and Europe.
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