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Friday, April 23, 2010

Under-fire Ukraine president defends Russia deal

by Anya Tsukanova Anya Tsukanova – Thu Apr 22, 4:32 pm ET

KIEV (AFP) – President Viktor Yanukovych on Thursday defended a deal to allow a Russian base to stay in Ukraine until 2042 after it was slammed by his opponents as a surrender of national sovereignty.

Yanukovych and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had agreed to extend the lease of the Russian Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea for another 25 years after 2017, in exchange for Kiev receiving a discount of 30 percent on gas imports.

"We have reinforced the certainty about the future of our country. We have launched the basis for coming out of the crisis and starting the economic recovery," Yanukovych said at a news conference a day after signing the deal.

In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said while "expensive" for Russia the deal was set to cement ties between Moscow and Kiev after years of bad blood.

"We are talking about a breakthrough in bilateral relations. The main thing here is not the money, not gas and not even the fleet, no matter how important it is for our country, for Ukraine," Putin told a government meeting.

"The main thing is relations between the two peoples, relations of trust towards each other, the realization of common interests and historic purposes, a feeling of fellowship."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Estonia, where she was meeting with her NATO counterparts, that Ukraine's landmark deal was part of a delicate foreign policy "balancing act" for President Viktor Yanukovych.

"I think given Ukraine's history and Ukraine's geographic position, that balancing act is a hard one, but it makes sense to us. That's what he's trying to do and, to keep a foot, if you will, in both sides of his country."

The head of NATO, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Ukraine's landmark deal with Russia would have no impact on Ukraine's NATO ambitions. The head of the military alliance told reporters in Estonia that NATO leaders have promised that Ukraine will one day become a member of the world's biggest military alliance if it wants to and meets the criteria.

"This is still the case," he said, "NATO policies have not changed."

Yanukovych said Wednesday Russia's concessions would effectively be worth 40 billion dollars over the next 10 years.

Wednesday's agreement came hours after Putin, seen as Russia's paramount leader, had held unannounced talks in Moscow with his Ukrainian counterpart.

Putin said the new deal would ensure uninterrupted gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine, after a spat in January 2009 led to Russia turning off the taps to Ukraine, leaving many European countries short of gas in the dead of winter.

The surprise agreement, signed in the Ukrainian Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv, was seized on by Yanukovych's opponents as evidence the pro-Kremlin president was selling out Ukrainian interests to Moscow.

His defeated rival in presidential elections, Yulia Tymoshenko, vowed to use all means to annul the agreement in parliament, while the Our Ukraine party of ex-president Viktor Yushchenko called for Yanukovych to be impeached.

"This is a fight for Ukraine. Today we have to decide if Ukraine is a truly independent state or simply a territory with a coat of arms, flag and borders, but without an international voice," added ex-speaker Arseniy Yatseniuk.

Yanukovych said however Ukraine's goal of EU integration and its policy of maintaining an equal balance with East and West remained unchanged after the fleet agreement.

"Our strategic aims are not changing. Ukraine will integrate into the European Union," he said.

"My aim is that in the triangle of EU-Russia-US, Ukraine will find its place and its national interests. We have to find an equilibrium."

In an apparent bid to placate his enraged opponents, Yanukovych refused to rule out the possibility holding a referendum on the Black Sea lease extension, so long as the appropriate laws were passed to hold plebiscites.

The deal marked a dramatic turnaround in Russian-Ukrainian ties after the relationship became so bad under Yanukovych's predecessor, the fiercely pro-Western Yushchenko, that Medvedev refused to do any business with him.

Observers in both countries were astonished by the agreement.

While Ukraine had been expected to receive a gas discount at the summit, no-one had predicted it would be in exchange for the Black Sea Fleet lease extension, let alone for a quarter-century.

"We expected that Yanukovych would make a step towards Russia but we could hardly have imagined that the rapprochement would be so impetuous," said the Ukrainian daily Gazeta po-Kievski.

"Russia has demonstrated that the gas pipeline remains its all-time favourite political weapon," added Russian daily Kommersant.

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