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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 23:53 GMT
Ukraine slides into Russian embrace
Putin and Kuchma
Welcome support: Mr Putin and Mr Kuchma shake on it
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

Leonid Kuchma won his first presidential term in 1994 on a platform that emphasised the importance of close relations with Russia.

It was a wise strategy, because it won him the votes of the densely populated eastern regions of Ukraine, where pro-Russian feeling is strong, and Ukrainian nationalists are distrusted.

But once in power, Mr Kuchma became a stout defender of Ukrainian independence, and a sharp critic of Russia's attempts to dominate its smaller neighbours.

He wooed the West, and was wooed in return - Ukraine became one of the largest recipients of US aid, some $2bn since 1991.

Leonid Kuchma
Mr Kuchma is said to be far from resigning
To Russia's annoyance, Ukraine negotiated a special relationship with Nato, and joined Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova in a regional grouping, (GUAM), designed to counter Russian influence in the region.

But Ukraine's, and Mr Kuchma's, honeymoon with the West is now a distant memory.

Rampant corruption has kept Western investors away, and the slow pace of economic reform has frequently prevented the country benefiting from proffered International Monetary Fund loans.

Concern about violations of media freedom and freedom of speech have been a constant irritant in relations with Europe and the US.

Ambitious Western plans to help Ukraine reform its energy sector - and to reduce its dependence on Russian energy imports - have remained on the shelf, while the country's debt has ballooned.

Vladimir Putin
Mr Putin: Chance to achieve a pro-Russian president of Ukraine
Most Western governments now think Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko - seen as an honest and committed reformer - would make a better leader, and do not expect to see big strides towards democracy, human rights or a law-based market economy until the next presidential election in 2003.

In the mean time Mr Kuchma has rediscovered the value of friends in Moscow.

Russian companies have been able to buy up some of the more attractive parts of the Ukrainian economy at low prices.

The aluminium industry and oil refineries have been snapped up, and Russia would also like to buy up the international gas pipeline that transports Russian gas to Europe across Ukrainian territory.

Currently rocked by the biggest protests of his six years in power, Mr Kuchma may feel grateful for the vote of confidence he received from Mr Putin in Dnipropetrovsk on Monday.

As Russia's Izvestia newspaper put it: "This is Russia's best chance since the break-up of the Soviet Union to have a pro-Russian president of Ukraine."

Analysts in Kiev say Mr Kuchma is still far from any thought of giving in to the protesters' calls for his resignation.

The more cynical observers are asking whether Ukraine will go the way of its northern neighbour, Belarus - arresting critics, clamping down on dissent, and forging ever closer ties with Moscow.

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See also:

11 Feb 01 | Europe
Analysis: Kuchma under pressure
12 Feb 01 | Europe
Ukraine crisis timeline
10 Jan 01 | Europe
Headless journalist 'identified'
29 Nov 00 | Media reports
Death, lies and audiotape - Ukraine-style
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ukraine
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