Kravchuk seeks aid as Ukraine economy sinks

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UKRAINE'S President, Leonid Kravchuk, arrived in Britain yesterday for talks that are likely to cover his country's nuclear arsenal, its prickly relations with Russia and the dire state of its economy.

Mr Kravchuk is due to lunch with John Major at 10 Downing Street today and to meet British business leaders as well as Jacques Attali, the head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Before leaving Kiev for London, Mr Kravchuk said he would set out the case for urgent Western aid for Ukraine's economy. 'Our immediate future depends on this assistance. If the West is ever going to give us aid, it must be now,' he said.

Since declaring independence in August 1991, Ukraine has sunk into an economic crisis as serious as that in Russia. Monthly inflation was running at more than 30 per cent late last year and food production had fallen by 17.5 per cent. Neither the Ukrainian government nor parliament has made much progress in introducing economic reforms.

The whiff of old Communist power structures that hangs over the republic may be one reason why the West has held back from offering large-scale economic aid. Though Mr Kravchuk, like Boris Yeltsin, is a former Communist who subsequently won election on a platform of national sovereignty, some Western specialists think he has less in common with Russia's President than he has with the Communist-turned-nationalist leaders of countries such as Romania and Slovakia.

One pressing concern for Western governments is the fate of Ukraine's strategic nuclear weapons. Mr Kravchuk confirmed this week that Ukraine intends to become a non-nuclear power, but an increasingly vocal pro-nuclear movement in his republic wants a reversal of policy. The West is anxious that Ukraine - like Belarus and Kazakhstan - should not join the world's nuclear club, but Ukraine has still not ratified the US-Soviet Start 1 strategic arms reduction agreement of July 1991.

Mr Kravchuk says he wants Western guarantees that, if he hands over nuclear weapons to Russia, the Russians will not direct them against Ukrainian targets. He also wants economic assistance to dismantle and destroy its nuclear arms, and is requesting compensation for the nuclear material contained in the warheads.

The Ukrainians fear that, without nuclear weapons or Western support as bargaining chips, they will become vulnerable to Russian pressure on territorial, military and economic issues. Ukrainian leaders were especially concerned by a decision of the conservative- dominated Russian parliament in December to question Ukraine's ownership of the Crimean city of Sevastopol, the home of the Black Sea fleet.

Many Russian nationalists contend not merely that the Soviet Union's transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 was illegal but that other parts of Ukraine belong to Russia by historical right. The British Government is likely to use Mr Kravchuk's visit to underscore its support for Ukrainian independence, while putting forward the view that Ukraine should make a priority of building stable relations with Russia.

(Photograph omitted)