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Moscow and Kiev hold fire on fleet

RUSSIA and Ukraine agreed yesterday to postpone the problem of how to divide up the spoils of the 300-ship Soviet Black Sea fleet by placing it under a joint Russian- Ukrainian command for the next three years.

President Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's leader, announced they had agreed on the transition period after a meeting in the Crimea. Mr Yeltsin forecast that in three years relations betweenthe two states will have improved, allowing an amicable division. 'Society will get over its illness and there will be other realities,' he said. The agreement also proved that talk of the imminent collapse of the Commonwealth of Independent States was wrong, he added.

The problem of how to divide up the fleet has caused great friction between Moscow and Kiev, becoming a symbol of their many differences as they try to disengage themselves from the single political and economic unit that was the Soviet Union.

In a news conference after the talks at Mukhalatka, Mr Kravchuk said the two men would appoint the fleet's top command, which traditionally is Russian. 'The decision is important, well thought out and in accordance with the situation in Russia, Ukraine and Crimea and will calm the officers and ease the situation between the two countries,' he said.

The two presidents also moved closer toward a broad friendship treaty, ordering their ministers to prepare a final draft that would include co-ordination of prices for grain, sugar and oil.

Whether postponing the division of the fleet will solve some of the morale problems remains to be seen. Ukrainian officers have complained of discrimination in the fleet in favour of Russians. Thirty-one per cent of the officers and 61 per cent of the sailors are Ukrainian. The Ukrainian officers say they are treated unequally for promotion, shore leave and housing for their families.

The Russian commanders will have to give up senior positions if the joint command is to be seen to be fair. And the Ukrainians will have to give up their claims to control of the base facilities, which are on Ukrainian territory.

In addition, there is the question of who will pay for the fleet's operation during the transition period. Ukraine officials say they have been paying most of the bills since January in anticipation of taking over most of the fleet.

Even so, the doomsayers who predicted the Mukhalatka talks would result in no agreement appear to have been proved wrong. The critics had based their forecasts on the increasing tensions in the fleet after a coastguard vessel last month hoisted the Ukrainian flag instead of the Soviet ensign and defected from its base to the Ukrainian port of Odessa.

The two sides have agreed not raise their national flags until they decide how to share out the fleet. Most of the 45 large ships are so old that they are expected to be sold for scrap.