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Putin, Kuchma Agree to Share Azov

ReutersPresident Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma meeting in Kerch to discuss a simmering territorial dispute.
KIEV --President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma signed a framework agreement last week on mutual use of a key shipping route in an attempt to settle a long-standing dispute between the two countries.

At a meeting in Ukraine's Black Sea port of Kerch, the two presidents agreed on use of the Azov Sea and the Kerch Strait, which "historically" are joint territorial waters, Kuchma's office said.

They also decided to create a consortium on the joint use of the Kerch Strait.

The agreement creates a "proper basis" to "start cooperation in various spheres, considering the balance of interests of both countries," Putin said in televised comments.

"The Kerch Strait should serve both Russia and Ukraine equally," Kuchma said.

The agreement means the sea will be considered an internal body of water by both countries. Kuchma said the sea would be divided according to borders, and stressed he and Putin "agreed on principles of delimitation."

However, how the Azov will be divided wasn't immediately clear. Russia wants to draw the dividing line on the seabed and rejects Ukraine's push to delimit its surface, fearing that would allow Ukraine to control shipping routes. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a dispute over the Azov, which has busy shipping routes and rich fishing resources. Some experts say there are also potentially rich oil fields on the sea floor.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine flared in October after Russia began building a dike from the Russian mainland to Ukraine's Tuzla Island. The move drew angry protests from Ukraine, which suspected Russia of trying to seize control of the Kerch Strait that links the Black and Azov Seas.

Following tense high-level talks last month, Russia stopped construction about 100 meters from Tuzla but demanded that Ukraine withdraw its border guards from the island. Ukraine drew Moscow's ire by beefing up its presence on Tuzla instead.

Also, Putin and Kuchma signed a joint order to commission the governments of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to complete creation of the common market.

Earlier this year, leaders of the four ex-Soviet republics signed a separate four-way agreement to create a common economic space akin to the European Union that envisions the free movement of goods, capital and labor as well as common tariffs and customs.

The move toward recovering the economic reach of the Soviet Union is considered essential for many of the ex-Soviet republics, who for the most part remain hamstrung by struggling manufacturing sectors and inadequate market reforms, making them unappealing partners for the more prosperous West.

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