UKRAINE NOT TO JOIN BELARUS-RUSSIA UNION. Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ihor Hrushko said on 16 November that Ukraine is interested in deepening cooperation with neighboring countries but does not intend to join the Union of Belarus and Russia, Interfax reported. Commenting on the planned signing of a treaty establishing the union state of Belarus and Russia, Hrushko noted that "the creation of any Slavic unions would amount to giving preference to some ethnic groups at the expense of others." JM

UKRAINIAN SPEAKER PREDICTS CENTER-LEFT PARLIAMENTARY MAJORITY. Supreme Council Chairman Oleksandr Tkachenko said on 16 November that the creation of a center-left parliamentary majority is more likely than that of a centerright one, Interfax reported. Such a majority, he argued, could be formed by deputies of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Peasant Party, and the Progressive Socialist Party. Tkachenko added that this alignment could also be joined by the Hromada party. Tkachenko noted that the rightist parliamentary parties are unable to form a majority that "could positively influence the [country's] economic development." According to Tkachenko's deputy, Viktor Medvedchuk of the Social Democratic Party (United), parliamentary deputies may form a majority "in the next few days," spurred on by the prospect of forming a coalition cabinet. President Leonid Kuchma has threatened to seek the dissolution of the parliament unless that body creates a progovernment majority. JM

Since joining the EU in 1995 and, more particularly, since assuming the rotating union presidency in July of this year, Finland has sought to ensure that ties with Russia feature prominently on the union's agenda. One of the cornerstones of Finland's EU Russian policy is the so-called Northern Dimension, which was the subject of a 12 November meeting in Helsinki attended by foreign ministers from the union and several partner countries: Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, and Russia. While aimed at involving all those partner countries, the initiative focuses to a large degree on the northwestern regions of the Russian Federation (extending from Pskov Oblast to the Nenets Autonomous Oblast) as well as the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

According to a Finnish Foreign Ministry statement, one of the main objectives of the Northern Dimension is "to create favorable conditions for EU enlargement without creating new dividing lines on the European continent." The statement points out that Finland is currently the only EU country that has a border with Russia--that frontier runs some 1,300 kilometers alongside Murmansk Oblast, the Republic of Karelia, and Leningrad Oblast. When Poland and the three Baltic States join the union, the EU-Russian border will become roughly half as long again and will leave the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad surrounded by EU territory. To enhance cooperation and economic interdependence between the EU and those Russian regions that have--or will have--borders with union member states is a primary goal of the Northern Dimension initiative.

The initiative identifies energy and natural resources as two key areas for such cross-border cooperation. "Increasing demand for energy and raw materials in Europe underscores the strategic importance of Northwest Russia's reserves," the Finnish Foreign Ministry statement notes. In particular, parties to the Northern Dimension have pointed to the need for producer and consumer countries to establish favorable "commercial conditions" in the gas sector and to link up all partner countries on the Continent to European gas networks. The Baltic Ring project to connect the power grids of all Baltic Sea countries is also an important component of the Northern Dimension. And other areas of interest include forestry, fishing, and mining, while parties to the initiative stress that in developing these sectors, the rights of Arctic indigenous peoples and other local populations must be respected.

At the same time, the Northern Dimension attempts to address issues that are of particular concern to the Scandinavian countries and Finland: namely, environmental problems and nuclear safety in Russia's Northwest. Untreated sewage emitted from the St. Petersburg region into the Gulf of Finland, nickel deposits polluting the Barents Sea, insufficient safety standards at Chornobyl-era nuclear reactors on the Kola Peninsula, and leaking nuclear waste from decommissioned submarines docked near Murmansk are among some of the most urgent issues requiring attention. Individual countries in Europe have already earmarked monies to help deal with some of these problems: Norway, for example, has allocated funds totaling some $60 million toward ensuring nuclear safety in northwestern Russia. The Northern Dimension aims at giving new impetus to such efforts.

While Finland, by virtue of its geographic location, will clearly be among the first to benefit from increased cooperation with Russia's Northwest as well as from environmental projects, it argues that the initiatives' advantages will be enjoyed by all EU member states. Indeed, the 12 November meeting in Helsinki confirmed that there is widespread backing for the initiative. Participants stressed the need to draw up a Northern Dimension action plan, for which authorization is to be sought at next month's EU summit in Helsinki. If, as is expected, that authorization is forthcoming, Finland hopes to have a draft action plan ready within the first half of next year.

Meanwhile, the Northern Dimension's focus on relations with individual Russian regions rather than the federation as whole has been endorsed--albeit indirectly--by at least one political leader from the former East bloc. In a recent interview, Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar commented that the West should seek closer ties with Russian regions as the best way to foster political and economic change in Russia itself. "[Our] relations with the regions are a lot better than our relations with the central power," said Laar, whose country has been accused by Moscow of discrimination against its Russian minority. While denying that such an approach might lead to the break up of the federation, Laar commented that "Russia has very big problems, often related to the regions. So every step that helps the regions helps Russia as a whole."