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Earnings

Ukraine condemns Russia's move on Georgia regions

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on Wednesday Russia’s decision to recognize two Georgian rebel regions was unacceptable and threatened to raise the issue of a rent increase at a base for the Black Sea Fleet.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kiev August 27, 2008. REUTERS/Konstantin Chernichkin

Saying any country which was not part of international security agreements could be next to feel Russia’s military might, Yushchenko said Ukraine must increase its defenses and push its bid for membership of the NATO military alliance.

“We regret this decision, for Ukraine it is unacceptable and therefore we cannot support this position,” Yushchenko told Reuters in an interview.

“What has happened is a threat to everyone, not just for one country. Any nation could be next, any country. When we allow someone to ignore the fundamental right of territorial integrity, we put into doubt the existence of any country.”

Ukraine is the latest country to condemn Russia’s decision on Tuesday to recognize the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Russia’s brief war in Georgia over South Ossetia this month raised fears in Ukraine that it could be the next target of Russia’s campaign to reassert influence over countries it long dominated in the Soviet Union.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Russia might have its eye on countries such as Ukraine and neighboring Moldova after the conflict in Georgia.

“I repeat that it is very dangerous, and there are other objectives that one can suppose are objectives for Russia, in particular the Crimea, Ukraine and Moldova,” he told Europe 1 radio.

BLACK SEA FLEET

Yushchenko’s support for Georgia has already angered Moscow. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin accused Kiev of stirring tensions and hinted that some politicians wanted to trigger a tough response from Moscow to boost their standing.

“This is a cynical and dangerous game,” he said earlier on the ministry’s web site www.mid.ru.

In remarks bound to heighten tensions with Moscow, Yushchenko said Ukraine had leased the base at the Crimean port of Sevastopol for Russia’s Black Sea fleet at below market rates and it was time to think about raising the price.

“(We need to) raise the question about the lease payment, and new financial conditions because those old conditions were set when there was no market for land deals ... and assets which the Russian fleet uses were not considered as assets which must be paid for,” he said.

Under a 1997 pact, Russia leases the Sevastopol base until 2017 for an annual fee of $98 million.

When Ukraine raised the question of increasing the rent almost three years ago after Russia demanded a nearly five-fold increase in gas prices, Moscow warned Kiev it could reignite a potentially dangerous border row.

Mainly Russian-speaking Crimea, in Ukraine’s south, was granted to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954, but Sevastopol still has a powerful hold over many in Russia as a symbol of Russian military glory.

Russia used ships from the Black Sea Fleet to land troops in Georgia and patrol its waters. The first boat to return last week was welcomed by cheering pro-Russian crowds.

Yushchenko hinted the base lease might not be renewed.

“We need to prevent Ukraine becoming involved in a military conflict ... We don’t intend to allow troops which could be used in military action with a third or fourth country to use our territory as a base,” he said.

Ukraine also accuses Russia of using gas prices as a political weapon and Yushchenko said he wanted to settle on a market-rate to stem Moscow’s influence. Since 2006 Moscow has increased gas prices sharply every year.

But while checking Moscow’s pressure at home, Yushchenko again called on NATO to give Ukraine membership to protect it.

“Our policy has not changed,” he said. “We aim to enter the pan-European system of security because we are convinced that today there is no other alternative way of protecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, her sovereignty.”

(Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow)

Writing by Elizabeth Piper; editing by Timothy Heritage

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