Matt Day: Why passions run so high in Kiev over a Russian naval base

IF ANYBODY wanted evidence of just how deep the political divide is in Ukraine between the pro-Russian camp and its pro-western counterpart, they just had to watch the television coverage of the fracas in the country's parliament over the lease extension to Moscow's naval base in Sevastopol.

To Ukrainian nationalists, the agreement is a treacherous document that comes as an affront to the country's independence and is indicative of the policies of appeasement towards Moscow that President Viktor Yanukovich is happy to peddle. They regard him as little more than Moscow's poodle, and this has made them bitter opponents of him and his Regions Party.

But while passions run high in parliament, it is, perhaps, fair to say there are practical aspects to the Black Sea deal that make sense for Ukraine.

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To begin with, Moscow has said it will reduce Ukraine's gas bill by 30 per cent over the next ten years, thus saving the country about 26 billion. At the same time, Russia will pay 65 million a year to Kiev for the privilege of using the base.

These will come as handy sums of money for Ukraine. The global recession has left its economy reeling and pretty much dependent on emergency IMF funding to keep it afloat.

Before the deal, there were frequent rumours that cash-strapped Kiev may not even have the funds to pay Russia – its main energy provider – for its gas. Whether there was any substance to the rumours is another debate, but they raised unwanted question marks over the credibility and viability of Ukraine's economy.

Furthermore, there is nothing really wrong with Ukraine keeping in Moscow's good books. While some in the West might dislike the sight of Kiev cosying up to Russia, it would be foolish for Ukraine not to – as long as it benefits from the relationship. They share a common border, and many cultural similarities, so a good working relationship is a must.

A far more symbolic gesture was also made by Mr Yanukovich yesterday towards Russia, lost amid the clamour back in Kiev. Speaking to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, he said the 1930s' Stalinist famine that killed millions in his country should not be considered genocide against Ukrainians, because it targeted its victims indiscriminately.

Mr Yanukovich said he considered the famine "a shared tragedy" of all people who were all part of the Soviet Union, then led by Joseph Stalin. His pro-western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, had sought to have the famine recognised as genocide against Ukrainians, causing much unease in Moscow – also still struggling with its Communist past.

Much as the West might not like a renewed relationship between Russia and Ukraine, we would do well to remember that when Ukraine had a government that was deeply antagonistic to Moscow and keen to enter the western fold, institutions such as the European Union and Nato kept it at arm's length.

So it is perhaps little wonder that Ukraine now turns east, despite the anger of some of its people.