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Original Message Russia is warning of negative consequences if Ukraine and Georgia join the NATO defense alliance. The prediction comes on a day of one-on-one meetings between Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and most leaders of countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. The meetings came on the sidelines of a yearly economic forum in Saint Petersburg. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has this report.

Before heading behind closed doors for meetings with Kremlin leader Dmitri Medvedev, the presidents of Ukraine and Georgia hinted publicly at Moscow's strained relations with Kyiv and Tbilisi. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said many issues have accumulated and need to be discussed between the two countries. Georgia leader Mikhail Saakashvili also spoke of numerous problems, noting optimistically, however, that none of them are insoluble given the presence of good will.

Moscow is particularly concerned about Georgian and Ukrainian moves to join NATO. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Georgian membership in the alliance would create a spiral of confrontation in Abkhazia, a separatist region of Georgia that is supported by Russia.

Lavrov says Dmitri Medvedev warned President Yushchenko that Ukraine's NATO membership would violate a friendship treaty between the two countries. He linked the treaty to another agreement governing the presence of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

Lavrov says unresolved issues concerning the fleet cannot be substituted by unilateral moves. The agreement, he says, provides for possible extension of the fleet's presence, and that preparing for a withdrawal nine years before its lease expires is not the approach Russia would like to see in its partners.

Russia is required to vacate the base in Sevastopol in 2017 and considers Ukrainian preparations for the Russian departure to be premature. The Interfax News Agency says President Yushchenko told journalists in Saint Petersburg that Ukraine will fulfill its side of the fleet agreement to the last letter.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has not rejected a recent statement by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, that Sevastopol and Crimea should belong to Russia, more than 50 years after the Kremlin transferred the area to Ukraine.

Russian-Ukrainian tensions over NATO and the fleet were accompanied by news announced by Sergei Lavrov that Ukraine will be hit with a nearly 100 percent hike in the price of gas on January first. Lavrov said President Yushchenko was told the reason is that Central Asian countries, which supply gas to Ukraine via Russia, will begin charging European prices.

The Russian diplomat says the Ukrainian leader responded by saying the sooner his country switches to market prices, the better its economy will be. Lavrov agrees. So does Vasyl Yablonsky, an analyst at the National Institute of Strategic Studies in Kyiv, who told VOA there is logic to higher energy prices for Ukraine.

Yablonsky says the longer Ukraine gets subsidized gas, the longer it will be obligated to return the favor to Russia either politically or economically. He says market prices will also encourage more efficiency and use of energy saving technologies.

Mr. Medvedev's other presidential meetings, held in the ornate Konstantin Palace near Saint Petersburg, seemed less tense. He spoke of Russia's key strategic partnership with Uzbekistan with that country's president, Islam Karimov. The leader of Turkmenistan touted his country's reliable energy partnership with Moscow. And Moldova's President Vladimir Voronin announced that two paintings stolen from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg have been found and will be returned.
[link to www.voanews.com]
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