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Yushchenko and Putin Clear the Air

A day after his inauguration, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko made his first official visit to Moscow on Monday and declared Russia to be his country's "eternal strategic partner" in an effort to smooth over disagreements with the Kremlin over his country's bitterly contested presidential elections.

After 2 1/2 hours of talks in the Kremlin, Yushchenko and President Vladimir Putin sought to put months of strained relations behind them, following the Kremlin's open support for Yushchenko's defeated rival, Viktor Yanukovych, and said they would work together to improve relations.

Yushchenko arrived in Moscow after announcing the appointment of his fiery ally Yulia Tymoshenko as his prime minister and other key allies to top posts in his new government.

"We have always stood, and will stand, for Russia being our eternal strategic partner," a visibly tense Yushchenko told President Vladimir Putin during the televised part of their meeting, adding that his visit was a "sign of great respect for Russia."

Yushchenko said he would like to establish "rational relations" with Russia and "throw away myths and legends," in an apparent reference to media reports that portrayed the elections in Ukraine as a straightforward battle between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces in the country.

Putin welcomed Yushchenko warmly, saying, "We are very happy that this difficult political period in Ukraine has passed ... and we expect our relations to develop."

But Putin also took pains to remind Yushchenko of Ukraine's dependence on Russia for 60 percent of its foreign trade, and urged him to commit further to the Unified Economic Space, a tentative economic union between Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus worked out with Yushchenko's predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.

Yushchenko, however, has shown himself to be skeptical about Moscow's plan, and has made it clear he sees Ukraine moving toward closer ties with the European Union and NATO.

In a tacit justification of his open support for Yanukovych, Putin insisted that Moscow did not work "behind the scenes" to influence other former Soviet republics and had cut "no back-door deals" with either those in power or the opposition in those countries.

"As you know well, Russia has never worked behind the scenes in post-Soviet states, and that applies to the opposition, too. We have done recently only what the acting Ukrainian leadership asked us to do," Putin said, in a clear reference to the work of Russian spin doctors in Kiev last year and his own visits to the country ahead of the elections.

Kuchma had hand-picked Yanukovych as his heir, but then withdrew his support after it became clear that Yanukovych's disputed win in the Nov. 21 second round would not be accepted either by Yushchenko's supporters or Western democracies.

Russia sided with Yanukovych in this standoff and Putin even congratulated him twice, only to see Ukraine's Supreme Court rule that the second round was rigged and order a Dec. 26 rerun, which Yushchenko won by 8 percentage points.

Unlike some other heads of state, Putin waited until the Supreme Court rejected Yanukovych's last-ditch appeal last week before congratulating Yushchenko on his win.

Two aides sat alongside Yushchenko during the televised part of the meeting, while Putin had several key figures on his side of the table, including Kremlin chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin and Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller.

Gazprom is a key trading partner for Ukraine, sending many billions of cubic meters of gas in pipelines across the country to European markets each year.

The private part of the talks between Putin and Yushchenko lasted longer than originally planned, but few details of what the two leaders discussed emerged at a brief news conference afterward.

Both leaders were stern-faced as they took turns to make statements to the press, with Putin saying that he found the Ukrainians "frank and positive" and that Yushchenko had made it clear that Ukraine would honor his predecessor's gas transit agreements with Moscow.

Putin appeared to indicate that Yushchenko would be taking his time to decide whether to sign up for the Unified Economic Space project, which would anchor Ukraine firmly within Russia's economic sphere of influence.

Prior to leaving Kiev for Moscow, Yushchenko nominated his key supporters to top posts in his staff and Cabinet, handing the post of prime minister to his flamboyant ally and former Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

News of Tymoshenko's appointment broke as the two leaders were talking in the Kremlin, but Putin appeared to take the move in stride, despite the fact that Russian military prosecutors have alleged that she played a role in embezzling Russian Defense Ministry funds in a complicated barter deal during her term in office.

After leaving his talks with Putin, Yushchenko also visited with Patriarch Alexy II at his Moscow residence Monday evening.

Later in the evening, at a news conference at the President Hotel in central Moscow, Yushchenko said he had discussed the appointment of Tymoshenko with Putin during the Kremlin talks.

Yushchenko said he asked Putin whether Tymoshenko would have any problem visiting Moscow in view of Russian prosecutors' charges, and that Putin's response to that question had been "satisfying."

Chernomyrdin, a former Gazprom boss who dealt with Tymoshenko's gas trading company in the 1990s, was the first Russian official to publicly hint earlier this month that the Kremlin would not object to Tymoshenko's appointment as Yushchenko's prime minister. He was quoted by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda on Jan. 12 as saying that Tymoshenko "is a dynamo and a brilliant organizer."

When asked to comment on Tymoshenko's appointment directly after the Kremlin talks, Putin declined to pass judgment, saying, "I don't think we should evaluate the new Ukrainian government."

Yushchenko told reporters that the two leaders had discussed his poisoning and that he had confirmed to Putin his suspicions that the dioxin had been administered during a dinner with the head of Ukraine's State Security Service, Ihor Smeshko, in September.

Yushchenko said Putin had inquired about the poisoning, and that he had responded by referring to "that dinner."

In his comments to reporters late Monday, before leaving for talks with Western leaders in Europe on Tuesday, Yushchenko said that Russia would not be Ukraine's sole strategic partner, and referred to the EU as Ukraine's "strategic partner to the West."

Yushchenko was due to arrive in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday, during which he was expected to put Ukraine's case for closer ties with the EU.

(The Moscow Times 25.i.05)

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