AP Interview: Ukraine's Tymoshenko Warns That Russian Influence Increasing On Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's main opposition leader warned Saturday that the ex-Soviet republic is at risk of sliding back under Russia's influence, and is particularly vulnerable to energy pressure from its giant neighbor.

But Yulia Tymoshenko said that she heads to the United States on Sunday to reassure U.S. leaders that the Orange Revolution team that set Ukraine on its pro-Western path is reunited and ready to provide tough opposition to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's more Russian-leaning government.

On Saturday, Tymoshenko's bloc signed an agreement to work as a united opposition force with the party of President Viktor Yushchenko, giving them more than 200 lawmakers in the 450-seat parliament.

Uniting will help them ensure that Yanukovych's parliamentary coalition does not have the 300 votes needed to override presidential vetoes of legislation. They also hope to push for early parliamentary elections.

"We came through many tests, through many mistakes ... our union today is not due to circumstances, it is not a spontaneous decision," Tymoshenko told The Associated Press after the signing ceremony in parliament. "It is a decision dictated by those Ukrainians who want to see Ukraine European."

Tymoshenko was one of the driving forces behind the 2004 Orange Revolution, which helped bring the pro-Western Yushchenko to power.

The Kremlin had openly backed Yushchenko's opponent — the man who is the current premier — and his defeat was seen as a major blow to Moscow's efforts to keep this nation of 47 million under its sway.

But Yushchenko's hesitant governing style has proved a disappointment for many Ukrainians who expected quick change and a strong embrace from Europe, and last year, Yanukovych's party triumphed in parliamentary elections.

Yanukovych put together a governing majority and returned to power as premier, governing jointly with Yushchenko.

But Yushchenko has become increasingly sidelined, and Tymoshenko said that under Yanukovych, Russia's influence was growing. "I don't want to be silent about this," she said, noting that pressure was particularly strong in the energy sector.

"Really, there is energy pressure on Ukraine which can be used and is used today for political control of the country," she said, recalling the bitter 2006 natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine and recent talks about transferring some control over Ukraine's pipelines to Russia.

Tymoshenko noted strong pressure for Ukraine to join a Moscow-dominated economic union, which she warned would mean surrendering some national control.

"All this forces us to confront a new challenge: to protect the independence of our country which is again on Ukraine's agenda today," Tymoshenko said.

She also expressed concern that Russian investors were being given priority over foreign investors.

Tymoshenko said that she wanted to use her visit to the United States to tell U.S. leaders what is happening in Ukraine, and reassure Washington that Ukraine is still on a democratic path.

She is scheduled to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

She comes to the United States in a position of strength, having achieved a rapprochement with Yushchenko.

Yushchenko had tapped Tymoshenko to be his premier after the Orange Revolution, but he fired her eight months later, accusing her of being too power hungry.

Now, Yushchenko — his authority under increasing attack — needs her, something that became very clear when she sided with Yanukovych's party to override a presidential veto last month.

"I think that the advice which I tried to give to the president during recent months is in principle coming to life today — and it is pleasant," Tymoshenko said.

Source: AP