Ukraine's President Rejects Russian Criticism, Says Russia To Blame For Strained Ties

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Thursday rejected sharp criticism from his Russian counterpart, saying the Kremlin is to blame for a downturn in bilateral ties.

Yushchenko was responding to an open letter from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who has accused him of conducting a hostile policy toward Russia. The unusually blunt words came as Ukraine is preparing to hold presidential elections in five months, and was seen by some observers as the Kremlin's attempt to interfere in the campaign.

In his letter released Tuesday, Medvedev criticized Yushchenko's government for supplying weapons to Georgia and striving to join NATO, and accused it of endangering Russian gas supplies to Europe.

Yushchenko argued that Ukraine's ties with Georgia were in line with international law and urged the Kremlin to respect Ukraine's sovereign right to join NATO.

He said he was very disappointed by the "unfriendly" message from Medvedev, and said that the Russian president's decision to postpone sending a new ambassador to Kiev wouldn't help relations.

"I can only agree with you that there are serious problems in relations between our countries, but it's strange that the Russian president fully excludes Russia's responsibility for that," Yushchenko told Medvedev in the letter.

Russia openly supported Yushchenko's opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2004 elections, which were annulled after the huge "Orange Revolution" street demonstrations protesting vote fraud. Yushchenko won the rerun.

Ukraine is the main transit country for Europe-bound Russian natural gas, and political tensions have aggravated gas price disputes. In a dispute this winter, Russia suspended deliveries through Ukraine for two weeks.

Medvedev accused Yushchenko's government of stonewalling Russia's energy proposals and threatening stability of gas supplies to Europe.

Yushchenko rejected the accusations and also dismissed Medvedev's claim that Ukraine was putting up obstacles to the operations of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Ukraine's port of Sevastopol. He said that Russia was violating agreements that allows Russia to lease the Soviet-era base until 2017.

Yushchenko dismissed Medvedev's allegations that Ukrainian authorities had discriminated against Russian language speakers and sought to hamper a recent visit by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

He defended Ukraine's decision to expel two Russian diplomats, saying that the Ukrainian authorities had warned Moscow about their activities on three separate occasions before demanding the diplomats' expulsion. Yushchenko has only said that the diplomatss' activities damaged Ukraine's national security.

Source: AP