Yanukovych Seeks New, EU-Friendly Image With Brussels Trip

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yanukovych, will make his first foreign trip Monday, visiting Brussels in a bid to reshape his image as a Kremlin stooge and cast himself as a champion of EU integration.

Viktor Yanukovych (L) meeting with Jose Manuel Barroso on September 21, 2006.

Yanukovych, who was inaugurated Thursday, will meet European Union president Herman Van Rompuy as well as the European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

By making his first foreign trip to Brussels rather than to Moscow, where he is due March 5, Yanukovych is aiming to soften his pro-Russian image and reassure Europeans of his intentions, analysts said.

"He needs to demonstrate that he is not a Russian stooge," said Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

Russia had been hoping for warmer relations with Ukraine under a Yanukovych presidency after years of confrontation with the country's last president, the fervently pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko.

Yanukovych's trip could even "provoke a jealous reaction in Moscow," said Dmitriy Vydrin, an independent political analyst in Kiev.

Russia has suggested Ukraine could join a customs union it is creating along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, a prospect that a Ukrainian lawmaker close to Yanukovych, Olexander Yefremov, has said he "did not rule out."

On Friday, Russian foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said he saw "no legal obstacle to Ukraine joining the customs union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan."

Any move by Kiev to join the customs union would irritate the EU, which is holding talks with Ukraine on creating a free-trade zone and is keen to keep the country from falling into Russia's sphere of influence.

Brussels will need to demonstrate its support for Ukraine, a former Soviet republic of 46 million people strategically located between Russia and the EU, after years of failed bids for closer EU-Ukraine integration.

"The EU should use this opportunity to strengthen relations with Ukraine, pushing for reforms, but offering assistance," said Paul. "The EU should send a strong message that it sees (Yanukovych) as being pro-European."

Yanukovych's trip is hotly anticipated, a Ukrainian diplomatic source said, telling AFP that "no other trip has been organised with so much interest" from the European side.

Brussels will seek warm ties with Kiev, since it is alarmed by the prospect of Ukraine joining the Russian customs union -- which would be "a revival of the Soviet Union, a complete change of Europe's geopolitical map," the source said.

At the same time Brussels is hoping Yanukovych will implement badly needed economic reforms that have been blocked by the recent years of political instability in Ukraine, the diplomatic source said.

"They are tired of the mess and hope that under Yanukovych the state will start functioning better and that the promises will be kept from now on."

Another hot topic will be supplies of Russian natural gas that transit via Ukraine. The EU will want reassurances that there will be no repetition of the Russia-Ukraine gas disputes of recent years, including the one in January 2009 that disrupted supplies to over a dozen European countries.

Yanukovych will want to discuss the creation of a consortium between Russian energy giant Gazprom and European countries to upgrade Ukraine's pipelines, said Nico Lange of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kiev.

Under Yushchenko, the participation of Russia in such a consortium would have been unthinkable.

Source: EU Business