Kiev Invited To Join Customs Union

MOSCOW, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has won pledges for revitalized ties and tighter economic cooperation, including an invitation to join a Russian-led customs union, during his first official visit to Moscow.

President Dmitry Medvedev and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovich walk past a guard of honor in the Kremlin March 5, 2010.

But concrete deals — including on the all-important issue of gas prices and transit — were pushed to a later date as Yanukovych continues the tricky task of assembling a new ruling coalition, which he suggested would be a precondition for any substantial energy talks.

Election rival Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych ousted as prime minister last week, and her allies blasted the president again over his willingness to let Moscow take partial control over Ukraine’s gas network, a move they say would be a betrayal of national interests.

Yanukovych said only that he was optimistic that he could form a new government soon, after which “we need to do a serious review of everything that happened [between Russia and Ukraine] and remove the artificial barriers.”

During meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev and then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday, Yanukovych stuck largely to general pledges of cooperation and signals that he was amenable to talks on key issues for Russia.

Specifically, Yanukovych indicated that he could move closer to Moscow on the status of the Black Sea Fleet, rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko’s controversial decision to name a World War II-era nationalist as a national hero.

He was also effusive in his praise for Putin, who as president in 2004 backed Yanukovych’s fraud-tainted campaign for Ukraine’s top office.

“The Russian people, maybe, have not yet realized the value of the stability in Russia” Yanukovych told Putin, suggesting that Russians would understand how good they have it if they had to deal with some Ukrainian politicians.

Putin joked that he would rather be sent salo, or traditional Ukrainian lard, to which Yanukovych responded that he would soon “bring things into order, both in the direct and metaphorical sense” back home.

After Yanukovych suggested that Kiev would make a sharp turn in its relations with Moscow, Putin suggested that he “join the customs union.”

The initial phase of the trade bloc took effect Jan. 1, although it has already been a source of friction with Belarus over competing interpretations of how Russia’s energy exports should be treated.

“The issue of Ukrainian-Russian relations — not only economics but also in the humanitarian field — was one of the very sensitive issues” during the recent election campaign in Ukraine, Yanukovych said, demurring on a more specific response to the invitation. “Ukraine will considerably adjust both its domestic and foreign policy.”

In an interview with Russian state television Sunday, however, Yanukovych offered some praise for the common economic space. He said it was possible that Kiev could eventually join — but only while maintaining its obligations to the World Trade Organization.

Expectations for the trip, which closely followed a similar meet-and-greet visit to Brussels on Monday, were raised somewhat after Yanukovych’s deputy chief of staff, Anna German, told The Associated Press that Ukraine “expected concrete agreements” in Moscow.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to deny reports Wednesday that the trip’s status could be downgraded to a “working visit” in response to the perceived slight of Yanukovych visiting the European Union first. And if the tone of Friday’s meetings was any indication, no offense was taken in Moscow.

Medvedev said he hoped for an end to the “black streak” in ties that followed the Orange Revolution, including the more than half-year absence of a Russian ambassador in Kiev.

“When our country’s ambassador was not in Kiev, I was thinking about Ukraine every morning because I was figuring out when exactly to send [Mikhail] Zurabov,” Medvedev said, referring to Moscow’s new envoy. “We wake up and fall asleep while thinking of Ukraine,” he added.

Former Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin stepped down in mid-2009, but Medvedev refused to send a replacement until Yushchenko left office.

Medvedev also said they agreed to discuss the status of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — stationed in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol — within the framework of the existing agreements, signed in 1997.

The arrangement, which was also hotly contested during the Ukrainian presidential election, lets Russian troops stay in the Crimea until 2017 while allowing for a possible prolongation.

Ukraine will uphold its national interests in building relations with NATO, Yanukovych said, repeating a regular pledge to boost ties in both the West and the East.

But he also offered a nod to the Kremlin by saying Russian-speaking Ukrainians would soon see a law protecting their rights, a step he promised throughout his election campaign.

Medvedev, in turn, said two Ukrainian-language channels would be included in subscription packages to households across Russia as part of a Kremlin-pushed switch to digital television broadcasts.

Yanukovych also pledged to review Yushchenko’s order recognizing Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who cooperated with the Nazis in World War II, as a Hero of Ukraine. The move outraged leaders in Moscow and the European Union.

He also said 2010 would be recognized as the year of World War II veterans in Ukraine, promised to visit Moscow for Victory Day celebrations on May 8 and invited Medvedev for a trip to Kiev in the first half of the year.

But the crux in relations between Moscow and Kiev in recent years — gas supplies — was all but absent during Yanukovych’s visit. Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko told reporters that Medvedev and Yanukovych did not discuss gas.

“That question was not discussed, and it will be discussed, possibly, once the new Ukrainian Cabinet is formed,” Shmatko said, noting that Russia “never dropped … the question of a joint gas consortium with Ukraine.”

Putin later told Yanukovych that “energy is somewhere that it’s possible to build normal civilized relations, move forward and proceed, including in the markets of third countries.”

The issue was one of the most heated in last month’s presidential election campaign, with Yanukovych regularly saying an arrangement could be reached to give Moscow some stake in Ukraine’s pipelines. In return, Kiev would expect Moscow to offer steep discounts on gas, instead of the near-European prices that it is currently struggling to pay.

Moscow argues that a consortium would help avoid pricing disputes and cutoffs to European consumers, which have damaged both countries’ reputations as reliable energy partners.

Opponents of the plan, including Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, have said it would hurt Ukraine’s sovereignty and is prevented by the constitution.

“Any talks about the necessity to establish a kind of a consortium, leasing, some schemes of joint operation or control over the gas transportation system from our view are just the betrayal of national interests,” acting Prime Minister Alexander Turchinov, a Tymoshenko ally, said Friday.

“I’m asking that the country and all of its politicians and people don’t allow [the creation of a consortium],” Tymoshenko said on Ukraina television Friday evening. “We don’t have any more property like that — it’s the last thing that we still have.”

Source: The Moscow Times