Ukraine’s Leader, in Russia, Promises Better Ties

MOSCOW, Russia -- Ukraine’s newly elected president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, arrived in Moscow on Friday promising a “sharp turn” in his country’s relations with Russia, five years after the Orange Revolution chilled ties between the two neighbors.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovich (2nd L) approaches to shake the hand of Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) as they meet in Moscow March 5, 2010. Ukraine's new president Viktor Yanukovich soothed Moscow on Friday by suggesting he would reverse key policies of his pro-Western predecessor, but won no public promise that Russia will lower Kiev's onerous gas bills.

“The new government in Ukraine will change relations with Russia, so that they will never again be like they were for the last five years,” Mr. Yanukovich said in a meeting with Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev.

At a press conference in the Kremlin, Mr. Medvedev, who had frequently clashed with Ukraine’s former president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, appeared visibly pleased to once again be welcoming a Ukrainian ally to Russia.

“I hope that with your arrival and your work as president this black page in relations between Ukraine and the Russian Federation will be turned over, and we will see completely new conditions for cooperation,” Mr. Medvedev said.

Little has irked the Kremlin more in recent years than Ukrainian officials’ apparent recalcitrance vis-à-vis Russia, with which it shares strong cultural and linguistic ties. Former President Yushchenko’s open support of Georgia in its August 2008 war with Russia, his push for NATO membership and his repeated threats to expel the Russian navy from its base in Ukraine’s Sevastopol enraged Russian officials.

Mr. Yanukovich, a native of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, has long been seen as the leader of pro-Russian forces in a country that is sharply divided along linguistic and cultural lines.

He narrowly defeated his rival, Yulia V. Tymoshenko in repeat elections last month, a victory that was expected to bring about an immediate thaw in relations with Russia.

But in a move that raised eyebrows here in Moscow, Mr. Yanukovich chose to make his first official visit as president earlier this week to Brussels, where he told European leaders he desired to continue his predecessor’s efforts to forge stronger ties with the West.

Mr. Medvedev played down the significance of Mr. Yanukovich’s European visit, saying it would have no affect on Ukraine’s relationship with Russia.

The two leaders vowed to immediately begin seeking solutions to the problems that have plagued their relations in the past, including the status of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and lingering border disputes.

Of particular importance is the issue of Russian natural gas transportation through Ukrainian territory to Europe. Politically charged disputes over pricing have for years caused costly gas cutoffs that have at times left European homes without heating during winter.

During his election campaign, Mr. Yanukovich suggested that he might allow Russia to share management responsibilities over Ukrainian pipelines in exchange for cheaper gas. The presidents said they spoke on the issue during their private meeting on Friday, but would not go into details, saying only that their governments would continue to discuss the issue.

Asked about his stance on NATO membership for Ukraine on Friday, Mr. Yanukovich was ambiguous: “Ukraine will build its relations with NATO in accordance to the national interests of Ukraine.”

Any major decisions concerning relations with Russia, however, will have to wait until a new government can be formed in Ukraine. Ukraine’s Parliament ousted the government of Ms. Tymoshenko, now the former prime minister, on Wednesday, and now has 30 days to form a new coalition.

If it fails, Parliament will be disbanded and a new election called, potentially prolonging the political stagnation that has plagued the country for years.

“I have it a little easier than Viktor Fyodorovich,” said Mr. Medvedev, referring to Mr. Yanukovich. With Russia, which is not so burdened with political competition, “I do not have to form a coalition to solve various problems.”

Source: The New York Times