Ukraine's Yanukovych Heads West But Looks East

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych makes his first foreign trip to Brussels on Monday, but the gesture of goodwill toward Europe may ring hollow days later when he goes to strike concrete deals with the Kremlin.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych holds a Bulava, a historical symbol of power, after he taking oath in the parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010.

Soon after Yanukovych's inauguration last week, his critics dismissed the significance of the Brussels visit, in part because the EU flag was removed from Kiev's European Square for the first time in five years.

But Anna German, his deputy chief of staff, told The Associated Press that Yanukovych would pursue a balanced foreign policy, and would dedicate his first week in office to making Ukraine "a bridge between East and West."

"We will begin building that bridge in Brussels and finish it in Moscow," she said.

This marks a drastic shift away from Yanukovych's predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, who had broken ties with Russia to seek membership in the European Union and NATO, in both cases without success.

"Our policy is dictated by the crisis situation in our economy," German said. "We are in need of support from our friends both in the West and the East."

The Brussels visit, she said, will involve general discussions about energy security and a possible deal on visa-free travel, while the talks in Moscow on Friday are expected to be more substantive.

"From the Moscow visit we expect concrete agreements," German said. "This is not just a cordial visit, but a very pragmantic visit."

Supporters of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko lament what they see as an effort to turn Ukraine into a Kremlin vassal state. Tymoshenko lost the presidential election to Yanukovych and remains his political enemy.

"The EU flag was taken down, and that is a bad sign," the deputy head of her political party, Sergei Sobolev, told the AP.

The flag was placed there after the 2004 Orange Revolution, a series of pro-democracy protests that managed to overturn Yanukovych's election victory that year. Yushchenko, who led the protests, won the presidency in a revote after campaigning for European integration and freedom from Kremlin influence.

Tymoshenko was the charismatic face of those demonstrations and became the prime minister under Yushchenko. But the two soon fell out, causing gridlock in the government and helping Yanukovych to make a comeback in this year's ballot.

Now analysts say the links to Europe painstakingly built under the Orange leadership will take a back seat to renewed ties with Russia.

"The Russian vector will be the dominant one in Yanukovych's policies," said Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev think tank. "The Western vector will be used for Yanukovych's image-making and to calm his critics."

The gravest concerns have surrounded energy policy. Russia has long sought to re-establish control over the pipelines that carry 80 percent of its gas sales to Europe and account for a fifth of Europe's supply.

Yanukovych has invited Russia to take part in a consortium along with Western Europe to jointly operate Ukraine's pipeline network, offering a level of interdependence with Moscow that the Orange leadership had fought to remove.

Source: AP