Russia, Ukraine In 'Private' Summit: Officials

MOSCOW, Russia -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych met his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev Monday on his second trip to Moscow in a month, as the former Soviet republic tries to rebuild ties with Russia.

Dmitry Medvedev (R) and Viktor Yanukovych prepare to drive a GAZ-M20 Pobeda car.

The two men had lunch and went for a walk together at the Russian leader's official Gorky residence in the woods outside Moscow, Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said. She did not provide details of their meeting.

Ukrainian administration officials in Kiev declined to shed more light on Yanukovych's trip, saying only it was personal and intended to encourage "friendly" relations between the two ex-Soviet giants.

"These will be purely personal Easter meetings," Anna German, Yanukovych's deputy chief of staff, told AFP in Kiev.

Yanukovych, a veteran Ukrainian politician more sympathetic to the Kremlin than his ardently pro-Western predecessor, was elected president in a second round of voting on February 7.

International observers are watching closely to see if and how he intends to change the course of Ukraine's relations with Russia which soured badly following the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Yanukovych has sought since February to counter the view that he will do the Kremlin's bidding in Ukraine but has also made clear that he wants to repair relations with Russia on all fronts.

Russian state television broadcast footage of Medvedev taking Yanukovych for a drive on his estate grounds in a polished white 1948 Pobeda automobile, a staple of the Soviet car industry after World War II.

The image was strikingly reminiscent of a similar drive that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, at the time Russia's president, offered to then-US president George W. Bush, also at his country residence outside Moscow.

Monday is the second day of Easter celebrations, one of the holiest feasts in the Orthodox Christian calendar, in Russia and Ukraine.

It was not clear whether Putin would also meet with Yanukovych during his Moscow visit but a senior government aide said earlier Monday the premier, seen as Russia's paramount leader, was set to join the talks.

Experts said Ukraine's dire economic straits provided ample reason for Yanukovych to try to put relations with Russia back on a cooperative track, but questioned how far the Kremlin would go.

"He is facing a myriad of problems," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, said of Yanukovych. "Moscow however is not demonstrating any passionate readiness to offer economic concessions."

Yanukovych was last in Moscow on March 5 for the first Russian visit by a Ukrainian head of state in two years.

That trip came just days after he chose Brussels for his first foreign visit amid efforts to shed his image as a Kremlin stooge.

Yanukovych has said changing a 10-year gas agreement between Russia and Ukraine and winning lower gas prices for his crisis-battered country would be a priority in the coming months.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov visited Moscow late last month for talks with Putin in the hope of winning lower gas prices. Putin at the time asked which concessions Kiev was prepared to offer Moscow.

Azarov reiterated Friday Russia was welcome to join the European Union in working to help Kiev revamp its Soviet-era network of aging pipelines and said Ukraine would bring concrete proposals to an April 22 economic meeting between Russia and Ukraine.

Source: AFP