Russian President Vladimir Putin heads to neighboring Ukraine Saturday - his first visit there since President Viktor Yushchenko assumed power.
|Russian President Vladimir Putin|
The last time the two leaders met in Moscow, hours after Mr. Yushchenko's swearing-in ceremony in Kiev, there was little time for anything other than diplomatic posturing.
Both leaders expressed the desire to promote bilateral relations and move beyond the bitterness of the hard-fought Ukrainian elections, during which the Kremlin openly backed rival pro-government candidate, Viktor Yanukovych.
Kiev-based independent political analyst Ivan Lozowy says this visit may also be symbolic, but he says it is important.
"Certainly, I think the key emphasis will be on politics and economics," he said. "And I don't expect any specific certainly deals or agreements to be made. This is really a feeling out of the other side, a testing of the waters, if you will, for [President] Putin in Kiev. And really [Mr.] Putin has I think after the Ukrainian elections of the last year has recovered and is now looking to re-establish himself."
Mr. Lozowy says, in his view, Mr. Putin has his work cut out for him.
He says the Russian president is basically starting from ground-zero again on his idea to form a Common Economic Space, linking Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
The former government of Leonid Kuchma backed the plan to incorporate a free trade area, a customs union and eventually, perhaps, a single currency. But President Yushchenko campaigned on a pledge to integrate Ukraine into the West.
Ukrainian officials say any step toward integration with Russia should meet the norms of the World Trade Organization and European Union - institutions Ukraine hopes to join in the future.
Analyst Lozowy says President Putin will also be feeling the pressure at home, with millions of Russians invested either personally or financially in Ukraine.
"If things go, let's say chilly, or even remain relatively stable - if Ukraine doesn't make some signs of rapprochement, or moving closer to Russia, that will be felt in Russia and I think that will hurt Putin at least a little bit," he explained. " And I think he is very aware of that, which is why he needs some successes. But also primarily he needs them because he wants them; he wants to re-create something, or move closer to Ukraine - not lose it entirely to the European Union."
Mr. Lozowy says President Putin may take heart, however, from recent signs from Kiev that Russia has an open door to invest in its southern neighbor.
At the start of the week, President Yushchenko met with Russia's top businessmen, including oil giants Lukoil and TNK-BP, and encouraged them to invest more in Ukraine. He described relations between Ukraine and Russia as "very important," and said that he held the role of Russian business in Ukraine's future economic development in high esteem.