Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday launched a tricky diplomatic foray into Ukraine, now under liberal management, after promising European powers he would support pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko.
|Vladimir Putin Viktor Yushchenko foto|
Putin flew into Kiev from Paris and went straight into talks with the president, who took office in January after mass street protests over a rigged election that initially gave victory to his Moscow-backed rival.
Putin, who met the leaders of France, Germany and Spain on Friday, was to stay in Kiev for only a few hours. He was also meeting Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, widely viewed in Russia as a untrustworthy radical, and parliament speaker and key political figure Volodymyr Lytvyn.
Local media quoted Yushchenko as telling Putin at the start of the talks that the leaders would discuss the "Common Economic Space" which Moscow promotes as a vehicle to boost economic links between former Soviet republics.
Also on the agenda were proposals to form a company to oversee transit of Russian gas to western Europe.
Yushchenko describes Russia as an "eternal strategic partner," but has committed himself to moving Ukraine out of Moscow's political orbit into mainstream Europe, with the long-term goal of joining the European Union.
He has been warmly received on trips he has made to western Europe, although EU officials have told him to tackle one issue at a time in moving toward Europe.
BLOW TO KREMLIN POLICY
Putin visited Ukraine twice before last year's election and Yushchenko's victory was widely seen as a blow to Kremlin policy in ex-Soviet states it still views as its sphere of influence.
But after his talks in Paris, Putin was at pains to put his past support for Yushchenko's opponents behind him.
"We have no preference for any political force because we want the development of equal cooperation with the Ukrainian state and people," he said at a news conference in Paris.
"We will do all we can to support the Ukrainian leadership and will use our influence to avert any political crisis in the country."
His comments suggested that Russia, which supplies most of Ukraine's energy needs, would not exert economic pressure or foment discontent in Ukraine's Russian-speaking industrial east.
Moscow's complicated relations with Ukraine form part of a broader picture of declining Russian influence in the region.
Georgia, where a pro-Western president came to power more than a year ago, and Moldova, where a communist leader accuses Moscow of meddling in his country's Dnestr region, are two other ex-Soviet states aspiring to shift westwards away from Moscow.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in Paris that Moscow and the EU both had an interest in stability in Ukraine, which has borders with three new EU members as well as Russia.
Commentators said it remained to be seen how strongly Putin would press now for Ukraine to join the Common Economic Space.
Ministers in the new government have not rejected the notion of consolidating ties with ex-Soviet states, provided it does not clash with its European aspirations.
"Expect no breakthrough from a single visit by Putin," the daily Den wrote on the eve of the visit. "But it will be clear whether both sides have the will to get off to a fresh start."