Ukraine President Plunges Into Talks with Putin

By REUTERS

New York Times

January 24, 2005

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Ukraine's new West-leaning leader Monday sought to mend fences with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but even as their talks began he showed his independence by naming a prime minister regarded with suspicion by Moscow.

Viktor Yushchenko, who pledged at his inauguration Sunday to move Ukraine toward a ``united Europe,'' told reporters at Moscow's Vnukovo airport that he wanted relations with Russia to be ``rational, successful (and) mutually beneficial.''

Out of deference to his Russian hosts, he was conspicuously not wearing the orange scarf that became his trademark during the ``orange revolution'' that blocked a pro-Moscow candidate from taking power after a rigged election.

But as he went into the Kremlin talks with Putin, who had opposed his election, it was announced in Kiev that Yushchenko had appointed nationalist Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister.

A close ally of Yushchenko in the ``orange revolution,'' Tymoshenko, 44, faced charges of forgery and gas smuggling in connection with her activities as head of a private gas trading firm in the mid-1990s and an arrest warrant has been issued for her in Russia. She denies the charges.

The lightning trip fulfilled Yushchenko's pledge to make Moscow his first port of call as president, to uphold Ukraine's links with its former imperial master and key trading partner.

Analysts expected Putin to quiz Yushchenko over his economic and foreign policy plans and sound out how far he will move toward the West and away from traditional partner Russia.

Putin publicly backed Yushchenko's rival for power and he did not attend Yushchenko's inauguration. But he told Yushchenko at the beginning of the talks Monday that he was ready to work with any Ukrainian leader.

``We expect that the choice of Russia and Ukraine to move toward each other will remain unchanged,'' Putin said.

But in a sign of shifting Western perceptions of Ukraine now, the European Union said it would push for closer trade ties with Ukraine that has a long border with new EU territory.

``The strategic choice of Ukraine, in favor of democracy and reform, has been welcomed by the European Union,'' said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in a joint letter.

Yushchenko, on arrival in Moscow, said the two countries should push for an improvement in their relations. ``The logic will be created on this principle. We want to see rational, successful, mutually beneficial relations -- naturally sincere with deep respect for our history, for our current situation,'' he told reporters.

Yushchenko, due to embark on a whirlwind tour of western and central Europe later in the week, has stressed that Russia remains a ``strategic partner'' for Ukraine. Ukraine relies heavily on Russian energy supplies.

Yushchenko made his priorities clear in an address Sunday to supporters in Kiev's Independence Square.

``Our way to the future is the way of a united Europe. We, along with the people of Europe, belong to one civilization,'' he told the crowd after taking the oath of office in parliament.