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Analysis: Kremlin Wary Of New Ukrainian President

  • Robert Coalson

President Yushchenko shakes hands with Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin in Moscow as President Putin (far right) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov look on Newly inaugurated Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko traveled to Moscow on 24 January to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a gesture designed to mollify Moscow's concerns that Kyiv has turned decisively to the West. By keeping a campaign promise that his first official trip abroad would be to Russia, Yushchenko helped Putin save face after a Ukrainian election campaign in which the Kremlin -- and Putin personally -- threw complete support behind former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

The Russian Foreign Ministry played up the significance of Yushchenko's visit, while ignoring the Kremlin's open interference in the election campaign. "Russia and Ukraine live together side by side, our peoples are linked by thousands of bonds, and the economies are interdependent in the good sense of the word," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 19 January, according to ITAR-TASS. "Therefore there is nothing unnatural in the fact that the first visit will be to Russia."

Behind the scenes, however, the Kremlin is indubitably wary of Yushchenko's unabashedly pro-European rhetoric and will likely seek to restrain the new president's enthusiasms. On 23 January, ITAR-TASS quoted Yushchenko as saying that he intended to propose to Putin "a new format of negotiations for the deepening of relations," but many in the Kremlin are more interested in finding ways of compelling Yushchenko to stick to the old formats of relations between the two countries.

Yushchenko's comments on the eve of his Moscow trip touched in general terms on all that the two countries have in common, while dwelling in detail on problems in bilateral relations, including particularly the need to shore up "the strategic interests of Ukraine as the major transit country for oil and natural gas in Europe." Yushchenko was even more direct in comments published in the 31 December issue of "Der Spiegel." "Our strategy aims to achieve European integration and this is the framework in which we need to resolve all problems together with Russia," he told the German weekly. "We would like to encourage mutual investments, removing trade barriers, and resolving problems associated with the influx of workers. There is, however, one condition: Putin must not block our way into the European Union."

Many in Moscow certainly chafe at hearing Ukrainian officials dictating "conditions" to the Russian president, especially with the Kremlin's setback in Ukraine coming so close on the heels of Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution." The nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) on 23 January held a demonstration outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow, with LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii asserting that "Kyiv is a Russian city and the Dnepr is a Russian river," RIA-Novosti reported. "There is no such thing as Ukraine, and a Russian governor should sit in Kyiv, as well as in Minsk. Russia's borders in the west are Warsaw and Helsinki."

While such extremist rhetoric is far out of the mainstream in Moscow, the Russian capital remains a place where establishment politicians and pundits can make such inflammatory claims, which play well with a large segment of the Russian public.
Many analysts have argued that some key Russian businesspeople quietly supported Yushchenko even as the Kremlin backed Yanukovych.


However, Russia's position on Yushchenko is not unambiguous, as many analysts have argued that some key Russian businesspeople quietly supported Yushchenko even as the Kremlin backed Yanukovych. Such businesspeople are purportedly motivated by a desire to use Ukraine as a sort of backdoor for expanding their business connections with the European Union and for getting them beyond the confines of the Kremlin-controlled Single Economic Space.

Vyacheslav Igrunov of Moscow's International Institute of Humanitarian and Political Studies told RBK-TV on 27 December that many Russian businesspeople backed Yushchenko precisely because they believe he will "yield to pressure from the United States, Poland, and the EU to move away from the Single Economic Space with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan."

Yushchenko's 24 January visit to Moscow, while of symbolic importance to the Kremlin, is clearly just the beginning of a complicated period in bilateral relations and most likely does not signal that relations between Kyiv and Moscow will continue as they were under former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Russian analysts have not forgotten that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made the trip to Moscow immediately following his inauguration and that he publicly shook hands with Putin and exchanged professions of friendship -- but relations between Tbilisi and Moscow were not made any smoother by these gestures.

(RFE/RL OnLine's Jan Maksymiuk contributed to this report.)

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"Ukraine: Yushchenko Talks About Europe -- But Heads To Moscow"

"Ukraine President Tabs Tymoshenko For PM"
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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