Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to meet with Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma today as he continues a visit to Kyiv just days before Ukraine's presidential election. Yesterday evening, Putin appeared live on Ukrainian television to answer viewers' questions. Putin backed stronger Russian-Ukrainian ties and praised the economic performance of the Ukrainian government under pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Putin stopped short, however, of making a direct appeal for Ukrainians to vote for Yanukovych, who is locked in a tight race with Western-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the 31 October presidential poll. Yushchenko's campaign has warned that some Ukrainian authorities may be trying to use Putin to influence voters in favor of Yanukovych.
Kyiv, 27 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Many expected Putin to use his appearance on Ukrainian television last night as a blatant show of support for Yanukovych, but in the end, the event was rather subdued.
Putin answered more than 30 questions, most of which dealt with bilateral relations or topics such as Putin's birthday or his favorite football players.
Putin was asked about attempts to unify Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan into a Single Economic Space. The Ukrainian opposition has called the plan an attempt to rebuild the Soviet Union.
"Absolutely nobody is trying to rebuild the USSR," he said. "Nobody is proposing to do that. No one is setting out such a goal and, in fact, such a proposal would be counterproductive."
Putin said the countries of the former Soviet Union should be bound together solely by economic ties. He said Russia respects Ukraine's independence and has worked to delineate borders on both land and sea.
One of the few times Putin openly praised Yanukovych was in a comment about Ukraine's economy, which he said has made great strides.
"Ukraine has in the last few years -- especially the last year -- made very serious, fast progress in its economic development, about 13 to 14 percent," Putin said. "And I want to note that it's not just growth, but under Prime Minister Yanukovych they have managed to do more, to achieve growth of high quality."
Putin also addressed the subject of dual nationality. He said this is not allowed under the Russian Constitution but that he will consider the issue. But he announced that, starting next year, Ukrainian citizens will not need passports to travel to Russia.
"A citizen of Ukraine should be able to enter Russian territory freely using his or her own internal passport," Putin said. "I will give such orders after my return to Moscow to the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the presidential administration."
Asked whether the 31 October election will be fair, Putin said he is convinced it will be and urged all Ukrainians to vote.
Reaction in Ukraine to Putin's TV appearance and visit has been mixed.
Andriy, a businessman, said Putin's television appearance did not impress him. And he criticized the Russian president for coming to Ukraine at this time.
"I can't say that much precisely [about his TV appearance]," Andriy said. "But why is he intruding on our internal affairs? They gave him so much time. I think that's wrong from Russia's side."
Volodymyr, a plumber, sees no connection between Putin's visit and this weekend's vote. He said that Putin came to Ukraine to commemorate the capital's liberation by the Red Army.
"It's right for him to come," Volodymyr said. "After all, it's marking the anniversary of Ukraine's liberation."
Putin is due to join other leaders tomorrow in ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of Kyiv's liberation from Nazi occupation in World War II. Ordinarily, the residents of Kyiv mark the liberation on 6 November, but events were rescheduled this year.
Lyuba, an office worker, said she was glad to hear Putin's announcement about travel to Russia, but believes Putin's visit is intended as a show of support for Yanukovych.
"Probably, it was especially planned for that purpose, yes. Probably so. Should he have done it? I don't know. But I, for example, am not supporting Yanukovych," Lyuba said.
Tatyana, a child-minder, welcomes Putin's visit.
"I consider that the three Slav nations -- Belarus, Russia and Ukraine -- should always be together," Tatyana said. "Whatever there is between us, we're all part of the same mix. I'm a Russian. I live in Ukraine. I think things should be good [between us], and I'm interested to know what the future holds."
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Markiyan Lubkivsky dismisses accusations that Putin's visit is politically motivated.
"Even the president of such a powerful country as Russia, Vladimir Putin, cannot have an influence on the electoral process in Ukraine," he said. "There is simply no political aspect to this visit."
On a visit to Ukraine earlier this month, the deputy president of the European Parliament, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, criticized what he called Russia's interference in the Ukrainian election.
"The level of the interference of some circles in Russia in the Ukrainian elections is something deplorable," Onyszkiewicz said. "This is a problem, and I think it is up to the Ukrainian people to decide who should be their next president. It is not for other countries to indicate which candidate would be better. And this is why the European Union insists on procedures -- on the way the election process goes on -- and not on the particular candidate."
Yanukovych's campaign manager, Sytepan Havrysh, said that Yushchenko himself has tried to lobby for Putin's support and noted that U.S. congressmen have made speeches in Ukraine supporting Yushchenko.
"The head of a neighboring country is coming, and I wouldn't want us to be naive and believe that the position of this country does not interest us and that this country is not interested in what happens here -- who tomorrow and after tomorrow is going to organize the government in this country," Havrysh said. "This is the visit of an important guest who we greet on the occasion that our peoples together gained victory over fascism. And at the same time, it important for the head of the Russian state to see for himself in order to formulate political, economic, social, humanitarian relations for the future."
Yushchenko sent an open letter to Putin saying he desires "mutually beneficial, friendly and stable relations with Russia" and welcomes summit contacts. But he warned: "Your visit to Kyiv will be inevitably viewed in the light of the presidential election campaign in Ukraine, no matter whether you intended that or not."