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Ukraine: Yushchenko Making First Foreign Trip As President To Moscow

Can Yushchenko work with Putin? Ukraine's President-elect Viktor Yushchenko, who is due to be sworn in on 23 January, will make his first official visit abroad to Moscow, before continuing on a tour of Europe. Despite vowing to bring his country closer to the European Union and Western institutions, Yushchenko appears keen to repair the rift with Russia.

Prague, 21 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Much symbolism is often accorded to newly elected leaders' first trips abroad.

In the case of Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko, whose electoral triumph was widely touted as a victory for pro-Western forces and a turning point for Kyiv's foreign policy, this is doubly true.

But Yushchenko says he will fulfill a campaign promise and, ironically, make his first trip abroad to Moscow on 24 January -- just 24 hours after he is sworn in as Ukraine's new president.

Yushchenko will spend the rest of the week on a tour through Europe that will take him to France, Switzerland, and Poland. But the symbolism of his visit to Russia has not escaped notice both in Moscow and Kyiv.

Volodymyr Polohalo, editor in chief of the Kyiv-based journal "Political Thought," calls Yushchenko's decision unfortunate. He said it recalls outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's discredited "multivector" policy, which sought to keep Ukraine balanced between Russia and Europe but, in fact, brought Kyiv ever closer to Moscow.

Ukraine's voters, he said, elected Yushchenko because they wanted significant change. Yushchenko promised to orient the country toward Europe and out of Russia's orbit and its plans for a Single Economic Space.

Traveling to Moscow, he said, sends the wrong message: "The multivector policy did not bring Ukraine any dividends in terms of its national interest. The European choice is not compatible with the Single Economic Space, where Russia has a dominant position," Polohalo said. "And finally, if Ukraine, as Yushchenko declared -- and this is why people supported him during the 'Orange Revolution' -- if Ukraine is preparing to undergo genuine democratic reforms, political and economic reforms, if we are talking about the supremacy of a law-based state and the European model in economics and politics, Ukraine's main domestic and foreign policy orientation must be toward Europe, the EU and European values -- European values not as a declaration but as the real content of Ukraine's policies."

Polohalo said Yushchenko's visit may be aimed at pacifying the eastern and southern parts of the country, which largely voted against him and which support continued close ties with Russia. Moscow and its influence, he acknowledges, cannot be ignored, but he believes this is the wrong way to do it.

"Ukraine's relations with Russia, as many independent Ukrainian experts believe, should be built according to a new paradigm. Of course, [relations] should be neighborly, but without any servile, symbolic gestures, which, unfortunately, is how I have to describe Yushchenko's [planned] visit to Russia," Polohalo said.
Markov said that, like it or not, there are scores of issues that bind Ukraine and Russia that need to be resolved.

The view from Russia could not be more different. Despite his open support for Yushchenko's rival -- Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- during the campaign, Putin this week sent Yushchenko a congratulatory telegram expressing his desire for strong ties.

Sergei Markov heads the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, a think tank with close ties to the Kremlin. He told RFE/RL that mending relations as quickly as possible serves both Ukraine's and Russia's interests.

"Vladimir Putin needs this, since relations with Ukraine are exceptionally important for Russia's economic development and relations with Ukraine's people are exceptionally important for tens of millions of Russian citizens, who have relatives and friends in Ukraine. Viktor Yushchenko also needs this, because relations [with Russia] are important for Ukraine but also because the country is split into two parts and Yushchenko needs to repair relations with the pro-Russian oriented east and south of the country. And for this, it is important for him that Moscow send signals to the populations and elites in the east and south that it will not in any way support separatist tendencies and recognizes the unity of Ukraine," Markov said.

Markov noted that politics across the region is built on personalities and that is why it is important for Putin and Yushchenko to sit down and see if they can build a working relationship. "Personalities play an enormous role, since institutions are very weak," he said. "The population and the elites look above all to personalities. So if these two strong leaders can build successful relations, it will be a enormous breakthrough. But whether it will happen or not is very hard to predict."

Markov said that, like it or not, there are scores of issues that bind Ukraine and Russia that need to be resolved. He enumerated a few of the most urgent, from Russia's point of view: "There is concern about military-technical cooperation, about the Russian base at Sevastopol, about relations between the churches, since some Yushchenko supporters would like to see a constitutional separation between Orthodox believers in Ukraine and Orthodox believers in Russia. Moscow would like to assuage these concerns through dialogue."

Markov said Moscow will be watching closely to see who is included in the new Ukrainian cabinet, and Putin may hope to steer Yushchenko from the more nationalist elements in his entourage. "I think Moscow would be very glad if Yushchenko did not include in his administration the radical nationalist Russophobes who figured frequently in his electoral campaign," Markov said.

As for the issue of building a Single Economic Space, Markov believes most of Ukraine's people and its business elites continue to support such a project. "The issue of a Single Economic Space is an issue of democracy in Ukraine," he said. "If Yushchenko goes ahead with the Single Economic Space, it means that his policies take into account the will of the Ukrainian people, it means that Ukraine is following a democratic path. If the Single Economic Space is scuttled, then it means that Yushchenko is ignoring the will of the majority of the population and the business community in Ukraine. It will mean that Ukraine is not following a democratic path."

Markov argues that the Single Economic Space could complement Ukraine's future integration into European structures. But Yushchenko and his advisers have so far expressed skepticism, fearing an economic union with Russia could torpedo those aims and further Ukraine's isolation from Europe.