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Russia/Ukraine: Putin Heading To Kyiv For Awkward Summit

Ukrainian President Yushchenko Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Ukraine on 19 March for the first time since Viktor Yushchenko came to power after defeating his Kremlin-backed rival. Russia and Ukraine face a difficult task as they try to head in separate political directions without damaging their economic interdependence.

Prague, 18 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin very publicly supported Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in the latter's bid for the Ukraine presidency.

Twice, Putin made highly publicized visits to Kyiv before the vote and twice congratulated Yanukovych on his victory, despite widespread claims of vote fraud and irregularities.

Ukrainians took it as interference into their internal matters. And in the end, of course, Yushchenko swept to power as part of the Orange Revolution.

Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank, said the Putin-Yushchenko summit will be difficult for psychological reasons.

"I think that this ill feeling is very strong, and it will not disappear soon," Stanovaya said. "However, at the same time, it is clear that Russia is seeking somehow to put this aside and not dwell on it. Russia gives signals that it is ready to work with the new leader [of Ukraine]."

Volodymyr Horbach, an analyst at the Kyiv-based Institute of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, said many in Ukraine would like Putin to make some gesture of reconciliation.

"Putin should make the first move," Horbach said. "Putin should do something, make some symbolic gesture to break this ice in our relations and [the ill feelings] toward Putin himself."

The 19 March summit is not the first meeting between the two men. One day after taking office in January, Yushchenko signaled the importance he places in bilateral relations by making his first foreign visit a trip to Russia.

Horbach said it should be clear to Putin that he is visiting a different country than the one that existed before the election. The Kremlin once treated Ukraine as a country in Russia's political shadow, Horbach said, but on 19 March Putin will be confronted with a different reality.

"Today, the new Ukrainian authorities are not concerned what Russia will say about their actions," Horbach said. "At least, it is what they declare, and it is the tendency that is seen. They put forward their national interests first and are not concerned with what Russia says."

One of the biggest challenges for Russia is Ukraine's bid to join the European Union. Stanovaya said Russia is concerned this move will doom many Russian-Ukrainian economic and political projects.

"The problem is that Russia had many important plans that involve Ukraine," Stanovaya said. "It is the creation of the unified economic space, projects in oil and gas cooperation. The Western orientation of Ukraine contradicts them."

Just before his inauguration, Putin congratulated Yushchenko and emphasized the "particular significance of Russia and Ukraine continuing their active participation in forming the Single Economic Space."

Stanovaya said the political changes will be difficult for both countries. Russia is Ukraine's largest trading partner and main energy supplier. In 2004, Russia provided Ukraine with 87 percent of its oil and 34 percent of its natural gas.

For Russia's part, a large chunk of its oil and gas exports transit through Ukraine. These exports make up some 35 percent of Russia's annual budget revenues.

Stanovaya said the Kremlin is also concerned about the situation of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and the status of the Russian language.

Yushchenko has also come out in favor of joining NATO -- an unsavory possibility for Moscow, which would likely have to find a new home for its Black Sea fleet, based in Crimea.

Stanovaya said the expectations for the 19 March summit should not be set too high.

"I don't think there will be some radical change in relations [between Russia and Ukraine] because the election and what happened in Ukraine during the election [campaign] complicated the situation very much," Stanovaya said. "There are a lot of emotions, and it will be difficult for the Russian president to improve relations."

A top official at Ukraine's Foreign Ministry was quoted anonymously by the AFP news agency as saying the main theme of the talks will be what formula to use for cooperation between Kyiv and Moscow. He said Putin and Yushchenko would have "to make an inventory of the state of bilateral relations."

Putin will arrive in Ukraine from Paris, where he is meeting today with the leaders of France, Germany, and Spain to discuss Moscow's relations with the European Union.