President Putin (file photo)
Kyiv, 19 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who made his first visit to Ukraine since last year's Orange Revolution and the rise of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency -- described talks with Yushchenko as being "highly constructive."
Some observers had wondered whether the day's meeting would be fractious. But the talks appeared largely harmonious, with the two leaders agreeing to create a special commission to enhance mutual cooperation between their two countries.
Speaking at a press conference following the talks, Putin said he and his Ukrainian counterpart want to build a strong and trusting relationship. Putin said the talks were conducted in an atmosphere of "very good will."
Yushchenko likewise praised the meeting, and emphasized the two countries' common goals despite what he said was Ukraine's "European choice."
"Our meeting today demonstrates our common desire to see our bilateral relations be constructive," Yushchenko said. "I highly appreciate the readiness of the head of the Russian state to work jointly in reaching these common goals. I am convinced that such an approach is consistent with the strategic interests of both Russia and Ukraine."
Both Yushchenko and Putin said there were no issues where the two could not find mutual understanding. The Russian president said the two agreed to renew programs aimed at economic and cross-border cooperation.
He mentioned, in particular, the troubled Single Economic Space proposal, which was originally planned to include Russia, Ukraine, Belarus. and Kazakhstan. Putin voiced his support for the idea: "Widening our bilateral cooperation will depend in large part on how successful we are in forming a Single Economic Space. I am convinced that if we can effectively implement this idea, it will give our countries more opportunities for developing trade and mutual investments in order to strengthen the competitiveness of our economies."
Speaking on the future gas consortium to be created by Russian and Ukraine, the Russian president said he welcomed what he called the "political processes" in Ukraine, saying: "Now there is a process of stabilization which we are glad to see."
Putin also said Russia and Ukraine agreed to invite their European partners to participate in a gas transportation project: "The most natural partner for us is Germany since it is the biggest consumer of Russian natural gas. Germany receives the main volumes of gas via the transportation system of Ukraine. Exactly because of that there appeared an idea to invite our German partners in a first stage. But we do not exclude -- on the contrary, we will welcome -- the participation of our other European partners."
Both presidents said they agreed to adopt in the near future a Russia-Ukraine action plan for 2005, a plan which Putin said would focus on humanitarian cooperation -- including the possible creation of a Russian cultural center in Kyiv and a Ukrainian library in Moscow.
The Russian and Ukrainian leaders avoided public discussion of more pressing bilateral problems. But Yushchenko said they had discussed several divisive issues: "Today, we have discussed the issues linked to the location of [Russia's] Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory, common energy projects, border issues, military and technical cooperation, the Transdniester conflict, and humanitarian and cultural issues. There's no doubt that the main topic of our talks was trade and economic relations."
Yushchenko emphasized what he called a "deep deficit" in bilateral trade. He said Ukraine's deficit in trade with Russia totaled $2 billion in 2000, compared with $6 billion in 2004.
He added that the deficit is increasing by 36 to 40 percent every year, and said the only way to solve the problem is by creating a free-trade area between the two countries.
Putin said the problem was mainly due to uneven pricing on Russian fuel and energy products. But the Russian president had praise for the 40 percent increase in bilateral trade turnover, which he said totaled $17 billion last year.
Putin and Yushchenko agreed to dissolve a current intergovernmental commission on bilateral cooperation and replace it with a new presidential commission focusing on cooperation on defense, international and economic policy, and humanitarian issues.
Yushchenko called on Putin to devote 2005 to solving outstanding border issues -- in particular, in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, as well as in the Kerch Strait.
"The borders along the Kerch Strait are as they've always been between the [Soviet] republics, and this can be seen on all the maps after World War II. So our suggestion is that they stay the way they are," Yushchenko said.
Yushchenko said he had proposed a resolution to the Sea of Azov issue, but did not elaborate.