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Yanukovych Promises Stronger Ties With Russia

Yanukovych greets supporters during an election rally. He was declared the official winner on February 14.
LONDON (Reuters) - Ukraine president-elect Viktor Yanukovych said he plans to strengthen links with Russia and that improved relations would end the threat of continuing gas rows, which last year curbed supplies to Europe.

Yanukovych, a former prime minister who narrowly beat current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, told Britain's “Daily Telegraph” newspaper Ukraine would act as a stabilizing power between East and West.

"The truth is that I am on Ukraine's side. I want balanced and pragmatic relations with our strategic partners," Yanukovych told the paper.

Yanukovych said Europe could be reassured that under his leadership Ukraine would avoid the disputes with Moscow that lead to gas shortages in the past.

"When I was prime minister on two different occasions we never had such problems," he told the paper.

"The conflicts were unjustified and relations with Russia over-politicized. Ukraine can play a stabilizing role in many questions between Europe and Russia," he said.

Russia appeared to return the sentiment. In Moscow today, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev invited Yanukovych to visit Moscow, aiming to consolidate improved relations with Kyiv.

Medvedev made the invitation in a letter released by the Kremlin press service.

In a pointed reference to Yushchenko, Medvedev's letter said the election showed that Ukrainians "desired to end the historically doomed attempts to sow discord between the people of our countries."

Ukraine, bordered by Russia and European Union members, is an essential transit route for Russian energy supplies to Europe. More than one-fifth of the gas consumed by the EU is carried through Ukraine's pipelines.

A row last January over gas bills led to Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom cutting off supplies, which left many EU customers without gas for nearly two weeks.

In an early sign of overtures towards Moscow, Yanukovych, in an interview aired on Russian television on February 14, said Ukraine may allow Russia to station its Black Sea Fleet in the port of Sevastopol beyond a scheduled withdrawal in 2017.

He also told the “Daily Telegraph” he wants to help Russia join the World Trade Organization.

The 59-year-old leader, who said he also did not want to turn his back on Europe, was initially declared the winner of a presidential election in 2004.

However, widespread popular protests of vote rigging led to an annulment. Yanukovych subsequently lost a re-run to Viktor Yushchenko, one of the co-leaders of the pro-Western Orange Revolution along with Tymoshenko.

Yanukovych, who believes Washington helped engineer the Orange Revolution, said he bore no grudges.

"Today [America's involvement] is not a secret. It was known and understood a long time ago. But we have already turned a new page and are looking to the future," he said.

Yanukovych, a native Russian speaker from the Donbass mining region, who often stumbles over Ukrainian words, said he wants the Russian language to have equal or near-equal status with Ukrainian, the country's current sole official language.

Tymoshenko renewed charges of election fraud against Yanukovych's camp on February 13 and said she intended to mount a legal challenge.

But international monitors regard the vote as legitimate, and Western leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, have congratulated Yanukovych on his victory.