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5 Mar, 2010 10:17

New Ukrainian leader looks for a fresh start in Moscow

Ukraine’s new president Viktor Yanukovich is in Moscow with pledges to make a fresh start in Russian-Ukrainian relations.

"Ukraine attributes major importance to relations with Russia,” Yanukovich said prior to the visit. “We shall do everything possible to bring our relations back to strategic partnership."

The issue of gas supplies to Ukraine, which has caused problems in the past between Kiev and Moscow, is expected to rank high on the list of topics for discussion. Along these lines, the two presidents will also discuss Russia’s gas shipments to Europe, which must pass through Ukraine.

"We shall definitely consider traditional issues in relations between Ukraine and Russia, including gas supplies to Ukraine, gas transit to Europe and the reliability of the (transit) system," added the Ukrainian president.

The Ukrainian public will also see if Yanukovich is able to live up to his campaign promise of reducing the cost of gas from Russia.

The Russian daily Kommersant quoted a source in the Ukrainian administration as saying that the Ukrainian president plans to persuade Russia to reduce current gas prices by at least three- fold.

“No one in Ukraine is satisfied with a base price of $450 for a thousand cubic meters, which is stipulated in the contract of January 19, 2009,” the source said.

According to political analyst Aleksandr Pikaev, Yanukovich may find some sympathy for his cause in Russia.

“It should not excluded that Russia may reconsider [gas] prices,” he said. “Of course, it would not happen overnight – there is no new Ukrainian cabinet, and it requires more negotiations – but I do not exclude… that Gazprom would have to do that for both economic and political reasons.”

Ukraine would have to pay for [lower gas prices] by some other non-monetary benefits for the Russians, Pikaev added.

Such “non-monetary benefits for the Russians” may or may not have bearing on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, which has been another source of tension between the two countries. Although Russia’s lease of the naval base in Sevastopol does not expire until 2017, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko had made numerous attempts to review the agreement.

Some analysts suggest that the Russian and Ukrainian sides will attempt to hammer out a deal that somehow connects Russian basing privileges with the price of gas to Ukraine.

“I personally believe that all of the options remain on the table at this point,” said one senior executive with a major Russian gas company who agreed to comment anonymously. “The slate is clean between Moscow and Kiev and we may expect any number of interesting proposals in order to bring the two countries back to friendly relations.”

However, it may require some time before Ukraine and Russia are able to free themselves from the lengthy legacy of Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovich’s predecessor whose nationalistic fervor frequently sparked unnecessary problems in the bilateral relations.

Yushchenko's legacy 

The ties between Ukraine and Russian were damaged under Viktor Yuschenko by a series of disagreements ranging from Russian gas transit to Europe to the misrepresentation of Soviet history to Ukraine’s fruitless efforts to join NATO.

Another dividing point is the attitude toward famine in the Soviet Union in 1930s, when a lot of peasants died. Ukrainian leadership insists today that this famine was a pre-planned action of the Soviet leadership against Ukrainians and demand to call it Holodomor (Hunger pest) and genocide against the Ukrainian nation. They refuse to listen to the fact that because of this famine people died not only in Ukraine, but on the territory of modern Russia and Kazakhstan as well.

Acknowledging a huge tragedy, Ukrainian journalist Viktor Pirozhenko is critical about how his country's former authorities perceived it.

He wrote several articles doubting former president Yushchenko’s policies, which brought him to the attention of Ukraine’s security services.

Pirozhenko calls a huge Holodomor monument erected in the center of Kiev a multi-million dollar mistake.

“This perception of the famine was meant to motivate nationalists,” explained Pirozhenko. “It’s negative aspect was used as a weapon to point the finger at Moscow. It was caused by the Kremlin's policies way back then, and it concerned the whole of Soviet Union.”

But former president Yushchenko “claimed that it was a direct genocide against Ukrainians and spent millions on building monuments like this and smaller ones across the country.”

Yushchenko's views on events of the past caused mixed opinions, not only in his country but internationally as well. His glorification of 1940s insurgent leader Stepan Bandera, seen as a Nazi collaborator by many, was strongly criticized by both Russia and the European Union.

Now Yanukovich, who overtook the presidency in Ukraine, is on a mission to repair that damage – a task which will not be easy, experts say, as he embarks on his first trip as Ukrainian president to Moscow.

“Practically in all spheres involving ties between Russia and Ukraine now, there are huge problems,” noted Vladimir Kornilov, a political analyst from the Institute of CIS Countries. “This is a tough legacy which Yanukovich has inherited from Yushchenko. And it’s hard to expect a major breakthrough from his first visit to Russia.”

Kornilov predicted that Yanukovich “might share his views on how to develop economic ties and gas cooperation. But he will hardly be able to achieve anything big.”

Yanukovich has traditionally been seen as a pro-Russian politician in his country for his views on closer ties with Moscow. But despite voicing his intention to rebuild ties with Russia and the CIS, the new Ukrainian leader’s first official visit was to Brussels. And even though that trip seemed merely one for handshakes, experts now say Yanukovich will seek to adopt a policy of balance between Russia and the EU.

“Yanukovich will not be an easy negotiator. He's often been called a pro-Russian politician, but in reality he's a pro-Ukrainian politician,” suggested the Deputy Director of the Institute of CIS Countries, Nikolay Zharikhin. “And he will try hard to protect the interests of his country. But given that both sides now understand the basics of these interests, improving ties between Kiev and Moscow will dominate the agenda.”

Yanukovich flies to Moscow just 48 hours after he celebrated another big domestic victory by ousting from power former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko.

The question is whether the new Ukrainian leader will be as successful in the international arena and will be able to open a new page in Russian-Ukrainian history.

In his very first address to the nation as the country's president, Yanukovich said his main mission was a change in both domestic and foreign policies. Experts are now speculating about which is harder – resuscitating an ailing economy or strengthening ties with Russia and the EU. But one thing is guaranteed for Viktor Yanukovich: when he comes to Moscow for the first time after five years of frozen relationships, he will be met with open arms.