Yanukovich names Ukrainian foreign policy priorities

Integration into Europe is Kiev’s top priority, but that cannot be done at the expense of relations with Russia, Ukraine’s President has said. Viktor Yanukovich is in Brussels on his first foreign trip as head of state.

Yanukovich, who was sworn in as president on February 25, met Monday with EU officials and the head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, to outline further steps of co-operation.

Many see picking Brussels for the first foreign trip as a symbolic gesture defining the vector of Ukrainian policy under the new president. However, Yanukovich insists there is no political subtext in the choice of the trip. He reminded that on March 5 he is visiting Moscow, and added that Ukraine’s relations “with the EU will inevitably involve Russia, and vice versa," Itar-Tass writes.

The new Ukrainian president said that he intends to pursue a more balanced foreign policy than his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko. The latter sought the EU and NATO membership, whilst relations with Moscow got to their lowest point ever during his rule.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is already taking steps to renew relations with Moscow by ordering the removal of material on the president's official website that depict the mass famine of the 1930s known as Holodomor.

The previous administration insisted that the tragedy, which hit several regions in the Soviet Union, was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

The new president has also promised to review the controversial decision to declare World War II nationalist leader Stepan Bandera a national hero.

Europe seems to approve of Kiev’s intentions and urges the Ukrainian leadership to improve ties with Moscow as soon as possible.

"Ukraine cannot develop relations with the EU to the detriment of its relations with Russia, and the other way around," Jose Manuel Barroso is quoted as saying after his meeting with Yanukovich. "Good relations between Ukraine and Russia would be very much in line with the interests both of Ukraine and the EU."

Pledging support for Ukraine in its efforts to bring stability to the country, Barroso said Europe intends “to cooperate with [Yanukovich] in an effective and fruitful way." However, he outlined that Ukraine’s membership in 27-nation bloc is not on the agenda at the moment.

“I have always said that instead of speculating on the problem of Ukraine's joining the EU, let us concentrate our efforts on concrete economic transformation, which will bring Ukraine closer to the EU," he said.

Kiev remains an important energy partner for the EU since about 80 per cent of Russian gas to Europe transits via Ukraine. For that reason, all past disagreements between Moscow and Kiev worry Europe, since they could have result in gas delivery cuts. Yanukovich said Ukraine "will observe all the agreements reached with Russia and the EU in the gas sphere."

An introduction of a visa-free travel between Ukraine and the EU has also been discussed.

"We discussed in detail the efforts towards ensuring visa-free regulations. We reached an agreement that during the year we will coordinate a roadmap on transition to this regime," Barroso said.

As for a major stumbling block in Russia-Ukraine relations, Ukraine’s NATO membership, Yanukovich said Ukraine would not seek joining the alliance. However, his country “will observe all the agreements and fulfill partnership programs” with the alliance.